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 had the distinct pleasure of speaking to a group of wine bloggers in Portland, OR recently – some of you may have been there – in which I reflected somewhat pensively on the state of the wine business in the U.S., mostly lamenting a certain palpable loss of innocence and idealism. The gist of my remarks was that the recent great success of the wine business has at the same time sowed the seeds of its spiritual demise. Partially, it has been a function of people entering the business with more strictly business motives – every single orthodontist, plastic surgeon, former athlete, television star, musician or reasonably successful plumber with some disposable income has simultaneously decided that the wine business is the most appropriate vehicle for the expression of their “artistic side.”
Whatever the reasons for this phenomenon, we are now observing some of the well-known dynamics of an extremely overcrowded ecosystem; this does not bring out the most meritorious behavior in individuals, whether in rats, cellar rats or winery owners.
Because of the tremendous level of competition, you can see a sort of tragic level of self-consciousness on every level; one begins to consider the economic consequences of every winemaking decision that one makes. Do you dare to produce an “elegant” wine that speaks in a quiet voice? How will it be heard over the deafening din of the agora? If you are a winery owner blessed with significant means, you are sorely tempted to hire the best consultants that money can buy, ones who have the capability to reverse engineer the Robert Parker/Wine Spectator palate and instruct you on how you might make a wine guaranteed to get a high point score rating.
Not express originality, mind you, but rather land squarely in the stylistic range of what passes among some tastemakers at least as real “quality.” It is not surprising that some successful winemakers, at least in the New World, are experiencing something like a sense of malaise; they’re bored and perhaps even vaguely ashamed of the decadent state of affairs. Or perhaps they’re not. The mere public mention of the word malaise, by the way, in a speech thirty some odd years ago, led to the undoing of the hapless American President, Jimmy Carter.
It is good for all of you to understand that there is a ubiquitous American allergy – nowhere better expressed than in the American wine business – to acknowledging that all might not be exquisite sweetness and light within our perfect world. This neurosis carries through to our wine criticism, and our most influential critics seem to embrace wines that have no dark side at all and cast not a shadow. Not a sustainable proposition, which we ignore at our own peril.
I don’t wish today to speak entirely of the Gloom and Doon scenario that besets the New World. But, before I dare to imagine with you an alternate reality for the improved trajectory of New World wines, allow me to express a sincere moment of heartfelt longing from the far side of the existential abyss – that gap that separates what might be called “vins de terroir,” original wines that truly matter, from vins d’effort, or wines of effort, that voodoo that we do in the New World so well. I won’t belabor the point but wines of terroir, wines that express a sense of place, deeply satisfy both our more refined aesthetic sensibilities and offer something like a visceral, emotional connection to the earth, to Nature’s Order, and by extension to ourselves. You just feel differently when you taste a wine that comes from a place rather than one that comes from the laboratory of Dr. Faustus.
In the Old World, at least in many sectors (with some conspicuous exceptions that will remain nameless),1 terroir is taken more seriously than ever, especially by many younger vintners. This is very good news indeed. These winemakers are looking backwards to older techniques and varieties, to gentler practices, more respectful of their terroirs, excavating their patrimony for depth and meaning. The notion of terroir is no longer mere marketing legerdemain fueled by Gallic cynicism, but seems at least to me to be mostly the real deal.
Allow me a parenthetical meta-message here, which may come off as a little New Agey. First, you should know that I am not in fact a New Agey kind of guy – more of an Old Agey kind of guy, if anything, truth be told. But, my sense is that we are living in a strange and magical time, where a style of wine or a grape variety that has languished for years can suddenly become popular due to a mention in a hip-hop tune or by being featured in a popular film.
Obvious causal relationships like the one between high quality, fair price and respectable sales volume no longer seem to obtain. Nevertheless, there seems to be something like an alchemical transformation taking place, a winnowing, if you will, in virtue of strong but highly erratic evolutionary pressures; we are living in our own vinous Ice Age with the craziest kind of extreme weather. Very disparate sorts of species appear to be prospering, both the very pure and the very impure exemplars, you might say; maybe we tend to embrace the former as we recoil in horror to the latter? It’s enough to turn one to the extreme Manichean world-view. I can’t explain why cynical, spoofulated wines are ascendant, nor can I explain the presence of evil (or oenvil) in the world.
I don’t wish to prognosticate on the future of the fake and banal, I can only offer my own thoughts on how we in the New World, absent pedigree, provenance, warrant or credential, might proceed to find our way to sit at the same table with the grownups – that is, with wines expressive of a sense of place. Let’s meditate a bit on how one might begin to approach what would appear to be an impossibly quixotic project, one that would seem to take literally multiple lifetimes – and we all know how mindful we Americans have been about taking pains to insure a sustainable future.
So, I will only talk about the wines that we might call “real,” in the sense of possessing unique characteristics that differentiate them from everything else. This class of wines will not resemble the current crop of “great” monster wines of the New World, few possessing real distinctiveness and many of which are already essentially caricatures of themselves – impressive in their own way, but at the same time, grotesqueries.
In broad terms, I envision that in the future the model for great wines in the New World will embody a major paradigm shift from wines of effort to wines of terroir. To that end, the methodology of their production will have to significantly change. What we have done so well in the New World is to control things – from the clonal selection of our vineyards to the way the vines are irrigated, to the designer yeasts and enzymes, to the cosmetic “enhancements” that impart “improved” texture, color, etc. But, while the wines are “impressive” (at least to some), they do tend to all look and taste alike. Perhaps this is a little unfair but many of the “great” New World wines possess as much natural beauty as, say, a Las Vegas showgirl.
Real wines of the future will derive their beauty and complexity from the genius (if it exists) of the site where the grapes are grown, and to achieve this I believe there has to be a fundamental shift in approach, which, as luck would have it, aligns with the new reality of limited resources, as these resources begin to approach their real costs. Maybe it will not be the right solution for every vineyard, but for me, I envision the return of dry-farmed, head-trained vines – no wire, trellis or drip system, an elegant low-tech solution.You won’t get the preternatural yields of an irrigated vineyard, but the wines will likely have far more depth and personality. Which brings me seamlessly to another topic that I believe will have enormous relevance in the future, indeed if there is to be anything like a future for us.
This subject is the material called biochar; the most extraordinary research on its application to vineyards is being done by a fellow called Hans-Peter Schmidt, studying its effects in the vineyards of the Valais in Switzerland as well as in southern France.
Biochar is essentially activated charcoal, which when mixed with high quality compost takes on some extremely interesting agronomic properties. First, at high rates of application, i.e. 20 tons/ha, it can greatly enhance the water holding capacity of soils – by as much as 30-35%. In dry areas, this can really make the difference between being able to farm without supplemental irrigation or not. It also greatly enhances the fertility of the soil, building more organic matter, further enhancing the water holding capacity. The other aspect of biochar is that it seems to greatly stimulate beneficial microbial activity in the soil, specifically the mycorrhizae, or symbiotic fungi that actively transport minerals into the root hairs of the plant.2
While the subject of minerality is certainly fraught, there is no question in my mind that wines made from grapes grown in mineral rich soils, as well as those possessing a healthy soil ecology, whether farmed organically or biodynamically, will exhibit what might be called a greater life-force, or ability to tolerate oxidative challenge.
Put another way, I would suggest that it is impossible to think about greatness in wines absent the ability of those wines to age and gain in complexity. So, if the presence of biochar and higher levels of organic matter in vineyards support mycorrhizae and the uptake of minerals in the soil, we can perhaps think of them as terroir amplifiers.
Another way of thinking about terroir, specifically the criteria for a great terroir, is to understand that this site is one that has managed to educe a greater degree of finesse and articulation from its grapes in comparison to its neighbors, and so much of this finesse is a function of buffering against extreme conditions – drought or excessive moisture.3
Biochar has the capacity to in some sense make soils “smarter,” i.e. not only to enhance nutritional availability and disease resistance, but also to create a greater sense of homeostasis for the plant, i.e. more moderate growth, and a buffering against stress; this is especially valuable in light of global climate change, and the dry conditions that we already experience during the growing season in California.
Now, here is a very interesting point that we might all meditate on. As I was learning more about biochar, I asked Peter Schmidt, “So, Peter, by the addition of biochar, aren’t you in fact deforming the expression of terroir?” Of course you are,” he said, “but actually no more than if you were, say, plowing a field, which is itself a deformation.4
While in some sense terroir may be thought of as a collection of the inhering qualities of a site transcending the stylistic imprint of the winemaker, at the same time it is inextricably linked to the human beings who are there to discover and express it.
So, we can’t help but meddle a bit; if we are clever and elegant, our meddling and muddling seem to fade seamlessly to the edges in the vins de terroir that we might produce. But, again, in the New World, absent hundreds of years of iteration and observation, how might one shine the light on the uniqueness of a given site, to allow its voice to be heard and not get drowned out by other voices? I think that it is ultimately a question of the signal to noise ratio, i.e. how much information is transmitted against the background of irrelevency. What are the practices that amplify the signal of terroir, but do not create excessive noise?5
I have a theory, which may or may not be right and that is: If you can identify a place to grow grapes where there is a strong and articulate terroir – one with appropriate water holding and fertility characteristics, and an expressive mineral profile – perhaps it is not absolutely necessary that you be supremely clever or preternaturally lucky enough to identify the “perfect,” most ideally matched grape variety to that site; maybe it is really just the gross phenology you need to get right – ripening time, Brix/acid balance, etc.
To go even further, perhaps the presence of strong varietal characteristics may actually work against the expression of soil characteristics. I would cite the wines of Jean-Michel Deiss, whose mixed field blends of varieties that ripen at approximately the same time with an appropriate balance, support the idea that a great terroir trumps the precision of the articulation of a single variety.
Further, witness the wines of Los Bermejos in the Canary Islands, grown on pure basalt rock, made from the somewhat ignominious Listan negro variety; the wines are brilliant and complex, certainly not because of the inherent genius of their constituent grapes. Further, it is a basic tenet that multicépage wines are just the way to go in warmer, Mediterranean climates. A single varietal wine cannot create the complexity and balance of a well-conceived blend in warmer, dryer sites, (and I will argue in a moment that we human beings cannot conceive of blends quite as complex as Mother Nature can potentially create for us.)
So, if you take the idea to its logical conclusion of reordering the Gestalt of the experience of a wine such that its varietal aspect is in the background and its soil characteristics are in the foreground, you will want to maximize the practices that reinforce that soil expression. My very radical (in the original sense of the word) idea is that perhaps by growing grapes from seed, you might end up with a much greater expression of soil characteristics than if you were to grow the grapes from conventionally grown rootings or grafts. This has not been studied in grapevines, as no one apart from breeders grow from seeds, but in fact, seedlings of virtually every woody plant exhibit different rooting behavior compared to plants grown from cuttings, i.e. they exhibit a greater degree of geotropism, or the ability to root straight down to China.
But, I think that greatest advantage of growing grapes from seeds is in the creation of both minute and gross diversity in the resultant seedlings, thus leveraging the raw combinative power of Nature to iterate enormously over a relatively short period of time. As an aside, you don’t really want to collect seeds created from self-pollinating vines, as the seedlings will express deleterious recessive alleles, resulting in inferior progeny.
One will likely do much better to cross varieties with one another, which will lead to healthier plants, and, when viewed as a population, potentially allow the emergence of certain individual plants with unique characteristics, or simply ones that clearly are a lot happier growing where they are than their confrÃ¨res.
So, you try to be as thoughtful as possible about the qualities you are looking for and the suitability of certain varieties for your site. How you do this is perhaps a little tricky.6 How you do this is perhaps a little tricky. I think that you need to start with something like a baseline value, beginning with “standard varieties” – it could even be something as recherché as say, RuchÃ¨ – on your site and seeing how they perform, imagining how they might perhaps be nudged one way or another to become more felicitously matched to your unique conditions.
It is the female part of the cross that largely transmits the varietal characteristics to the progeny, so you want to make sure that this is a variety that seems to express well on your site. The male part of the cross is the one that carries the growth characteristics, the form of the vine to the progeny. In my own case, growing grapes in a slightly warm, fairly dry climate, I’m looking for an extremely vigorous male parent, one that has good drought tolerance.
The bet, in a nutshell, is really this: If you begin with a variety that performs particularly well on your site, by creating minute variations between the diverse genotypes that are the offspring of that parent, might you have the wit to discern a particular individual or group of individuals that seem to be better suited to the site than the others – ripening a little earlier, or later, or being more drought tolerant or disease resistant, through whatever criteria seem to be important in growing grapes on your site?
The other part of the bet is that even if you do not live long enough or have the wit to discern real genius ensconced in your midst, will the sheer number of variations on a theme as it were, (after you’ve culled out the too early or too late ripening or too sickly individuals that are clearly not with the program), create something like complex polyphony or something more like cacophony? Put another way, in a genetically diverse vineyard is there something like the collective wisdom of a crowd?7
I honestly don’t know if my idea for growing grapes from seeds is the world’s best idea or the world’s worst idea, but if it were to work, i.e. the soil characteristics coming through in the wine itself, it would seem, at the very least, that this would be a wine that came from the closest thing to a bespoke vineyard, and would not taste like anything else around. It seems, especially in light of global climate change, and the incidence of new disease pressures on vines, that creating a rich, diverse planting stock for one’s unique vineyard would be both a reasonable strategy for true sustainability as well as a wonderful gift to give to the future. Thank you very much.
Keynote Address delivered to European Wine Bloggers Conference, Nov. 9, 2012
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?)