Many companies are now focused on the production of an icon wine in the belief that it will help market other products in their portfolio. I suppose there is a high degree of self-satisfaction as well for all of the people involved.
Over the last few years, I’ve had several clients in several countries who were on this path, and I was always interested in how they went about it. Sometimes the approaches were (in my opinion) seemingly naive, like…”We just thinned really hard, and then hand-picked,” or, equally as trite…“I went into the vineyard every morning for three weeks and tasted the fruit and looked at seed colour to choose when to harvest. This made all the difference!”
One has to ask, is this all the difference between icon and premium wines, a few simple vineyard manipulations?
When pressed harder, I found it difficult to locate anyone in the winemaking team—including the viticulturist—who could give sound reasons (in my opinion) as to selection and management of vineyards to make icon wines. To develop icon wines is not just a matter of marketing, but of producing a truly distinctive and better wine.
Wineries or Vineyards, the Source of Icon Wines?
I want to recap and look at this notion from a very general perspective. We can conceivably create icon wines by using any of three processes.
Firstly, one may use techniques in the cellar, which will have an unusual but significant wine quality impact. Examples that come to mind from several decades ago were the use of new wood barrels on red wines, and, some years later, for the white wines. By now, most cellars around the world have adequate access to new wood, so that treatment is no longer an icon differential. Nor do I think icon wines can be made by any special yeast strain, or perhaps fermentation process. I should quickly add that the ACE process described in the last issue (achieved by the Della Toffola DTMA machine) certainly produces distinctive wines; however, as its application becomes widespread, its possible use for creating iconic wines becomes less likely. So, from my perhaps limited knowledge, icon wines will likely not be “created in the winery.”
Secondly, some wineries make many small parcels of wine, and the icon may be a selection of their best lots. A valid process, I think, but one which neither guarantees outcome, nor reliability of result from year-to-year. So such wines would not meet normal icon criteria.
Thirdly, is the option of choosing an “icon wine vineyard,” having one or more blocks, or parts thereof, producing distinctive wines. These parcels may be managed differentially to create icon wine.
I have been critical of other people’s approaches to the selection and management of “icon” parcels. Here is their chance to criticize mine.
A Smart Approach to Selection and Management of Icon Vineyards
When I think of growing fruit suitable for an icon wine, I think of an analogy involving a suspended chain holding a weight. Each link in the chain is a different thickness and represents a different vineyard attribute or management process. The weight at the bottom is related to the wine quality outcome and will be heaviest for an icon wine.
The point of this analogy is that if any one link fails, then the whole chain is rendered useless. Those processes or attributes which are the most important can be represented by weaker links in the chain. In other words, it is more important to get these right than some other management options or attributes, which can be represented by stronger links. The important point here is that if any link fails, then the whole chain fails, and the wine quality goal will not be met.
These are the factors which I think are important in growing icon wine, arranged more or less in order of priority. The weaker links, which deserve the most attention, are towards the top.
1. The right climate-variety-clone combination:
I see little sense in trying to make an icon wine from a variety that has no possibility of being especially distinctive. If the variety you have chosen does not already have a reputation for premium wine quality in your region or elsewhere, then the possibility of creating a true icon wine is limited. Please note that I am not endorsing only the limited number of “international varieties.” Icon wines can be made from many varieties, and in a perverse way, it will be likely easier to have wine press attention if you use a not-so-popular variety.
I mention clone because, for some varieties like Pinot Noir, the clone chosen can have a significant outcome on wine quality.
2. Vineyard uniformity and vigour: There is little prospect of making an icon wine from a very large vineyard or one of low uniformity. A uniform vineyard is typically variable in vigour, often due to soil variation, but sometimes due to pest or disease. Unhealthy vines rarely produce quality wines. Variation in vigour can be linked to physiological status and canopy microclimate, and appropriate selection may be used to select vines, which are candidates to provide fruit for icon wines.
3. Vine balance: Proper vine balance is essential for producing premium fruit suitable for icon wines. By vine balance, I mean the ratio of fruit to functional leaf area. Vine balance depends on the pruning level decision, which ideally should be related to vine vigour, and there may also be components of subsequent shoot and cluster thinning. I obviously think vine balance is more important than yield per se, but this, of course, is not the common European perspective.
4. Canopy microclimate: While microclimate requirements may vary from variety-to-variety and season-to-season, in general, there is a need for sufficient leaf and fruit exposure, and the avoidance of shade. There are trellis and foliage management techniques available to achieve such an outcome. My book, “Sunlight into Wine,” details many such procedures and their management.
5. Vine physiological status: There are many aspects of physiological status, and most are regulated by soil moisture, nutrient supply and canopy management decisions. As an example, we have recently found an influence of late-season foliage health on Pinot Noir wine quality.
6. Shoot tip growth: Regulation of shoot tip growth is especially important for red wine quality but also for many white varieties. A good rule of thumb is that active shoot growth should stop some two weeks before veraison, and be associated with early and rapid onset of veraison and lignification.
7. Disease, pest and environmental stress: For most commercial vineyards, this is not an issue; however, heat stress is becoming an increasingly important consideration for many regions worldwide. Failure to adequately control pests or disease and to avoid significant stress can be a cause of diminished fruit quality. Some regions face changing varieties to ones more heat tolerant.
8. Timely harvest decision: Again this is not an issue that it is found wanting in most commercial vineyards. For many varieties, I am skeptical about the claims by enologists that they can determine the optimal time for harvest by tasting grapes, or by determining seed colour in limited berry samples.
9. Excessive yield: I find in many commercial vineyards that yield levels are generally not inappropriate nor excessive. Yet, the first command that comes from the wine company is generally one of yield reduction! In my opinion, in the pursuit of icon wine, the factors listed above are generally more important than vineyard yield, when the vines are in balance.
10.Harvest method: For many situations, it seems to me that harvest method is quite unimportant. What seems more important is the temperature of the fruit and the time taken before processing. I have clients in California who hand harvest at night in a very economical fashion, and this process could be adopted in Australia.
A suggestion to get started, a beginners guide to identifying candidate vines
Decide how much icon wine you want, then calculate how many vines you might need to provide fruit. Walk the vineyards at the beginning of veraison, and mark vines (paint on trunk?) which show early colouring, and early lignification on the basal (bottom) part of the shoot. Typically these vines should not have active shoot tip growth. Hopefully, you may have enough vines to make your icon wine, though the average yield might be a little less. A second inspection about two weeks later should confirm your selection.
Generally, these ideas are not new, but one does not often see them ranked as I have. I would emphasize that each of these entries can be readily quantified, and it would be easy to develop a protocol of measurement systems as a form of quality assurance of events. Anyone interested in making icon wine the smart way?
Dr. Richard Smart is an experienced Australian vineyard consultant residing in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He specializes in internet consulting, using commercial software to interact with clients worldwide in their office and vineyards. Contact him at email@example.com for a quotation and appointment.