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Friday, August 17, 2007


The human element, more important in the Old World or the New?

I agree, gross generalization of a thread title, guilty as charged. Having said that, the general premise of my question is best looked at in extremes:

Take a Cote Rotie vineyard for example. A marginal climate necessitates the extreme aspect of exposure, personified in the roasted slope’s tantalizingly severe angles. Low vigor soils, old vines and a relative bevy of history. Human intervention is necessary at the level of maintaining the vineyard, hand harvesting (mechanical isn’t even an option), sorting, etc….But these producers have the luxury of ‘modesty,’ by stating they are ‘lazy winemakers.’ Old vines don’t need to be as rigorously pruned, thinned (vintage dependant of course) and trained…they are old & gnarly, planted to infertile sites at distinctive, marginal terroirs. Even though new oak has become in vogue, most winemaking processes are geared towards ‘letting the terroir speak.’

Alright, now take any popular varietal from any given Napa appellation (or vicinity). These appellations have actually been described as ‘distinctive-less’ by the outspoken Chuck Wagner of Caymus. Napa is certainly unique, but is Oakville distinctive when compared to Rutherford? Maybe…that’s not the purpose of the discussion though. Napa is certainly not marginal as climates come, and the producers cling to the relative consistency of the ambient weather. There is little risk of autumn rain as well, which allows them to harvest at will, and fashion wines whichever way they like (funny how a single vineyard can taste dramatically different from 2 different producers, isn’t it?). Most Napa vines are in their infancy (w/ some exceptions, most notably Zinfandel) & most ‘extremes’ found in transitional areas, like Burgundy, don’t exist here. Producers will actually promote the human factor in California, instead of minimizing it as they do in most of France. Pinot producers of Sonoma laud their artistic touch and Napa cabernet vineyard managers boast their ability to tame youthful vigor, manipulate uniquely designed canopies (via their U.C. Davis degrees, of course) with different trellis designs and cluster cover. Fashionable pinot debates circle around which clonal selection is the hottest, or which cooper cranks out the best barrels and what degree of toast yields the best results. How many strains of commercial yeast have been identified? You see where I’m going w/ this…

I am aware there are various pitfalls in generalizations but unfortunately I feel the need to utilize them for this experimental debate. Let’s look past some of the specific imperfections that I may have run into in these appellations and tackle the question of the human element. Where is it most impactful on quality and distinctiveness? The old world winemakers would have you believe that their job is that of a minimalist, letting their unique, known terroir speak in its own language. They act as ambassadors of the land, conducting the orchestra of their vines to Mother Nature’s symphony. The new world regime would say the opposite.

The flying enologists further complicate this matter by injecting the human element into both worlds. Where do you stand? Are these winemakers full of it, or right on the money?

-Disclosure, I am currently less interested in ‘which wines are better,’ as that tends to be a more taste-driven debate on subjectivity…I think the human influence debate on their relative quality would yield a more constructive discussion.

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