Continued notes on the Wine Spirit and Educational Trust (WSET) course.
I recently visited my second vineyard, and it couldn’t have been more different from the first. About 45 minutes from Bordeaux, near Saint Emilion in the South of France, I was fortunate enough to stay in a private chateau and have a tour of their vineyard, and of course sample the crop from a few different vintages.
This was everything you could imagine and expect from an old world winemaker. The heat from the sun beating down on well tended vines painting a perfect picture alongside the beautiful chateau, with the promise of the perfect Bordeaux wine at the end of the day. They had a small crop made for rose, which was a pretty young pink colour, similar to poached salmon. The whole experience was a big tick for the bucket list.
The second vineyard I visited and toured, again privately, which allowed me to fully immerse myself in my surroundings, was quite the opposite.
In the South of England, in the deep hills of Devon not far from the small bohemian town of Totnes, is the Sharpham Vineyard, set within the Sharpham Estate. The vineyard is set on the side of a hill that sweeps down into the Dart Valley with the River Dart curving gracefully through the basin. The long drive down to the site takes in this breathtaking view and I had to stop for a moment to take it all in. I got out of my car and it was 3.5 degrees, a cold day in mid February.
A tour of the facilities showed the wine is matured in large steel vats with a handful of oak barrels out to the side, I got the impression these aren’t used much. The wine is young and the rose was almost ready to be sampled from the 2016 crop. For a small winery, they have an impressive collection and a host of awards to match. Their most popular wine they produce is a classic white called Dart Valley Preserve.
A walk through the vineyard took us down to the River Dart and we snaked our way back up to the winemaking base. Considering the unstable weather conditions in Devon, which can famously give you all four seasons in one day, this is very special place and a credit to its 25 year history.
Taking all this into consideration, below are my notes on the factors affecting wine style, quality and price from the WSET course.
Perhaps most importantly is the Grape Variety.
As with most vegetables and fruits there are different varieties of grapes.
Through centuries of exploring the grape varieties particular vines have been chosen that are more desirable, shown to have pleasant flavour, high yields and resistance to disease and so on.
The type of grape used determines a large part of the character of the wine including the flavour and colour. Different grape varieties have different levels of sugar (for alcohol), acidity and tannins. The reason for not all grape varieties costing the same, ie one Chardonnay from the next Chardonnay, is down to the other factors in the winemaking process which have an important effect of style and quality.
Grapes, like most plants, need carbon dioxide, sunlight, water, warmth and nutrients to grow.
The climate and weather can affect the amount of sunlight, water and heat the grapes get and the soil can be affected by these conditions too which means the availability of nutrients can vary.
Climates suitable for wine production can be divided into three categories: Hot, moderate and cool. Depending on the location of the wine region, this will determine climate the vineyard received. It’s important to understand that the altitude and distance from an ocean can have great effects on this too. A wine region high in altitude will have a cooler climate than one nearer an ocean, even if they’re both in a ‘hot’ region. Similarly Western Europe is not as cold as regions with a similar latitude in North america due to the gulf stream bringing warmer waters in its ocean currents.
The climate can have a dramatic effect on the flavour of the ripe grapes. Each grape variety needs it’s own amount of heat, sunlight and water for the perfect harvest, which can vary greatly from region to region. Some grapes, such as Pinot Noir, need a cooler climate otherwise they over-ripen and similarly Cabernet Sauvignon needs a lot of heat to ripen.
Although Chardonnay bucks the trend slightly, as it can make interesting wines in all three climate categories. The flavours in the wine can leave clues as to the climate.
- Hot climate: more alcohol, fuller body, more tannin, less acidity
- Cool climate: less alcohol, lighter body, less tannin, more acidity.
The weather is key to the style and quality of wines made that year as it varies greatly and can have a lasting impact on certain vintages. This matters greatly for ‘old world’ wines, such as Bordeaux and Champagne, who have vintages each year so the quality could vary dramatically between each vintage depending on the weather. For some of the ‘new world’ wines or branded wines this doesn’t matter as much as they don’t rely on one vintages (year) harvest and can blend varieties from different sites. The most important time is growing season, particularly when the grapes are ripening. In strong weather conditions, such as hail, the grapes skin can get pierced or damaged and then become susceptible rot.
Sunlight is the source of energy that allows the grape to combine cardon dioxide and water into sugar. From a winemaking perspective the sugars are the most important part as these are fermented to become alcohol. Without the combination of these there would be no grape sugars and therefore no alcohol.
Some vineyards which are further away from the equator have taken to planting their vines on the sides of hills that angle towards the sun or near rivers which reflect the sunlight.
If there is not enough rain or underground streams to water the grapes irrigation needs to be installed. Too much water can make grapes bloated, which may mean larger crops but the flavours and sugars will be diluted and the wine will have less alcohol, body and flavour.
In Europe where there is a larger amount of rainfall, the best vineyards are on slopes or soils such as gravel or chalk, which allow the water to drain away.
It’s a fine balance of ensuring just the right amount of water is provided to sustain sugar production. Too much water can also encourage the growth of rot.
Warmth is needed for the production of sugars - but just the right amount. This is why the majority of vineyards are found in a temperature zone between 30 and 50 degrees from the equator. The temperature shifts are more stable.
A vine can keep itself cool by evaporating water through its leaves. In extreme cases the vine may shut down its leaves to prevent the escape of water and the plant drying out, so although there is warmth and heat, no sugars are produced.
The main factors affecting warmth are climate and weather.
The sugars produced by the leaves do not just provide sweetness in grapes, they’re also the building blocks for the whole vine. The grape vine gets most of its source for growth from the carbon dioxide on the air and water obtained via its roots. The plant also needs tiny amounts of nutrients. These are provided by the soil. Grapevines are very tolerant and will grow in a wide range of soils. Provided their enough nutrients the grapes can still be of good quality in poorer soils.
Over the course of the vineyard year, two main factors contribute towards the quality and style of the raw grape. The degree of care taken in the vineyard and the control of yields.
Certain vineyard activities can help all grapes to ripen fully at the same time. These include careful pruning, controlling the number of bunches of grapes on each vine,and careful positioning of the leaves to increase or lower the temperature of the grape bunches, or their degree of exposure to sunlight. These techniques all need intensive labour which is expensive and adds to the overall cost as well as quality.
The other options are minimal pruning and mechanisation, which is only appropriate in large flat vineyards.
Yields also have an effect on the quality. Lower yields can mean greater concentration of flavours with riper grapes, but controlling these by limiting the number of grape bunches can take time. As the crop is smaller each kilogram costs more to grow and therefore the will have to sell for a higher price. Alternatively through irrigation you can maximise yields by filling the grapes with water, although this will mean that the flavours and sugars are diluted and end up being cheap wine. Most wines lie in between these two extremes.
In addition to the effects of the soil, slope, climate, weather and care in the vineyard pests and diseases are damaging to the production of healthy grapes.
Once the grapes have ripened, larger flatter vineyards generally use machines to shake the grapes off their stems. If whole bunch grapes are needed or the vineyard is on a slope, they must be hand-harvested. Top quality wines can be made from either harvesting approach