Recently I was doing a signing for my latest book. While scrawling an inscription inside, I was chatting with the person, who waited patiently for me to finish. He flatteringly commented that he had read my columns over the years with enjoyment and then said, “You know, I’ve always wondered what, exactly, makes a wine fine?”
I started to reply by citing features such as finesse and nuance and harmony. But then I stopped. These values, among others such as layers and even a sense of surprise (never mind somewhereness), are all certainly elements that collectively make a wine “fine.” But I stopped because, suddenly, I felt that I was missing the point.
I said, “You know what really makes a wine fine? The root is: It’s not a sure thing.” He looked a bit puzzled, which was understandable. I didn’t have the time to explain it more fully, but I thought it worth mentioning here.
For decades I believed that what separated fine wine from ordinary are features such as complexity and originality. And of course they do. Without them, as well as the elements previously cited, there’s no chance for a wine to rise above the ordinary. But those are really the results, rather than the source.
The source is this business of not being a sure thing. Everywhere in the world, regardless of grape variety or region, fine wine comes from a defiance of guaranteed success.
All of us have been instructed about how great wines come from marginal (for the grape variety) climates where the grape’s reach just barely—but successfully—achieves a full-gripped grasp. This is why, we’re told, Burgundy’s Côte d’Or is so profound for Pinot Noir, why the Médoc is so choice for Cabernet Sauvignon and why Piedmont’s Langhe zone is so singularly triumphant for the Nebbiolo grape. And it’s true.
That the grape has to struggle for ripeness is the traditional axiom for wine greatness. Again, there’s some truth to this, although a more modernist expression might instead talk about the flavor benefit of a long hang time. Whatever.
It all comes down to the same goal of slowly teased-out flavor ripeness without a corresponding loss of refreshing natural acidity. This is not, of course, as easily achieved as it sounds.
All that acknowledged, it still doesn’t capture the idea of “not a sure thing.” Allow me to explain.
One of the recurring features of fine wine in the modern era is, surprisingly, a rejection of scientific assurance. This is surprising if only because so many winemakers and winegrowers are themselves scientifically trained and have no quarrel with the foundational virtues of their training.
Yet many producers have rejected the conventions of science in their planting decisions and winemaking techniques. This has happened almost everywhere fine wine is pursued. The reason is that the pursuit of fine wine leaves them almost no choice.
Science seeks certitude. Scientifically based advice is rooted in a guarantee: You do this and we can assure you that you’ll get this result. We know it for a fact. That’s why it’s science.
For example, when California had to reconstitute its devastated wine industry after the 13 years of Prohibition, which ended in 1933, it turned to a scientific methodology of determining the best place to grow various grapes; based on climate, it was expressed in the concept of degree-days.
With grapevines, growth proceeds only when the temperature achieves 50° F. Every degree above that is counted as one degree-day. When these degree-days are totaled over the several-month span between the beginning of vine growth and the harvest of ripe grapes, the total is called temperature summation. At a glance, one can establish the coolness or warmth of a site or district.
Eventually this information was captured and made easily understandable by a handy categorization of temperature summation zones, designated as Regions I (the coolest) through V (the hottest). To this day, California winegrowers still talk about their vineyards as being "high Region I" or "low Region II.” In 1944, a map of California was published showing various pools of temperature with the appropriate designation.
For the first time, vineyards could be established not by unthinking tradition or gut instinct, but by scientific methodology. It was rational; it was quantitative; it was systematic; and it was verifiable. It provided a basis upon which to proceed to revitalize an industry. Above all, it was sufficient for the bulk winegrowing that was California wine at the time and for decades afterward.
Not least, it offered a sort of guarantee, namely that a certain grape variety would regularly and fully ripen if planted in the appropriate zone. After all, what kind of scientific advice encouraged growing something that wouldn’t regularly ripen? Such advice would be irresponsible.
Consequently, the coolest zone designated is Region I, which is 2,500 degree-days or fewer. (Each Region is divided by 500 degree-day increments.) Burgundy's Côte d'Or registers 2,120 degree-days, which would put it just barely above a hypothetical Region 0.
That the scale effectively begins at 2,500 degree-days tells us not only how warm are many of California's traditional vineyard areas, but also the necessity of a guarantee. Precisely because grapes do not ripen regularly or easily in areas of greater coolness, to identify such sites was to legitimize them. This was not possible, as no guarantee of success could be offered.
So when David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards told his university professors in the mid-1960s of his desire to grow Pinot Noir in Oregon’s cool Willamette Valley, he was strenuously advised against it. It was too cool, he was told. He would fail. It was not a sure thing.
This was also why in New Zealand nearly all of the vineyards were grubbed up and replanted in the 1980s. The Kiwis originally were advised to plant the likes of Müller-Thurgau and various hybrids because they were guaranteed to ripen. It was a sure thing. The wines, however, were ordinary.
Precisely the same thing occurred in British Columbia at the very same time. Same advice; same grapes for the same reason; same results.
Today, we know how the story ends. California producers have sought ever-cooler, ever-riskier sites in order to pursue the fine-wine ambition, such as the westernmost Sonoma Coast, the Sta. Rita Hills area west of Highway 101 in Santa Barbara County, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and elsewhere.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley is booming, as are both of Canada’s major wine districts, the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia and the Niagara Bench area in Ontario. (And there’s some impressive sparkling wine coming from insanely cool Nova Scotia, of all places.)
Then there’s pretty much all of New Zealand, and the cool likes of Australia’s Tasmania Island as well as Mornington Peninsula and Margaret River. And don’t forget the impressively cool Hemel-en-Aarde Valley hard by the Southern Ocean in South Africa.
“Not a sure thing” also extends to winemaking. Everywhere, winemakers in pursuit of fine wine have rejected the certitudes they were taught.
In making Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc they were told by wine scientists that lees stirring was a “dirty” practice. Don’t do it. They were told that using wild or indigenous yeasts was uncontrollable and therefore inadvisable. Don’t do it. We can’t guarantee the result.
Yet today many of the world’s finest white wines use just such practices, among other “inadvisable” methods.
So-called “natural” winemakers are pushing the boundaries even further, sometimes dangerously so. They are reducing or even eliminating the addition of sulfur in their winemaking, which indeed invites the possibility of microbial contamination resulting in off flavors. Yet they are driven by a vision of fine-wine beauty, and sometimes they achieve it, showing us new forms of wine fineness.
Many of today’s fine-wine-ambition producers are motivated, inspired even, by one driving force: that there’s no guarantee. Ripening? It’s no sure thing. Achieving something original-tasting, even unique through less-than-certain winemaking techniques? Ditto.
This razor’s edge absence of guarantee is where fine wine really comes from. Certitude is fundamentally industrial as it’s all about replication. Fine wine is precisely the opposite. You can’t see where it will end until you actually get there. Then it’s a revelation. You can’t ensure that, can you?