Join us for the second annual CIA Sommelier Summit!
Randall Grahm will be presenting at the Tuesday, April 25th (10-11:15 a.m.)
Natural Wines: WTF? (What’s the fuss?)
I spent a recent morning at the Cornflower Nursery in Elk Grove, California, with Professor Andy Walker of UC Davis, who has been very graciously advising me on the rather ambitious (no kidding) program of growing grape vines from seeds.1 We were there to inspect the progress of the grenache seedlings that had germinated a few weeks earlier, which now, with many having just formed their first true leaves, were ready to transplant into 3-inch pots. Andy was there to offer his judgment on the best criteria for discarding or retaining the little seedlings for further study and ultimate plantation.2
This particular set of seedlings had come from seeds we had harvested from several different grenache selections last year, but the vines themselves were all “self-crosses;” i.e., the plants were self-pollinating, and therefore could be said to be genetically less interesting than their parents—more prone to disease, weaker growth, and hidden defects. And yet it seemed (and still seems) to be an interesting experiment to see what the effect of extreme genetic diversity of a given grape variety in a vineyard might do.3
Andy has been gently urging me to hybridize vines from multiple varieties rather than simply collect the seeds from individual ones. I was originally quite keen to do this, but when I learned about the enormous hassle factor in the hybridization process—collecting pollen, emasculating the male flowers with surgical scissors (!), but most of all, the need for very intensive and precise record keeping4—I wimped out and went the route of simple seed collection. I have since seen the error of my ways; one undoubtedly gets healthier and potentially more interesting vines from hybridization,5 and I’m keen to begin the breeding, possibly in the near coming weeks if I can decide on which varieties are to be crossed.
This really gets to the very nub of what precisely am I trying to accomplish in this new project. I have had some nagging doubts about the potential brilliance of vinifera hybrids. My deepest fear is that even with the very best of intentions, and breeding two interesting, even noble varieties, I would end up with a new variety, or more accurately a range of offspring, that had few of the redeeming qualities of either parent.6, 7 I had read reports that both T.V. Munson, the legendary Texas grape breeder, whose efforts with American grape species had literally saved the European wine industry from the great phylloxera epidemic, as well as the late Professor Harold Olmo of UC Davis, had both mentioned how difficult it was to find a real stand-out in grape vine progeny, saying essentially that one had to kiss a lot of frogs to find a real prince.
I shared with Andy my concerns and asked him pointedly, “So, what can we say about the wine quality of vinifera hybrids? Are they really that much stupider than their parents?”
He then said the most extraordinary thing, so startling that I didn’t really grasp its significance until after we had gone our separate ways that morning.8 “In fact,” he said, “if the selection of parents is well done, the wine quality potential will generally be superior in the hybrid to that of its parents.”9
Now, I should have been listening very, very carefully at that point, and maybe even should have had a tape recorder, because (pace Andy) this did not seem to jibe with what I had heard or read before. Indeed, the case for improved vine quality or vine health for grape hybrids is totally consistent with everything that is known about “hybrid vigor,”10 the invigoration of the stock through the introduction of new genetic material to the pool.11, 12 But I’m quite certain that we were indeed talking about “wine quality” and not vine quality.13
I asked him specifically about what criteria one might look for in the grapes themselves as indicators of wine quality—perhaps smaller berries, smaller, looser clusters, greater or lesser degree of seededness (ergo more tannin), greater anthocyanin concentration, phenological appropriateness of the variety to the site (enough days of sunlight and adequate heat to ripen the grapes and bring them to a reasonable balance of potential alcohol, acidity, etc.).
“I think that Munson and Olmo were likely talking about the progeny of self crosses, and not true hybrids,” I recall him saying.
The question is stilling nagging at me: what could Andy have really meant by “wine quality?” More importantly, what should I be thinking about as desirable characteristics in these new, as yet unnamed varieties? It is now everything I can do to resist calling him up at this precise moment to grill him further. But instead, I’ll just let myself live with a certain ambiguity for a moment, and use this as an occasion to meditate on what might really be meant by “wine quality;” a vinous Gedankenexperiment, if you will. What follows are fragments of an imaginary conversation with Professor Walker:
Okay, Andy, I don’t wish to be obtuse, but why do you imagine wine quality of well-bred vinifera hybrids to be superior to the already pre-existing varieties?14 For one thing, why haven’t we seen the emergence of a slew of great new grape varieties in modern times? There may be a couple, I’ll grant you—scheurebe for one, and perhaps albarossa, a putative cross of nebbiolo x barbera.15, 16 I’ve only tried incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13 once (a cross of riesling and pinot blanc), but it was eminently forgettable, apart from its too cool for school, minimalist nomenclature.17
The indefatigable Dr. Olmo had a very long career traveling the world looking for exotic plant material (he was once characterized as the “Indiana Jones of grapes”). But (with all due respect to the late plant breeder) how much has the world of wine benefited from say, symphony, ruby cabernet, or carmine?18 In Dr. Olmo’s defense, you could say his work was undoubtedly directed toward solving particular problems: the creation of an aromatic variety for a warm climate, the breeding of a table grape with characteristics that made it more commercially attractive, overcoming specific disease issues, etc. Perhaps in the era in which he worked, grape growers and winemakers in California didn’t really have deeply elaborated ideas about wine quality, and were undoubtedly primarily focused more on productivity than on the suitability of this or that variety as a vehicle for the expression of minute nuances of difference in differing sites—that is to say, the glorious articulation of terroir.
It seems intuitively obvious that certain genotypes of grapevine have greater or lesser potential for wine quality, but how to characterize these elusive criteria? Might it not perhaps be more a question of the degree of congruence of a particular variety or set of varieties to a particular site, with all of its unique challenges? Could you use hybridization to tweak what you imagined was a reasonably good fit to your site to make it even more congruent? And while we might pretend to be “empirically objective” or even “scientific” in our assessment of what might be the most appropriate grape variety to a given site, at the end of the day, there will be some wine produced by an actual vigneron. And while aforesaid vigneron—that would be moi—wants nothing more than to greatly delight his customers with the most extraordinary nectar, he also wants to personally be nothing less than out-of-his-mind crazy in love with the wine that he is producing. We all hold within us certain images of idealized Platonic forms; in some sense, this vigneron might consider those elements of a wine most compelling to him, and meditate on how he might conjoin them in a seamless way.
Can you really say that there is anything “wrong” with a specific variety that needs to be fixed/improved through the process of hybridization?19, 20 Is pinot problematic because it is not dark enough in color? How can it be said that pinot could be better than it is if it is already (arguably) perfect, or at the very least capable of expressing something like perfection?21 Pinot and nebbiolo are what they are and we love them because they are somehow just so utterly different from everything else, and in the instance of nebbiolo, just so perversely strange. Changing them would no doubt create something far less interesting, so they are clearly “superior” varieties, but in what sense?
There are so many aspects of this problem that tend to make my head hurt, and so many apparent logical paradoxes, that it seems impossible to reconcile them all. We have to slow down the discussion and really think hard about what constitutes “greatness” in wine. Cabernet, merlot, and the other bordelais cépages can produce wines capable of “greatness” because they have a lot of structure, i.e., they’re rich in tannins and anthocyanins, with good acidity, and are thus capable of long aging and the development of complexity. Further, they are not overly susceptible to vine disease. On their own, they can be relatively simple and monotonic; generally speaking, blending (in the cellar) will enhance their complexity.22
But what if it is not the grape varieties themselves that are the repositories of greatness, but rather that they’re merely the vehicles of transmission of the greatness (or put another way, eloquence) of a given site? Intuitively this seems obvious. Cabernet sauvignon is unquestionably a “great” grape but makes a fairly miserable wine grown in overly fertile sites, and grown on its own can be overly expressive in its flavor profile, drowning out other nuances. Clearly there are other elements at work that enable a great variety to express its greatness.
Maybe the better question to ask is how one would go about looking for varieties or combinations of varieties that would potentially be the best transmitter of one’s given terroir. To answer this question, I’d like to think about what makes pinot noir and nebbiolo (and of course, riesling) so great (on the right site) and in some sense unimprovable upon. It’s not that they have more tannin and anthocyanins than anyone else, nor that these elements are particularly well balanced. (Nebbiolo has lots of tannin but is relatively low in anthocyanins; pinot noir is low in both; and of course for riesling, being a white grape, the question is moot.) It’s not that they are (riesling excepted) particularly versatile as far as site selection. For me, pinot noir and nebbiolo are unquestionably the greatest grapes because they produce wines of utterly haunting complexity. The scent of a great pinot expresses elements of wild fruit that enchant us (maybe a function of its great genetic complexity),23 and capture elements of earth and mineral that perhaps give us a sense (maybe literally) of groundedness. Wines made from these grapes on the right sites are also exceptionally ageworthy, enabling them to develop ever more complexity. And lastly, these wines have a unique, almost feral, savory element (truffles, humus)—a quality that pinot shares with nebbiolo—in which we perhaps see, or more accurately smell, ourselves.24, 25
It is beyond the purview of this little article to elucidate the mechanism of the phenomenon of “minerality” in wine.26 We don’t know exactly how it comes about or even precisely what it is, but some wines seem to exhibit a strong anti-oxidative potential even (in the case of pinot noir) with the relative paucity of the usual anti-oxidative suspects.27, 28 I am convinced that complexity in wine—its ability to change, evolve, kaleidoscopically unfold, chameleon-like—is directly linked to the presence of minerals in the soil from which the grapes derived (and of course the presence of a salutary soil microflora able to extract aforesaid minerals). I have suggested elsewhere that even grapes that are far less genetically advantaged than, say, pinot, are capable of demonstrating great complexity if they are derived from exceptionally mineral-rich soils.
So, pinot and nebbiolo and riesling are all grapes that wear their minerals well.29 Maybe (or maybe not) they are particularly well adapted to mining minerals from the soil30 and particularly well suited to expressing this mineral note in the elaborated wine.31 I’m not an especially astute observer/student of grapevine morphology or physiology, but it strikes me (maybe more as an intuition) that grape varieties that are either particularly pulpy or possessing very small berries, i.e., with relatively little juice in comparison to rest of their mass, are the ones more likely to present this “mineral” aspect. Further, grapes grown on a limited water regimen (dry-farmed, deep-rooted) in low fertility (low nitrogen) soils will also experience this concentration effect and be far more expressive of terroir.
One further thought on the subject of the grapes that I love. As I’ve said, they all fuse several disparate elements—fruit, earth, and savoryness, as well as something like a distinctively human element.32 But also, these varieties are truly self-sufficient, i.e., they generally do not benefit from the addition of extraneous grapes—that just seems to muddy the waters. While they all possess varietal character that is easily recognizable, this character is relatively mild—transparent, you might say—to the degree that it allows for the clear expression of a strong mineral aspect in the wine. But it is the utter brilliance of these grapes when they are paired with the noblest of vineyard sites (Musigny, Bussia, Scharzhofberger, etc.) that really throws a pall on any desire I might have to produce a varietal Pinot noir, Nebbiolo, or Riesling wine. Without question, in the absence of hundreds of years of iteration and observation, one will never come close to achieving anything like the felicity of the marriage between grape variety and site that has historically been achieved. And that Platonic image of what the Grape is able to achieve (and what one’s own does not) will haunt one’s days.
So, maybe certain grapes concentrate minerals better than others, maybe it is a function of their vigorous growth (rooting) habit and relatively small berry sizes, maybe also their relative giftedness for biosynthesis. (Maybe that’s linked with the complexity of their genome.) The real question is whether hybridization might be a strategy to enhance these attributes, or whether it’s essentially an interesting intellectual exercise with a rather unforeseeable outcome.
But if one is looking for true originality in a New World wine, it would seem that hybridization may well be the most rational way to proceed. I’m not sure if “rational” is really the precise word to describe what it is I propose to do, but rather it seems that hybridization, even with its radical uncertainty, creates the most likely opportunity for real uniqueness in a New World vineyard, and that its pursuit is quite rational. There are still a few elements I am taking on something like faith, viz., the belief that the site in San Juan, or at least parts of it, is capable of expressing a strong sense of place if farmed appropriately. Further, I do believe that a diverse population of a coherent family of grapes will likely create a kind of complexity that could not otherwise be achieved. Lastly—and this is maybe the greatest leap into pure faith: the lack of varietal distinctiveness in this imagined vineyard will in some way allow other attributes of the wine, namely the qualities associated with the site itself, to express themselves in greater relief.
If I were to go out on a limb and imagine what Andy was thinking about wine quality, it is not unreasonable to imagine that hybrids created from varieties with the attributes of the gross signifiers of “quality”—small berries, non-juiciness, some discreet aromatic potential, seededness and a strong life-force (the primal impulse to Go Deep), could in some sense be more interesting than their forbears, especially if you were to consider them as a population. The “greatness” of these hybrid grapes might be analogous to the greatness or greater harmony that comes from blended wines, where any single varietal is just too simple and likely unbalanced. Maybe the “problem” of brilliant grapes like pinot noir is just that they are too brilliant, i.e., so particularly and well adapted to a given site that they suffer greatly when they are moved away from their home.
It is clear that hybridizing vines needs to be done with an aim to solve a particular problem or adapt to a particular set of circumstances, or perhaps even to satisfy the aesthetic whims of the hybridizer. As I’ve written elsewhere, I am not looking for the next great grape, nor even for the perfect variety or varieties for San Juan, although that would be good information for my successors. I am looking to make a wine of complexity, balance, and originality, expressive of the site on which it is grown, and a wine that will delight me—when it is not driving me insane. I am optimistic that I am on a path to achieve a plurality of these ends.
Join us for the second annual CIA Sommelier Summit!
Randall Grahm will be presenting at the Tuesday, April 25th (10-11:15 a.m.)
Natural Wines: WTF? (What’s the fuss?)