Across the Pond

by Jim Law

In December of 2002 a group of Virginia winegrowers traveled for two weeks through the winegrowing regions of southern France. The primary focus was to learn techniques of growing and winemaking of grape varieties that may show promise in Virginia. Our tour leader was Pascal Durand of the University of Burgundy who was able to arrange visits to the most progressive operations in each region. What struck me about each operation we visited was a singular focus on quality. The following are, from my perspective, the highlights that we in the East can learn from and incorporate in our own quest to make great wine.

Most of the regions we visited were experiencing a revival. The ‘wine lake’ of surplus mediocre wines has had the effect of either forcing growers out of the business or to improve quality and compete internationally. Each region was able to build on a foundation that previous generations had already laid in terms of identifying the best sites and varieties for the region. This is an incredible advantage that the French have over us in the East. While we covered a wide area from Bordeaux to the Rhone, I found that the Southwest was of great interest because of its similarities to not only Virginia, but also much of the mid-western and mid-Atlantic United States. Regions such as Madiran, Jurancon, Cahors and Gaillac are influenced by the Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean. During the growing season they have rainfall and temperatures similar to the eastern US. The soils are more clay based and much of the topography is rolling. I must note that one significant difference is that their winters are very mild.

If there is a ‘mantra’ in all of France, it is high vine density and low yields. Vine density in the best vineyards in France is many times greater than the average American vineyard. They are fanatics about close row spacing (as close as 4 feet) and are developing tractors and equipment that look like they come from a Star Wars set to accommodate this tight spacing. I do agree with the theory of close row spacing to maximize land efficiency and quality. Where I withhold opinion is on the issue of close vine to vine spacing. I have seen it work beautifully in most regions of France. I have also seen some excessively vigorous canopies. This is especially in the areas that most resemble the Eastern US with clay based soils and relatively high rainfall. The French prefer to focus on yields per vine rather than per acre believing that the best quality comes from yields in the range of 2 or 3 pounds per vine.

There is a strong trend towards organic or biodynamic farming practices. Most growers are interested in these techniques, not so much for environmental, health, or political correct reasons, but because they feel that the wine is better. After WWII winegrowers were introduced to chemical agriculture. After 30 or 40 years they perceived a diminution of the character of their terroir in the wines. Many feel that there soils were ‘dead’, lacking of the life and vivacity that contribute to unique character. They now feel that they are in the process of rejuvenating their soils, and naturally this is being reflected in the wines.

To understand French wines and winegrowers one must fully embrace the concept of terroir. Terroir is the regional identity of typicity that is the goal of all winegrowers. The AOC (Appellation d’origine Controlee) system essentially dictates it. Lesser wines and regions cannot use regional names and are often required to label their wines by grape variety rather than place. If a taster was to comment that an AOC wine had good varietal character rather than regional typicity, this would be considered an insult. (I find it frustrating as an American wine judge to be instructed to give higher marks to a wine that shows good varietal character, whereas in France the wine would be penalized for lacking personality.)

It is difficult to delineate where the grapegrowing ends and winemaking begins in France. There is no French word for winemaker. Picking strategies are probably the most important winemaking decisions. Vineyards are picked by flavor and tannin development, keeping soil types as individual lots. Often harvesting is accomplished in several individual passes, selecting cluster by cluster. The winemaking goals are not about extraction or power, but about finesse, terroir and longevity. In Bordeaux winemakers refer to big oaky alcoholic wines as ‘Spanish’ or ‘California’ in style. In Rhone this style is called ‘Australian’.

Whereas there is much agreement in France concerning best vineyard practices, winemaking techniques vary considerably. In my opinion, technique does not seem to significantly impact wine quality. In the New World we all give the usual lip service to wine being made in the vineyard. However I find that we seem to be more interested in spending our resources on equipment, new barrels and technology. I certainly saw some of this in France. Gravity flow, microoxygenation, non-interventionist winemaking, cultured yeast, barrel fermentation, filtration were all issues where opinions varied from cellar to cellar. One winery would be showing off new expensive temperature controlled oak tanks, and the next winery would talk about the advantages of fermenting reds in concrete.

The French truly do believe in the quality of the grapes as being the defining quality factor. The rest is just window dressing. I won’t repeat some of their analogies to women and make up. I can only think of two winemaking practices that all the wineries shared in common. The first is using one or even two sorting tables. All wineries sorted out rot, leaves, and underripe grapes. Many used a second sorting table for the reds after destemming to meticulously sort out stem fragments and pink, underripe berries. The second practice is depending on their palates to make decisions. This was my first experience tasting wines (both French and Virginian) in a very focused way with French winemakers. I was humbled.

My most important lesson from this trip was learning which questions to ask. We are too focused on numbers and techniques. These are the “what” questions. They give you information in a vacuum. The more important question is “why”. “Why” questions elicit responses with passion, depth and enlightenment.