We Have To Work Harder Than They Do

Jim Law

Over the past two years I have visited California (Sonoma and Napa) and Bordeaux during their veraison. Although I have made several trips to these regions in the past, I felt that I could learn more by seeing the vines, canopy and fruit in early August. At this time, most of the important viticulture decisions have been, or are about to be made. I visited great prestigious vineyards, along with lesser appellations. I saw meticulous, precise viticulture, and I saw vineyards that were neglected. On my return, colleagues would ask what I learned. I learned quite a lot, but I have not been very successful in conveying concrete ideas. The following is my attempt to do just that.

California has sun. The vines thrive in a continuous, intense sun that seems to ripen any grape effortlessly. They also control water to the vines. They use irrigation to manipulate vine growth. In California, mediocre viticulture can still produce big, intense, crowd pleasing wines.

I spent a few days visiting vineyards with Daniel Roberts of Integrated Winegrowing. He has assembled a group of specialists in soils, climate, irrigation and management. They apply very precise development and management to very high end vineyards. California may have lots of sun, but they do have a dizzying array of soils and micro-climates. When Daniel evaluates soils, water retention is the most important aspect of deciding on vineyard suitability, rootstock and spacing. Variety selection is mostly dependent on climate. They want to choose varieties that ripen at the end of the growing season under cool conditions. We started one day in a Pinot Noir vineyard along the Sonoma Coast. We then progressively headed inland where the temperatures would gradually warm as the cool Pacific had less influence. Each vineyard we visited along the way was a different variety. Syrah was next, then Merlot, and finally Cabernet Sauvignon.

I was most impressed with Daniel’s “small vine” vineyards where he had stressed the vines in their early years (holding back nutrients and water), resulting in small, easily managed adult vines with balanced crops. In some cases these small vine vineyards were adjacent other vineyards with large vigorous divided canopy vines. This reinforced to me that management can greatly influence vine growth and vigor.

Bordeaux has terroir. Centuries of trial, error and observation have produced a nearly perfect understanding and respect of soil and variety relationships. I saw several great estate vineyards with what I would call average canopy management practices. They could still be successful because of the inherent natural balance of the vine to its terroir.

Every region has its rebels. In Bordeaux it is Jean-Luc Thunevin. I had the good fortune to meet him at a vertical tasting of his flagship Valandraud wines in NYC. This eventually led to spending an eye opening morning with him in his vineyards in St. Emillion. Thunevin has been labeled as the original garagist in Bordeaux, earning high Parker scores and disdain from Bordelais traditionalists.

The term “vin de garage” originated in the early 1990’s. It refers to great wines made in very meager facilities. I learned from Jean Luc that it was not the winemaking facility, but the commitment to viticulture that made the wines as impressive as they were. We visited a half dozen of his vineyard blocks dotting St. Emillion. None of the sites were considered to be of great terroir. Before he purchased them they produced relatively low-end wines for the appellation. As we traveled from parcel to parcel in the patchwork of vineyards under many different owners, it soon became immediately obvious which vines were his. He practiced very meticulous high labor canopy management and crop reduction in his vines, whereas his neighbor’s vines were rather disheveled. The three practices that distinguished Thunevin’s vineyards from his neighbors were: 1. Ruthless crop reduction. 2. Meticulous and fairly aggressive leaf pulling. 3. The use of drainage and/or covercrops when necessary to achieve vine balance.

Thunevin is also a shrewd businessman. He started with no vines, no winery and no money. At one of our stops he proudly pointed to one of his oldest vineyards and said 100 Euros (referring to bottle price), he then pointed to a newly acquired vineyard that he was just beginning to rejuvenate. 50 Euros. Finally, he points to a shabby vineyard across the street. 3 Euros.

In the eastern United States we do not have the luxury of a “perfect” climate nor the ancestral experiences of terroir. Our only way to compete with the rest of the world’s “grand vins” is to have great viticulture. There are no secrets as to what great viticulture is: balanced uniform vines, good sun interception and low yields. The obstacle is one of commitment. This level of viticulture requires hundreds of hours of labor for each acre, every year. If the person who writes the paychecks does not have complete faith that all this labor will result in improved and profitable wine quality, then it would be best to focus on simple, serviceable regional wines.

Here in Virginia we have many, as Thomas Jefferson so bluntly put it, “accidents of our climate”. It is a very difficult place to grow grapes. It is however, important to put this fact in perspective. It is easier to grow grapes in Provence than in Bordeaux, but which wines are more highly esteemed? Winegrowing is wonderfully complex, regional, and frustrating, which is why I hesitate being formulaic about any recommendations. Having said that, my “take homes” from my travels are:

  1. plant on soils with low water holding capacity.
  2. plant varieties that ripen, but as late in the season as possible.
  3. a balanced vine that requires minimal hedging and stops growing at veraison makes the best wine.
  4. canopy management, especially leaf pulling, in our climate reaps high rewards in terms of flavor profile (not to mention rot issues).
  5. especially with red winegrapes, great wines can only be made with low yields.