Nature Is One Tough Boss

From hail to heat waves—is wine worth all the worry?
Aug 16, 2012

"There's supposed to be rain tomorrow," says Maria José Lopez de Heredia, the fourth-generation winemaker of Rioja's Bodegas Lopez de Heredia. We have just finished visiting the Tondonia vineyard, a beautiful piece of Rioja history surrounded on three sides by the Ebro river. Dark clouds gather to the south.

In the midst of a six-day reporting trip through the region in June, everyone is telling me that the winter had been very dry, so rain would be a good thing—"unless it brings hail," notes Maria José. Then she remembers how her father, Rafael, used to stay up all night pacing the halls of the house when there was hail in the forecast. "I'd say, 'Daddy, what can you do about hail?'" Now Rafael is retired. It's Maria José's turn to worry.

I get to meet a lot of wine producers, but some days I'm glad I'm not one of them. The next evening, sitting in my hotel room in Rioja, I suddenly hear what sounds like ball bearings raining down. Hail is pounding the vineyards outside. For a good five minutes, ice pellets riddle the ground. Then it stops. Two minutes later, it starts up again.

My job doesn't hinge much on nature, and I'm grateful for that. Sometimes people I'm supposed to interview forget our appointment, sometimes writers miss their deadlines, and sometimes the words just won't flow. But two years ago, Sonoma winegrowers weathered unseasonably cool weather for much of the summer. With the fruit not getting any riper, some opted to pluck leaves, exposing the grapes to more sunlight. A random heat wave then cooked their grapes on the vine. Who says Mother Nature doesn't have a sense of humor? It's a cruel one.

Wine producers are always boxing a far bigger, faster opponent. They have to think fast, ready to change course if necessary. They always have to be prepared for the worst. Sometimes, nature is a partner. Other times, she just hits them with a sucker punch.

Of course, when nature plays nice, the results can be inspiring. Other times, things seem dicey all growing season, but the resulting wines are outstanding. All the hard work pays off. And no two years are alike. Bordeaux enjoyed warm, dry summers in both 2009 and 2010. But in the earlier year, a wet spring meant there was plenty of water in the soil. In 2010, spring was drier and winemakers were left sweating until harvest that conditions would be too dry. While both vintages are fantastic, the drier 2010 meant smaller berries, lower yields and more tannic wines.

After another five minutes, the hail comes to a stop outside my hotel, replaced by gentle rain. The dry soils eagerly absorb it. The hailstones melt. Walking through the vines the next day, I see some damaged leaves. Some flowers won't turn into grapes, but overall, this area dodged a bullet.

I've always found it a cliché when winemakers tell me that nature makes the wine. Of course it does. But all that hard work in the vineyard and the winery deserve some credit too. Vines left to their own devices prefer to climb up trees.

Still, I understand why wine producers say it—because they must feel powerless against nature much of the time. Yet when nature is willing, they can work together to produce one of the most beautiful, complex things in the world. Tasting the finished product, who wouldn't mind taking a sucker punch once in awhile?

Read about the Spanish winemakers Mitch Frank visited and Thomas Matthews' comprehensive report on Rioja in the upcoming October 15 issue of Wine Spectator magazine.

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