Thursday, February 4, 2010

Wine Myths via Calluna Vineyards

A few days ago I stumbled across an article on Calluna Vineyards' website debunking a few popular wine myths. While there's no need to extensively quote what David Jeffrey wrote, it's definitely worth linking to his list of modern wine myths:
  1. Hot Days and Cool Nights are Good for Wine Grape Growing
  2. The Napa Valley is the Best Place in California for Cabernet Sauvignon
  3. California Wines are Better than French Wines
  4. Fog is Good for Grapes
  5. Lower Yields Are Always Better
All of these articles are worth a read, but myths 1 and 5 really resonant with me as a consumer. It's common to hear or read PR from California wineries touting the large Diurnal Flux--the day to night temperature swing--their grapes experience and low yields from their vineyards. The reality, though, is that a great many California wines from premium wine growing regions are simply not balanced or are one-dimensional.

Like Mr. Jeffrey, I think this conventional wisdom needs to be questioned. Mr. Jeffrey points out that the majority of great French wine regions are continental climates and do not experience the large temperature swings that sites in California do. And yet great wines are produced in France! He suggests that in reality the cool nights act to compensate for the hot days. Makes sense to me: without the cool nights to retain acidity and keep sugars down, California wines would be horrific caricatures. But perhaps if it was a bit cooler in the first place, such extremes at night wouldn't be necessary.

Similarly, low yields are constantly trumpeted as a source of quality. While it's true that high yields (say 9 tons per acre) will lead to mediocre wine, I often wonder how it is wines harvested at moderate yields of 3 tons per acre (about 45 hectoliters per hectare) can be so good while those harvested at 1 ton per acre can be so dull. It makes me wonder what the winemakers are doing. Are the vines not healthy? Are they planted in the wrong place? Are they dropping lots of fruit with green harvests and unbalancing the vine with too little, instead of too much, fruit? Clearly this depends on a lot of factors. 2 tons/acre may be right for one location, while 4 tons/acre may be good for another. If a winery is intentionally looking for minuscule yields, though, to me it just looks like they'll be charging a higher price for a wine that is not better than many others with lower fruit costs.

I don't mean to generalize as there are a great many California wines I like. But it does seem to be a consistent problem that ripeness can't be achieved at lower sugar levels and prices are high due to exorbitant fruit costs. This has a lot to do with climate and yields. While there are a lot of wealthy vintners putting everything they have into making great wine, the reality may be that they simply aren't in the right location.

11 comments:

Jeff said...

Nice post. Thanks for pointing those articles out. They are an interesting read...

CabFrancoPhile said...

Thanks. I'm getting tired of posting tasting notes--for now. I think I'll go for some unfounded opinion pieces and some good old fashioned Parker-bashing in the next few weeks.

CabFrancoPhile said...

I probably also need to bash wine as a lifestyle/image and those who perpetuate that. Been done before, but I never get tired of rehashing it!

Jeff said...

Yeah, tasting notes aren't very interesting except for the person writing them...but opinion pieces, well, that's another matter.

CabFrancoPhile said...

But interestingly enough TNs seem to bring in most of my traffic . . . .

Jeff said...

For me, I get mostly hits from Google--around 70% of the total--which tells me that most people stumble across my repository of notes (that I do for myself, really, instead of using a notebook), looking for a particular wine. Perhaps looking for a review before purchase or something? Anyways, non-tasting note posts are probably a smaller audience, because it's a less specific topic that won't rank highly on Google. Looking for a specific wine is fairly specific.

Randy Caparoso: said...

Hmmm... interesting thoughts, but daresay I, isn't the proof always in the pudding? If, say, a pinot noir from Oregon or a zinfandel from Lodi thoroughly pleases you, who gives a darn about hot days/cool nights, 1 ton vs. 10 tons, etc.? The French can have all the continental or cold climate they want, but if wines from other parts of the world (besides the West Coast, like sunny Southern Italy, desert dry Spain or wind swept New Zealand) give you pleasure in the glass, then I guess all these "myths" mean less and less. We don't drink our wine, after all, with PR people shouting in our ear... we decide what's good or not-so-good for ourselves!

CabFrancoPhile said...

Absolutely, Randy, you drink the wine, not the label, or the bottle, or the name, or the price, or the marketing blurb. I think what was interesting to me is that perhaps the 'myths' play into producing a certain style of wine. But it's not the only style out there, and there are a multitude of ways to produce fine wines in their respective styles.

Matt Mauldin said...

Interesting point about low yields. I'm reading New Classic Winemakers of California and many in the book mention lowering yields as a reason for having to harvest at higher brix. The drive to lower yields causes the vine to push more sugar into the remaining fruit, which then has to hang longer to get mature tannins.

Another interesting thought in the book along these lines is that older vines naturally produce a lower yield and thus the grapes maturity is more naturally balanced. The particular winemaker thought the reason for higher brix was the lack of mature vines in CA- many new vineyards and massive replantings since the phylloxera outbreak 20+ years ago.

I think the diurnal variation is a feature more uniquely in CA- The heat is bad and needs to be compensated by cool nights- but the sunshine and dry growing seasons are the good that comes with the bad (the heat).

CabFrancoPhile said...

Matt, thanks for the comment. I should look up New Classic Winemakers of California when I'm done with my current wine books. I wonder if my local favorite Rick Longoria gets a mention. When I buy CA, I always look for experienced vintners. What you posted are exactly the nuggets of wisdom I want going into the viticulture and winemaking when I'm buying the finished wine.

Matt Mauldin said...

You'd love the book. It's set up as interviews with the winemakers- done by Steve Heimoff. He asked the brix/alcohol question to just about everyone and the varying answers are fascinating. Yes, Rick Longoria is interviewed in the book.

I checked out the winery website this post links to- very intriguing. I'd love to try his wines sometime. I'll be in Sonoma in April- I emailed them referencing this post asking if they're open to visitors. I'll let you know how it turns out. Enjoyable stuff as always.