The eventual taste and quality of a wine depends on a number of factors:
Latitude: Wine-producing vines are grown all over the world in a belt roughly between thirty and fifty degrees latitude north or south of the equator. North of the equator includes the Mediterranean region as far north as Germany, and from sSouthern California as far north as Washington State. South of the equator, the band runs from Central Chile and Argentina, through the tip of South Africa to Southern Australia and New Zealand. The further away from the equator, the less sun there is. Less sun means less sugar and fruit on the vine, and consequently less alcohol and less color in the wine. Wines grown closer to the equator by contrast have more body, a darker color, and higher alcohol content.
Elevation: Where there is less sun, vines need to be grown on a slope so that they catch as much sunlight as possible. This is why German vineyards are all on south-facing slopes of river valleys. Vineyards in the South of France by contrast, already get enough sunlight and so do not need the angled slopes. In California, where fog from the cold Pacific creeps into the valleys most evenings, some types of grapes benefit from the cooling effects of the fog, while other grapes, such as Zinfandel, thrive at a higher elevation above the fog line.
Soil and drainage: Unlike most other crops, good vines do not benefit from rich fertile soil. Most vineyards are found in stony and infertile regions—but with good drainage. Poor topsoil forces the root of the vine to force itself deep into the ground in search of water. This results in stronger and more powerful roots, which can better absorb the complex taste of the minerals through which they dig. Limestone, chalk, volcanic pumice, and gravel are all especially favorable for vines, as they absorb and store rainwater and are rich in complex minerals from ancient marine life.
Climate: The prevailing microclimate of individual regions obviously has a major influence on the cultivation of grapes. The Languedoc region of Southern France has long, hot summers, little rain, and the drying effect of the Mistral winds, thus producing large quantities of dark-red wine with high alcohol. The river valleys of the Mosel in Germany have a much cooler climate with far more rain, and consequently produce pale-white wines which are low in alcohol.
Climate Change: Controversial or not, climate change is having a profound effect on the world’s vineyards, especially in Europe, where the boundary for wine growing moves steadily northward. The vineyards of Burgundy, which have always been vulnerable to cold winters resulting in poor harvests, have enjoyed an unprecedented twenty years of perfect growing seasons. The worry is that eventually, as the climate warms, it will become too hot for the Pinot Noir and Chardonnays, which also need cool evenings in order to produce that Burgundian magic. In Germany, too, with the extra sunshine, the Riesling grapes are producing more sugar, and thus the Auslese wines of the Moselle are becoming sweeter and more alcoholic.
The main beneficiaries of climate change are the English, who are finally able to grow their own vines and make their own wine without being beholden to any beastly foreigners. Various French Champagne houses are actually buying land in Southern England and planting vineyards in the same chalky, limestone soil they are used to back home in Northern France. The area of vines planted in England and Wales has doubled from 761 hectares in 2004 to about 1,500 hectares in 2013. The country now has almost 500 vineyards, and English “champagnes” are winning international prizes and being compared favorably—even by the French—to the best French Champagnes. In 1998, an English Classic Cuvée 1993, won first prize at the International Wine & Spirit Competition and was voted best sparkling wine in the world.
Varietal: Varietal refers to the specific type of grape, each of which have different requirements and produce different types of wine. Some varietals need more rain while others need more sun. Some varietals require a longer growing season, some bud early in the year, others reach fruition later. Over the centuries, winegrowers have matched the different varieties of grape with the ideal climate, elevation, and soil type. In Europe, with over 2,000 years of experience, different regions have their own specific grape varietal; in Burgundy, all red wines are made from the Pinot Noir grape, while in Tuscany all red wines are made with the Sangiovese grape. (The major different varietals are described alphabetically starting in Chapter Six.)
Vintner: The vintner, or winemaker, is the person whose decisions affect the final quality of the wine. Until recently, the vintner would rely on tradition, using the wisdom and experience passed down from his father and grandfather who had typically been producing wine in the same place for generations. These days, the vintner is probably university-trained and bases his decisions on the latest scientific research. Another major difference is that these days, the vintner is very often female, as more and more women are running vineyards and directing wineries. Today, there are even “Flying Winemakers” who travel the world, sharing their expertise for the week or two they spend visiting different vineyards and wineries on their travels.
VITICULTURE: HOW VINES ARE GROWN (SUN + GRAPE = SUGAR)
The Vine: The vine is nature’s factory that produces the sugar out of earth, air, sun and water which the vintner will ultimately use to make wine. The roots of the vine pull water out of the earth, while the chlorophyll in the green leaves draws carbon dioxide out of the surrounding air. By the magical process of photosynthesis, light from the sun transforms these simple ingredients into sucrose sugars. The rising sap then takes this sucrose into the flesh of the grapes, which is used to provide the seeds with energy. This whole cycle has no other purpose than to provide the seeds with enough food and vigor to start the next generation. The production of juicy grapes or fine wines is purely incidental to Nature, whose only interest lies in propagating the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.