Good wine depends on grape-growing, winemaking decisions
One way to learn about a wine is to walk its vineyards. Getting close to the very land that grows the grapes allows you to smell, touch and even taste what it is winemakers are talking about when they talk of terroir, “minerality” and the like.
The concept of “terroir” can encompass many definitions but several writers hold up terroir as the “somewhereness” of a wine, meaning the sum of those factors contributing to a sense of place from which a wine comes.
I’ve spent hours in vineyards with grape growers explaining the differences in soil texture, color and mineral/chemical content and then everyone retiring to tasting rooms where all the strands converge and are revealed in the glass.
If, as it often is, the grape grower and the winemakers are the same person (or work closely together), the message you received in the vineyards is the same message speaking to you from the glass.
While the recent discovery of phylloxera in Colorado’s vineyards has nearly eliminated venturing into a vineyard, you still can look from a distance and talk to the winemakers about the most-basic of the tools they work with.
Some wine critics are skeptical of the over-arching concept of terroir. Eric Asimov of the New York Times recently wrote about how “making a wine from a particular place can often be overwhelmed by grape-growing and winemaking decisions.”
He argues that the “human element” can override terroir, even in locales as lofty as Burgundy, where the expression of terroir “has been raised to a high art” and where tiny parcels of land often have an inverse impact on the wines’ price.
A winemaker, Asimov asserts, can without too much effort lose the “intricacies of terroir” that one finds in wines.
But that does little to deter the stone-suckers among us who lean into the role of soil to terroir and wine.
I’m often asked (it’s the nature of the job) for my favorite Colorado wine and over the years I’ve discovered there isn’t one, only favorite winemakers.
I’m a firm believer in the role of terroir (I’ve written about it before) and this valley and the North Fork Valley have immense ranges of terroir. The Grand Valley American Viticultural Area ranges from sandy terraces on the west to heavy clay and sandy soils on the east, with a few ancient riverbeds, floodplains and long-dry lakebeds thrown in.
A more-obvious example might be in the North Fork Valley (the West Elks AVA), where the North Fork of the Gunnison River divides the landscape into distinct geological regions and the wines reflect those differences.
Now, let’s back up a step and say wines can reflect not only the geophysical differences but also how the winemaker handles those differences.
A good example is the pinot noir coming from the North Fork wineries. They can range from lush and full, with red berry and cranberry flavors (Oregonian in nature) to austere, with notes of rhubarb and pomegranate with the tang of food-friendly crispness (Burgundian).
And yet in many cases the same vines supplied the juice for these varied wines.
It’s what French winemakers learned centuries ago, that grapes from within the same vineyard can make different wines.
A talented winemaker (the human element) can make good wines no matter where the grapes come from, that’s a given. The end result can be heightened if that same winemaker learns to use to her advantage the flavors of the terroir.
You could experiment by finding wineries that produce the same wine from grapes growing in different parts of the valley and tasting each one to see if you have a preference.
Riesling, for example, is one of the most transparent of grapes, and wines from grapes grown across the Grand Valley can differ, as can wines made from North Fork grapes (differences in altitude and growing season make it difficult to do direct valley-to-valley comparisons).
If you can find a winery that makes estate-grown wines (rather than sourcing grapes from other vineyards), you can test the place-of-origin vs. winemaker’s touch theory.
It’s certainly not a bad thing that the human element has a determining role in a wine’s finished product, and you may find it’s not the place or the grape but the winemaker that lifts your spirits.