Wine is an expression of terroir. Or is it?

In a recent issue of the Wine Spectator Jim Laube wrote a column titled “Dim Somms”. This article touched in part on a group of American sommeliers who are expressing an antipathy for wines with elevated alcohol levels. Our winemaking team here at Halter Ranch does a lot of comparative tastings, and the level of alcohol in a wine is always salient to the discussion of a wine’s character. A wine’s alcohol level is one of its most important attributes. Over the past few years there has been a seemingly global rising of the level of alcohol in wine. Many of the most highly rated wines now approach alcohol levels that have traditionally been reserved for dessert wines like Port. Often, when I query winemakers about these changes in winemaking styles I am provided an explanation of the term terroir, generally accompanied by the sentence “I am just working with my terroir”.

This, in turn, has caused me to ponder the concept of terroir. To my mind, terroir refers to influences on a wine that are ecto-anthropic (my word), meaning outside of human influence. Examples of terroir influences would be topography, soil type, rainfall, and temperatures. These influences are either immutable (topography and soil type), or otherwise out of man’s control on an annual basis (temperature and rainfall). In the world of wine, what other influences is terroir up against? The following is my attempt to conceptualize and organize the various influences on a finished wine.

I have divided up the anthropic influences into three groups: planting, cultivating and viniculture. These groups roughly correlate to activities that happen once when a vineyard is first being planted, activities that happen in the vineyard on an annual basis, and activities that happen once the fruit has been harvested.

Planting: Initially someone must select a site for a vineyard. In doing so, they implicitly select a certain terroir as mentioned above, topography, soil type, rainfall and temperatures. Upon this terroir are layered decisions about root stock, clones, row orientation, plant density, trellising system and whether the vineyard will be set up to be dry-farmed or irrigated.

Cultivating: Following installation, the vineyard crew has their protocols, each of which is meant to illicit from the vineyard specific influences on the crop’s quality and qualities. These include pruning, spur positioning, trellising, canopy management, whether or not the vines are irrigated, cluster thinning and finally, yield.

Viniculture: Ultimately the winemaker will call for the pick and the fruit will be brought in—at a certain brix level. (Brix is a measure of solids dissolved in a liquid, in this case sugar dissolved in the grape juice.) If left undiluted and fermented dry, the brix level determines the eventual alcohol level. Once the fruit is brought in to the winery there are a whole host of new decisions and activities: do we de-stem the fruit or ferment whole cluster, do we crush the grape or leave it intact, what pre-fermentation protocols might we employ (cold soaking, pump overs), once the juice is fermenting do we punch down the cap or pump over it, what type of vessel do we ferment in, at what temperature do we ferment, and then when do we drain the tank and call it a day? Now that we have finished fermenting the wine, it is time to age it. This requires a new set of decisions; what kind of vessel do we age the wine in — stainless steel tank, barrel (new, used, French or American), or concrete — do we undergo malolactic fermentation, do we stir the lees, how often if at all do we rack the wine (and if so, how do we rack the wine), length of aging, filtering or fining and finally, what type of container do we put the wine in (bottle with cork, screw top or keg)?

Our winemaker, Kevin Sass, and his winemaking team do a lot of experimenting, both in the vineyard and in the winery. We know from experience that all of these decisions and activities greatly influence the ultimate product. (Why else would we have selected practices?) Which brings me back to the concept of terroir and alcohol levels. There is no doubt that a vineyard’s terroir greatly influences the resulting wine. My supposition is that the lighter the hand (the more neutral the protocols) in the winemaking, the greater will be the vineyard’s terroir’s resultant influence. At Halter Ranch winemaking begins with our vineyard’s terroir, and our vineyard and winery protocols are selected by us in order to craft a final wine in the style we are seeking.   We determine yields, brix levels at harvest and the subsequent winery protocols very conscientiously, with specific desired outcomes for each wine that we make. Certainly, vintage conditions and terroir set the stage on a macro level, but we humans exert an enormous amount of influence at the micro level. Alcohol levels are part of this decision making. process.

Few wine lovers want to drink the same wine every day. What I select to open depends on my mood, my company and my meal. Some occasions call for light wines, others demand richer, heavier wines. Tant mieux. Let’s all celebrate the diversity of our winemaking community and the myriad options they offer us.

Can everyone say cheers!



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