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In a land of fire and smoke, fine wines are born

July 18, 2017 Comments off
etnarossol

The lava flows of Mt. Etna are the background for the rich microclimates in Sicily’s vineyards. Photo courtesy Hotel La Perla 

Fire and lava normally aren’t considered attributes for producing elegant wines.

But for Chiara Vigo, who makes unadorned natural wines on her family’s estate, Fattorie Romeo del Castello, in the shadow of Sicily’s Mt. Etna, having an active volcano in her backyard is a way of life.

“For us, it’s a part of our life, something we see every day,” said Chiara during a brief conversation last spring at Vini Veri, a three-day gathering of natural wine makers in Cerea, Italy.

In 1981, when Chiara still was a young girl, well before she went off to earn a Ph.D in art and before she became a wine maker, Etna erupted, spewing ash and smoke and sending rivers of lava down its side.

One lava flow, which Chiara described as tall as a house, approached the estate, which grew grapes, olives and hazelnuts on roughly 60 hectares (about 145 acres) on Etna’s north side.

Chiara Vigo, Gianluca Torrisi

Chiara Vigo and Gianluca Torrisi show the 2013 Vigo during Vini Veri this spring in Cerea, Italy. Photo by Dave Buchanan

“We thought we would have to leave and lose everything, but when the lava arrived at the part of the old vineyard, it changed direction,” recalled Chiara in a story she’s told countless times.

Instead of engulfing the vineyard, the river of molten rock turned to the east, toward the Alcantra River.

“So now we have a vineyard with a big flow of lava rock inside the vineyard,” she said.

The 1981 eruption wasn’t Etna’s largest or even its most-recent but it does emphasize a certain aspect of danger not usually associated with winemaking, where the prevalent major threats are pests, bad weather and changing markets.

“You see the signs (of the volcano) everywhere,” said Vigo. “But it’s the lava rocks that give us such rich soil and make our wines special.”

That 1981 eruption left her family with 24 hectares (about 57 acres) of Nerello Mascalese vines, some just now starting to produce but also about 14 hectors of 70-100-year old vines in vineyards that reach close to 4,000 feet elevation. Here, under the Romeo del Castello label, she creates what might be called super-organic wines, going beyond the European organic certification and just short of biodynamic: without pesticides or added chemicals and using natural yeasts.

“We try to use the methods of the past traditions of Etna,” she said in the hubbub of La Fabbrica, the vast building in which Vini Veri 2017 was held. “We plant beans in the vineyards to feed the vines.”

This nonintrusive way of adding nitrogen and building the soil now is used by many producers of natural and organic wines.

“And it means instead of using herbicides, we cut the grass” between the rows, she said.

Grapes are hand-harvested and fermented using natural yeasts in open wooden vats.

The wines are aged in oak casks for about 14 months before being bottled without fining or filtration.

“We use only a little sulphur and only when we bottle,” she explained.

She makes two wines, both DOC Etna Rosso: the Vigo made only during the best vintages and the Allegracore, fermented in stainless steel instead of oak.

lava rocks on Vigo

The 1981 eruption of Mt. Etna left this wall of lave bordering the vineyards of Fattorie Romeo del Castello. Photo –  Louie Dressner Selections.

Sicily has more than 2,500 years of winemaking history (Nerello Mascalese has been grown on the Etna slopes for at least 200 years) but production was decimated when phylloxera arrived in the 1930s. While the island once had a reputation as a major producer of bulk wines, over the last 20 years its winemaking has become as complex as anywhere in the world.

Extended harvests (starting in August in the south to extending to mid-November on Etna’s slopes), rich soils and the new fervor of enlightened producers bring an exciting air to this island’s wine futures. In his book “Brunello to Zibibbo,” author Nicholas Belfrage, a British Master of Wine, argued that Sicily has the potential to be “California, Australia, Chile, southern France, Jerez and middle Italy all rolled into one.”

But as someone who lives everyday with the threat of an active volcano looming over her shoulder, Chiara Vigo shrugged at that proclamation.

“It’s true the wines of Etna have changed a great deal in the last 10 or 15 years,” she said. “I make our wines to reconnect with our ancestors and I can’t imagine doing it any way else.”

She pause while opening her 2013 Vigo. “It’s just another way to think, and to see agriculture and to see the earth. It’s our future.”

 

Her wines are imported by Louie Dressner Selections.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wineries shine like gold during Governor’s Cup competition

July 12, 2017 Comments off
2017 Colo Gov's cup judges

Judges at the 2017 Colorado Governor’s Cup Wine Competition swirled, sniffed and sipped through 346 wines during the two-day event. Among the judges pictured are, from left, Jenni Baldwin-Eaton (plaid shirt), Warren Winiarski and Wayne Belding, closest to camera.  Story/photo by Dave Buchanan

The 2017 Colorado Governor’s Cup Wine Competition came and went over the weekend and of the 12 wines selected for the Governor’s Case were two white wines (including a sparkling Albariño), seven red wines, one fruit wine, one cider and a mead.

The Best of Show wine will be announced Aug. 3 when all the medal winners are celebrated at the official Colorado Governor’s Cup Tasting held at History Colorado Center, 1200 Broadway in Denver. Information here.

This year’s judging featured 324 wines from 46 wineries, a welcome jump of about 25 percent over last year in both categories but still well short of where the competition could be. Colorado now has close to 150 wineries, so less than a third of them take part in the contest.

Wineries offer many reasons for not entering this and other competitions, like they simply forget to send their applications in time or it costs too much or they don’t have the wine to spare. But just as Colorado Mountain Winefest brings Colorado wines to a diverse audience, in the end the Governor’s Cup contest is a boon to the state industry.

The 12 selected wines in the Governor’s Cup case are used to promoted Colorado and Colorado wines and are featured at state dinners and marketing events.

It’s notable to add that this year’s entries in the cider/mead category also eclipsed last year, indicating the continued growth of artisanal ciders and meads. Well, ciders, anyway.

Four ciders and three meads were selected for the final round of judging, which again raised the familiar argument of whether there should be a separate competition for the non-grape segment of the wine industry. You can argue all you want as to whether ciders and meads actually are wines or should be in their own category but you’ll get no take from this side.

Last year there was a separate six-pack case of ciders and meads selected to accompany the regular Governor’s Cup case but this year it will be a mixed case. There was some discussion about separating the judging (that’s been tried in the past with fruit wines) and having separate Best of Show awards and Governor’s Cup cases for grape wines and for cider and mead. The problem is that separation adds to the cost of the competition.

The Governor’s Cup case wines (and their respective medals) includes: Bookcliff Vineyards (2016 Riesling, double gold); Carlson Vineyards (2015 Tyrannosaurous Red, gold); Colorado Cellars/Rocky Mountain Vineyards (nv Raspberry, double gold); Colorado Cider Company (Grasshop-ah cider), double gold); Creekside Cellars (2014 Cabernet Franc, double gold); and Guy Drew Vineyards (2015 Syrah, double gold).

Also: Meadery of the Rockies (Strawberry/Honey, gold); The Infinite Monkey Theorem (2013 Albariño (sparkling), double gold); Two Rivers Winery (2013 Port, double gold); Decadent Saint the Winery (2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, gold); Whitewater Hill Vineyards (2016 Sweetheart Red, double gold) and Winery at Hold Cross Abbey (2015, Merlot, gold). The final medal total was eight double gold medals, 16 gold medals, 140 silver and 103 bronze, totally 267 medals out of the 346 entries.

 

 

 

A short history of how Chardonnay became America’s No. 1 white wine

June 4, 2017 Comments off
Nancy checking frost damage

Chardonnay is the world’s fifth-most planted grape but it still needs some attention. Here, winemaker Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Vineyards near Grand Junction, Co., checks on some new buds following a light frost.

Chardonnay has been part of American winemaking since at least 1882, when Charles Wetmore planted the vine in his vineyard in Livermore Valley east of San Francisco.

Other plantings followed and in 1912 Ernest Wente, son of C.H. Wente, founder of the winery of the same name in Livermore Valley, convinced his father to import some Chardonnay cuttings from Montpellier University in France.

Carl Wente also brought in some cuttings from the historic Gier Vineyard in Pleasanton, Cal., and gradually Wente developed his own clones.

Today, there are nearly 100,000 acres of Chardonnay planted in California and it’s estimated 80 percent of those vines are the Wente clone.

Wente also bottled the first labeled Chardonnay in 1936, and today Wente, in its fifth generation of family winemakers, bills itself as “The First Family of Chardonnay.”

In the 1970s, thanks to America’s growing interest in wine, especially a food-friendly wine that’s also a superb cocktail wine, and one whose name offered a bit of cachet to a novice wine-drinker’s vocabulary, Chardonnay rapidly became, and still is, America’s No. 1 white wine.

Popularity means more production and as production increased, overall quality suffered.

Chardonnay is a fairly neutral grape and a winemaker can affect the final result without too much effort.

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‘No Oak’ Chardonnay gained popularity after a consumer backlash over winemakers using too much oak to flavor their wines.

Some winemakers, preferring to let their vineyards and the grape show themselves without added influences, use non-reactive stainless-steel tanks for fermenting and aging to get the purest expression of the grape itself (call this the French or Burgundian style).

However, like a lot of grapes, Chardonnay also reacts well to aging in oak barrels (mainly French, American or Hungarian). However, too much oak can be deleterious.

A subtle touch of oak (with hints of vanilla, spice, caramel) can highlight Chardonnay’s natural flavors. But too much oak can overwhelm and instead of Chardonnay it tastes like crème brule.

And, of course, some winemakers tried to disguise poor winemaking by adding a lot of oak, sometimes foregoing barrels in favor of oak staves or chips.

“Winemakers must have figured that if a little oak was good, a lot must be even better,” said winemaker Nancy Janes at Whitewater Hill Vineyards and Winery on Orchard Mesa in western Colorado. “Luckily, that stopped.”

Following the inevitable backlash, including a widespread consumer revolt known as ABC (Anything But Chardonnay), winemakers have come back to a more-balanced use of oak.

Today many wineries offer both oak and no-oak choices.

“I’m seeing some consumers going back to a more-oaky style,” said Janes, who was one of the first in the Grand Valley to offer a no-oak Chardonnay. “Not the level of 15 years ago but more of a light oak touch.”

She offers both a no-oak style and a lightly oaked Reserve Chardonnay, the latter rapidly becoming one of her more-popular wines.

Wente also offers a selection of oak and no-oak Chardonnays, including Eric’s Chardonnay, a special, artisan-style Small Lot offering  “preserving the delicate flavors of the fruit” and “expression of the vineyard terroir,” said fifth-generation winemaker Karl Wente.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Kissing frogs: Finding the right Chardonnay for you

June 4, 2017 Comments off
Fall chardonnay

Chardonnay vines after the 2016 harvest in Colorado wine country. Chardonnay grows well in many different regions and can be adapted to many different styles.

As the Colorado summer approaches (albeit hesitantly at times), and with it the seasonal change in our dining and drinking habits, wine drinkers find themselves lured more and more to a glass of chilled white wine.

Reds are fine for winter and for those moments when the barbecue is turning out well-charred slabs of meat, but the lighter fare of warm-weather meals calls for a well-chilled (not too chilled) white wine.

Consumers have many choices in white wine and while some varieties such as Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier will always have their time in the sun, data reveals Chardonnay remains the favorite white wine of the American wine consumer.

A recent email from New York-based Nike Communications said a 2016 survey of consumer habits revealed 42 percent of U.S. white-wine drinkers said they prefer Chardonnay.

Chardonnay sales in the U.S. in 2016 totaled almost $2 billion dollars, representing nearly 20 percent of all wine sales, amounting to more than 58 million gallons of Chardonnay, enough to fill more than 80 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

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Finishing the 2016 Chardonnay harvest in Colorado’s Grand Valley AVA.

So popular is Chardonnay it even has its own holiday, which you might have missed. National Chardonnay Day (May 25) may or may not entitle you to a long weekend but it certainly opens the door for a glass of wine.

Chardonnay’s popularity isn’t surprising, since Chardonnay comes in many styles, is widely available and generally affordable, and is easy to pronounce.

The latter isn’t just a punch line. Most people won’t order something you can’t pronounce, a fact noted by the late Robert Mondavi who in 1968 introduced his drier (less-sweet) version of Sauvignon Blanc by, at least in some versions of this story, changing the name to Fumé Blanc. This not only was in deference to the popular dry Loire Valley wines made from Sauvignon Blanc but also in hopes people could pronounce Fumé Blanc.

The U.S. remains a #Chardonnation, as the people at Nike Communications like to put it, and according to some Nielsen data, is America’s most-asked for wine variety, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, and Pinot Noir.

Why? Because people like the way Chardonnay tastes.

“I love this grape, it’s such a nice food wine,” said winemaker Nancy Janes at Whitewater Hill Vineyard on Orchard Mesa. “It’s sometimes hard for me to pin down the complexity of Chardonnay but it’s so food friendly.”

Riesling may be known as the world’s most-transparent grape because it shows its place of origin so clearly, but Chardonnay may well be the most-neutral and the grape winemakers love most to work with.

It grows almost everywhere and can be adapted to nearly any style, from lean and crisp to buttery and round, heavily fermented in oak barrel or completely non-oaked in stainless steel.

Chardonnay, by its nature, benefits from the judicious use of oak but by that very mutability led to a downturn in Chardonnay’s popularity when a consumer backlash against the increasing use of oak and oak flavorings (some fad, some to cover sins in winemaking) brought on a consumer backlash in the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement.

Recently, however, the general movement in winemaking is back toward using oak as a highlight, not the feature, although there still are many people who want a mouth-filling, buttery Chardonnay.

It’s been said you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince or princess, and the same might be said of Chardonnay. It takes some research (tough, but someone has to do it) to find the right Chardonnay for you, but given its abundance and popularity, the field work will be rewarding by itself.

 

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized

On the heels of an early spring, winter makes a comeback

April 21, 2017 Leave a comment
Clouds over Prosecco

The cloudy precursors of this week’s cold snap loom over young Glera grapes in the Prosecco DOC. – Dave Buchanan

As I was boarding a plane Wednesday morning at the Verona airport, I turned to look to the north.

A fierce, cold wind whipped the open tarmac and a line of clouds boiled over the Alps, harbingers of the storm to come.

“It looks bad,” said a fellow passenger, with whom I had been talking earlier in the airport. He eyed the massive front moving south over the land. “It might be a bad night for winemakers.”

And indeed it was. As Jeremy Parzens reported Friday in his blog, newspapers across northern Italy are reporting temperatures Thursday night reaching well below zero (C) and fears of widespread damage to grapes, tomatoes, asparagus and other agricultural products.

The cold arrived after days of springlike weather and is feared to have devastating affects on the economy, although it’s still a bit early to tell how great.

MALTEMPO: COMUNE BOLOGNA, PRONTI SALE E 60 SPAZZANEVE

More than 3 million tomato seedlings and 450 hectares of vineyards were damaged by Thursday’s frost in Emilia-Romagna. Photo by ANSA

In Valdobiaddene, famed for its Prosecco DOCG, growers woke Thursday to frost on the Glera vines after temperatures dropped to 1 below zero. And another frost is expected for tonight (Friday, April 22). This after what had been an early start to the growing season and lots of tender new shoots on the vines.

Other fruit growers (the area produces apricots and kiwi, among other crops) also expect to see damage to their young fruit.

“The weather this year is scary,”‘ said Stefania Kofler, chairman of the fruit growing sector of Confagricoltura Treviso.

Il Gazettino in Pordenone reported that additional damage could put the local “viticulture and fruit cultivation on its knees.” The reporter, David Lisette, noted that this isn’t the region’s first experience with late spring frosts, but other stories said the occurrent of events is increasing.

Lisette cites a statement from Coldiretti, the agricultural federation of Emilia-Romagna, where temperatures fell to 3 degrees below zero (27 F), which said the sudden swings in temperatures, and recent “heavy impacts on agriculture” including “the rapid transition from drought to flood, short and violent rainfall accompanied by hail and (f)rost” is part of the changing climate occurring across Italy.

And ANSA, the Italian version of our Associated Press, said such climate impacts have resulted in a loss of 1.billion (euros) in agricultural products over the past 10 years. The story was accompanied by the photo shown here, of a well-frosted tomato plant.

 

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized

A natural desire for better wine offers choices for the consumer

March 28, 2017 Leave a comment
032917 FD JRHill organics

A sampling of the selection of organic, natural wines, spirits and ciders available from Lance and Anna Hanson of Jack Rabbit Hill Farm on Redlands Mesa. The Hanson’s products will be featured during Colorado Natural Wine Week, April 17-22. Photo courtesy of Lance Hanson

Cerea, Italy – I knew I was in for a winetasting like no other when I turned to my host for a translation and he winked knowingly.

“Think Topo Gigio,” he said with a Cheshire’s grin.

Topo Gigio? That big-eared Italian TV-star mouse from the 1960s and ‘70s?

“You mean, she said ‘mousey’?” I offered, and he nodded.

“You never know what you’ll get with a natural wine,” he said with a delighted grin.

We were in the renovated furniture factory-turned expo space in the village of Cerea, Italy,

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The initial approach to a natural wine is one of investigation and personal definition. What makes a natural wine different and what am I looking for in a wine? Photo courtesy of ViniVeri

about 30 minutes south of Verona, attending Day 2 of ViniVeri 2016. This wine fair is devoted solely to natural wines, those made through organic or biodynamic farming and without the interventionist methods of conventional wines.

There were about 300 other natural wine lovers wandering the space, talking to 100 or so producers, representatives and distributors, and sharing thoughts on what may happen when a winemaker lets nature run its course in the winery.

The answer, of course, is as subjective as all wine preferences tend to be. There are no international standards as to what an organic or natural wine can be, although at the least they are organically grown, hand-harvested and made with minimal human intervention.

I sought out Lance Hanson, co-owner, along with wife Anna, of Jack Rabbit Hill Farm on Redlands Mesa near Hotchkiss, Colorado. Hanson makes true-to-the-essence wines, spirits and ciders, all using local, organically grown fruit and fermented and distilled in a natural manner.

“We had this idea of making place-driven or terroir driven wines inspired by the organic growers in this area,” said Hanson, whose organic farm was certified biodynamic in 2008 by Demeter USA. “It was that (certification) experience that introduced us to the idea of really making and producing wine in the same way we farm: Low-input, very light handling, non-interventionist.”

One standard for a natural wine is that either biodynamic or organic farming techniques must be used.

Most important, however, is the lack of additives, something most people notice the first time they taste a natural wine.

Those missing the additives are what “hide or mask the character of the wine,” Hanson said. “It’s our opportunity to take advantage of the unique character of the fruit grown here and create a unique product.”

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The wines of Paolo Bea of Montefalco in Italy’s Umbria region were among those featured at ViniVeri 2016. Bea is one of that country’s quintessential artisanal wine producers. Photo: Dave Buchanan

One winemaker I spoke with at ViniVeri said he was at first put off by the strange flavors in his mouth but then realized he was, for the first time, actually tasting the wine itself.

“Now, I can’t drink a commercial wine,” he said.

No commercial yeasts, no chemicals, no enzymes or flavorings, no Mega Purple to make it darker or reverse osmosis or cryoextraction to make it sweeter or more-concentrated, all of which are common in conventional wines. This is low intervention, hands-off winemaking.

Jeff Gordinier last year said in an article in the New York Times that “when you leave additives out, that means anything goes, with flavors that can be all over the map.”

That unrestrained latitude is one of the attractions of natural wines and one of the reasons natural wines lovers, well, love natural wines. You must have a sense of adventure and willingly check your prior attitudes regarding fermented grape juice at the door before entering.

Was our “mousey” wine bad, in the sense of being “off”? Not necessarily. It wasn’t undrinkable, just unexpected.

But none of the 100 or so natural and organic wines we tasted over two days were like anything I’ve ever had. Most were intriguing, beguiling, mysterious, deserving of more than a quick swirl, sip and dump before moving on to the next.

“That exactly it,” Hanson said when quizzed. “How do I let the fruit express itself in a bottle of wine without getting in its way? That’s what natural winemaking is all about.”

Which is where Colorado Natural Wine Week, set for the Denver/Boulder area on April 17-22, comes in.

You can spend the week days attending seminars by and about winemaker and numerous in-store tastings and extend your nights with wine-bar takeovers and special dinners with selected winemakers. Restaurants in both cities will offer Natural Wine Week specials.

The main event is the public Grand Showcase from 4:30-8:30 p.m. on April 19 at the Space Gallery, 400 So. Santa Fe in Denver.  Tickets are $39/$75 and are available online at coloradonaturalwineweek.org.

And if you’re in Italy in early April, ViniVeri 2017 takes place April 7-9, again in Cerea.

The demand for natural wines is growing, albeit with growing pains including a pushback from conventional and commercial wineries. Maybe it’s a sign of the maturation of the American wine palate that drinkers are willing to explore beyond their comfort zone, to allow themselves some freedom of expression in their glass.

One can hope.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Wine, starting at the ground up

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The view across the North Fork Valley is one of diverse terrors, all producing a sense of place in the agriculture and people of the region.

 

One of the most-revealing ways to visit a winery is to walk its vineyards. This long has been popular as a way to get close to the very land that grows the grapes. You may smell, touch and even taste what it is winemakers are talking about when promoting the importance of terroir, “minerality”, and the like.

The concept of “terroir” can encompass many variants but it has been best served by several writers as the “somewhereness” of a wine, meaning the sum of those factors contributing to a sense of place from which a wine comes.

I’ve spent hours in vineyards with grape growers explaining the differences in soil texture, color and mineral/chemical content and then retiring to tasting rooms where all the strands converge and are revealed in the glass.

If, as it often is, the grape grower and the winemakers are the same person (or work closely together), the message you received in the vineyards is the same message speaking to you from the glass.

However, with the recent discovery of the vine-devastating phylloxera louse in Colorado’s vineyards, the opportunity is gone to walk vineyards (the louse can spread from one vineyard to another by the soil on your shoes) but you still you can look from a distance and, of course, talk to the winemakers about the most-basic of the tools they work with.

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Luca Formentini of Podere Selva Capuzza in Brescia, Italy, explains to visitors the importance of the soil to his wines.

While the type and condition of the soil is a common topic of discussion in other winemaking regions, I’ve rarely heard the topic presented in Colorado tasting rooms. Maybe the hosts and hostesses just don’t get asked, or maybe there’s a feeling that the audiences may quickly go glassy-eyed at the very mention of soil chemistry.

And, indeed, some wine critics are skeptical of the concept of terroir or that a vine’s roots can absorb and transfer flavor-enhancing compounds from the soil to the roots.

There’s an interesting article (at least to the stone-suckers among us) about the role of soil to terroir and wine flavors on the wineanorak.com site. The New York Times’ wine critic Eric Asimov recently wrote about the “many variables” that go into “making a wine from a particular place can often be overwhelmed by grape-growing and winemaking decisions.”

This, he argues, loses the “intricacies of terroir” that one finds in wines from, say, Burgundy where that expression “has been raised to a high art.”

He does emphasize, terroir not withstanding, that “the human element” remains uppermost in winemaking. A talented winemaker (the human element) can make good wines no matter where the grapes come from, that’s a given. And that same winemaker learns to use the flavors of the terroir to the wine’s best advantage.

Now let’s return to Colorado wines. I’m often asked (it’s the nature of the job) for my favorite Colorado wine and over the years I’ve discovered there isn’t one, only favorite winemakers.

I’m a firm believer in the role of terroir (I wrote about it here) and this valley and the North Fork Valley have immense ranges of terroir. The Grand Valley has sandy terraces on the west and heavy clay soils on the east, with a few ancient riverbeds, floodplains and long-dry lakebeds thrown in.

The most-obvious example might be in the North Fork, where the Gunnison River divides the landscape into distinct geological regions, volcanic on one side, lots of Mancos Shale across the river, and the wines reflect those differences.

The wines might not taste exactly alike, depending on their origin (part of the terroir). Even grapes from within the same vineyard can taste differently, which is what French winemakers learned centuries ago.

You can test this: Find a winery that makes estate-grown wines and also makes wines from purchased grapes and see if you can distinguish place-of-origin (estate grown) vs. winemaker’s touch theory.

It’s certainly not a bad thing that the human element has a determining role in a wine’s finished product, and you may find it’s not the place or the grape but the winemaker that lifts your spirits.

– Story and photos by Dave Buchanan