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The Grapevine

For winemakers, finding middle ground is question of balance

By Lisa Airy, thewinekey@aol.com

12:34 PM EDT, October 5, 2012

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Over the past several decades, the wine industry has witnessed a pendulum swing toward science and technology vs. tradition and time-honored practice. Today, practitioners of both schools of thought have found common ground. Both "disciplines" have learned from each other.

Improved winery hygiene and university-trained winery personnel have all but eliminated wine faults, while the ancient practice of moving wine by gravity (vs. pumps) and using ambient yeasts (vs. cultured) has its modern-day champions.

It is common these days for Old World winemakers to train in the New World and for New World winemakers to train in the Old World. (Old World meaning Europe; New World meaning everywhere else.)

Within the wine industry, there has been tremendous ebb and flow of thought and practice over the past five decades.

The vine is most unique among food crops; it has very low nutritional demands. As a result, the vine thrives where other more demanding food crops cannot.

It ekes elixir out of rock.

When the New World first started cultivating the vine, it followed Old World practices.

New World grape growers planted their vines too close together relative to the vigor of the site and they compounded this, initially, by irrigating extensively. This resulted in what was affectionately referred to as "the California sprawl" — a tangled green giant of a vine intricately inner-woven with its neighbors.

The depleted soils of the Old World grew a smaller vine. The vines could be planted close together because the soils were unfertile.

Yields were naturally low.

There was no need to green harvest or pull leaves or hedge growing tips to reduce yields, facilitate ripening or curb vigor (respectively). The vine canopies of the Old World were balanced as a rule.

Many New World vineyards planted to Old World high density specifications struggled to mature their fruit. The vine was so vigorous due to the abundance of soil nutrients that fruit was shaded and the resulting wines displayed green, herbal aromas and flavors.

Not enough sunshine struck the clusters. Acid was high, tannins were astringent, flavor development was curtailed. Rot within the canopy was rampant in humid environments.

But Richard Smart, a vineyard consultant from Australia, changed all this with his revolutionary book entitled "Sunlight into Wine."

Basing his work off of the pioneering research of Nelson Shallis, of Cornell, Smart argued that the New World could produce great quality wine with an improved flavor profile by allowing the vine to grow big. He called for wide spacing and an elaborate trellising that would position the shoots and leaves of the vines in space so that there would be no shading. This resulted in a big vine with greater crop yields, to be sure, but also a balanced vine canopy and good quality fruit.

Yet still, even when growing the same grape varieties within a balanced vine canopy, there are big differences between Old World and New World wines. This is due to a host of factors beginning with differences in average temperatures and rainfall. (The New World being warmer and receiving less rain.)

The Old World spoke of these differences in terms of "terroir"; the New World originally referred to such thought processes as "viticultural voodoo."

Old World producers claimed that the earth, the soils, the land was made manifest in their wines; the New World producers said that the winemaker "made" the wine.

In the end, the original Old World definition of "terroir" being that of site, soil, and climate and its impact on the flavors in the glass ended up encompassing the "hand of man" within its definition because winemaking philosophies (even the minimalistic ones) do leave a fingerprint on the finished product. And the New World, in the end, discovered that "wine is made in the vineyard".

Again, the pendulum found middle ground.

Professor Harold Olmo, viticulturalist and professor at the University of California at Davis is oft quoted for saying that in Europe the vine clings to the warm fringes of a cold continent and that in the New World it clings to the cool fringes of hot continents.

Climate changes the physiology of the vine.

In cool growing areas, the vine struggles to ripen its grapes, yet because of the long time spent hanging on the vine, the grapes pull many minerals from the soil and build these into flavor compounds. They have maturity of flavor, but lack the ripeness attributed to sunshine-derived sugar levels as a rule.

In warm growing areas, the vine ripens every year and to high sugar levels, yet because the grape spends less time on the vine, it amasses less overall complexity in its flavor profile. The grapes are ripe, but lack maturity of flavor or depth of flavor, as a rule.

Cool growing areas produce wines that are less fruit-forward, have more mineral and spice components with lower alcohols and higher acid levels.

Warm growing areas produce wines that are more fruit-forward, with lower acids and higher alcohols.

Interestingly, the best vintage years for the cool growing regions are the warm ones. They achieve both maturity of flavor and ripeness. The best vintage years for the warm growing regions are the cool ones. They achieve both ripeness and maturity of flavor!

Again, the pendulum finds middle ground and at that "sweet spot" there is balance.