Quality measurements for many products are often expressed in simple, catchy and easily remembered phrases. In real estate it’s, “location, location, location” and in the diamond trade it’s the “4 Cs” – color, clarity, cut and carat (weight). Are there any such benchmarks in reference to wine?
Warren Winiarski, iconic founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (the red wine winner of the 1976 “Judgment of Paris Tasting” with his memorable 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon) once said, “Wine is the three ‘Gs’ – the ground, the grape and the guy.”
Steven Spurrier, British wine authority, writer and organizer of the 1976 Judgment of Paris Tasting has said, “Wine is the three ‘Ps’ – the place, the product and the people.”
Some time ago, while leading a tasting group in a lively discussion on what were the most important contributors to a wine’s quality, I came to my own realization. The “3 Vs” – varietal, vineyard and vintage – with a possible addition of the vintner (aka winemaker in this case) – are my key benchmarks.
During that spirited discussion, everyone had an opinion but we all agreed on the significance of the 3 Vs and the importance of their order as well. Above all, a wine’s varietal character should stand out and is then supported by its vineyard and vintage characteristics.
First, is the wine expressive of its varietal character? Then, is the wine true to its place of origin? And ultimately, is the wine demonstrative of the vintage? Of course, it’s the winemaker (vintner to stay with the V theme) whose job it is to weave the components together in the seamless expression that we expect in a quality wine.
While each varietal has its own personality, it can express itself a bit differently based on how and where it’s grown. A Pinot Noir or Chardonnay from Burgundy will not exactly exhibit the same characteristics as those from Napa or Sonoma, nor will a Merlot from Bordeaux’s Pomerol appellation be identical to one from Tuscany’s Bolgheri region.
However, the core attributes and varietal integrity of the grape will present themselves when grown, harvested and vinified within traditional protocols in a variety of desirable growing areas. Simply said, a varietal’s personality places it as the foundation of the 3 Vs whether it stands on its own (e.g. Grenache, Mourvedre) or is an integral player in a well-crafted blend such as a Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Terroir (from the Latin terra meaning earth) is a French term with no direct translation to English. It is the basis of the vineyard’s contribution and often used incorrectly as merely an expression of the soil. But the true connotation goes far beyond that over simplification and actually defines the total environment of the vine – soil type, climatic and temperature conditions, drainage, exposure, elevation, vineyard grade, etc.
No agricultural product grown anywhere in the world is as site-specific as the wine grape. Vineyards, as opposed to orchards and fields, are extremely precise growing areas and even the slightest variation in the elements of terroir can produce atypical results often necessitating the planting of different varietals in order to succeed in that location.
The importance of terroir is universally accepted and widely recognized by growers across the globe, and is the basis for all Appellation (and AVA) designations used throughout the Old and New World wine grape-growing areas. This importance is further recognized and generally acknowledged by the trade, press and consumer alike that “great wines are made in the vineyard and shepherded in the winery.”
Obviously, not all vintages are the same and this variable may be the most dramatic of the 3 Vs. Wines from the same varietal grown in the same vineyard and made by the same winemaker can differ significantly from one year to another. This has recently become even more apparent given the wide swings of temperature, frost, wind and rainfall experienced around the world as a result of our changing climate.
Thankfully, some great wines are always made in lesser vintages and what may have been an excellent vintage in Napa will not necessarily express the same quality in Sonoma or the Central Coast, let alone Europe and the Southern Hemisphere. And quite often, variable vintage conditions will be beneficial to some varietals but not necessarily so for others in the same vineyard or growing area.
Vintage is the one V that is variable and completely outside the limits of our choice or control. It is especially important as it may become the final arbiter of the first two (that remain constant) in producing a quality wine.
While an accomplished winemaker is essential in the creation of a superb wine, all of his or her expertise is not confined within the four walls of the winery. Truly great winemakers often spend as much, or even more time, in the vineyard throughout the year (not just the growing season) as they do in the winery.
Skilled winemakers, like all great artists, have an innate ability to know when to stand back and be patient as well as when their intervention and talent will guide them in the production of an exceptional wine. While the varietal, vineyard and vintage must speak of their individual character, it’s the forte of the winemaker to express his or her expertise when most appropriate to maximize quality in the wine.
So whether we look to Winiarski’s three “Gs,” Spurrier’s three “Ps” or my three “Vs” (perhaps with the fourth V as well) it all starts with the varietal (grape or product), moves to the vineyard (ground or place) and depending on the vintage is advanced by the vintner (guys, gals or people) to produce the finest wine possible demonstrating the interwoven attributes of each component.