Drinking Time and Space
Did you ever stop to think that when you are drinking a glass of wine, you are actually drinking the elements of time and space and eons of geological evolution? In a sense, wine grapes are tiny, juicy, complex time capsules that have captured the energy of the sun, gained sustenance from the soils and weather conditions during their months-long ripening process and delivered all of this through the magic of fermentation to the glass in front of you.
Winemaking is first and foremost farming, and like many other crops, grapes are sensitive to the conditions where they are grown. Bananas like the tropics, apples prefer cooler climes, and various grape varieties are no different – Riesling prefers mildly cooler zones, whereas Bordeaux varieties thrive in warmer conditions.
But on a much finer scale than most crops, grapes can absorb detailed nuances in the geological and climate conditions where they are ripened. And unlike many crops that are quickly consumed after harvest, wine grapes are given a second life through the process of fermentation that preserves them, capturing their expression of the time and place where they were grown, sometimes for decades.
This character can easily be dissipated – too much oak and the wine tastes like oak. Poor soils and overcropping result in mediocre wine. Blend and manipulate the wine and the sense of place disappears in a sea of winemaking techniques and processing. But quality-oriented practices such as restricting yields, hand harvesting, minimal intervention and processing in the winery, all enhance a wine’s ability to preserve and express the elements of where it was grown.
Perhaps nowhere else is the essence of terroir so closely regulated and obsessed over than in the vineyards of Burgundy’s Cote D’Or. Over millions of years, geological evolution has created the fault lines, erosion and complex shifts in the ground underfoot that make each vineyard unique. Over hundreds of years, the vineyards that adorn these precious slopes have been farmed and observed, with every subtle nuance noted.
Each vineyard is delimited, named and ranked from basic Bourgogne Rouge and Blanc, through Village level, and up to the revered Premier and Grand Crus. Tiny differences in the mix of limestone and marls, or the position on the gentle slopes, can mean the difference in quality that is reflected in prices that can be hundreds of dollars per bottle different – even for wines made from grapes grown just a few meters apart in some cases. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grown here are the conduits through which the elements of these fabled terroirs are conveyed. In Burgundy and many other regions, “place” is the key to a wine’s quality.
If the bones of a wine’s character are determined in the vineyard, it is during the growing season that its final expression is set. There are numerous conditions and risks that grape growers have to confront, many of which can influence the final wine. A quick look at the growing season gives some insight as to what farmers have to contend with to create a perfect bottle of wine.
The best years are those suited to grapes’ goldilocks personality – they like things juuust right. A dream vintage has a perfect balance of minimal but well-timed rainfall, warm, sunny days that are not too hot, and cool nights. These are conditions that set the stage for a slow rise of sugars, allowing time for the grape’s flavors to develop while acidity stays fresh and all of the grape’s components come together in perfect harmony.
In more challenging years, cool conditions may result in wines with higher acidity, more structure or greenish tannins, and less concentration and flavor and a shrillness. Hot years can show the heat with pruney, overripe notes, lower acidity and higher alcohol or wines that can be somewhat flabby. In these years, growers and winemakers have to adapt their vineyard management and winemaking practices to minimize the effects of the weather to produce the best wines they can. But the signature of the vineyard and vintage often remain an indelible component of the wines’ story.
In the end, the wine in your glass is the culmination of all of the influences of the vineyard where it was grown, the specific conditions during the season, and the winemakers’ touch, with each year unique in terms of its style. So the next time you enjoy a glass of wine remember – you are drinking in a time and place, and experiencing a unique liquid expression of a year’s worth of sun, earth, and hard work, all captured in a grape. Cheers!