Sipping the Soils

By: Tom Payette – Winemaking Consultant  

When we taste and evaluate wines we rarely know much about them.  If this is the case at your winery you should seek to change this.  Your winery team will benefit and each person will be amazed at the results.  Europe knows so much more about their terrior because they have allowed themselves to track it.

   Following is an easy system encouraged to our winemaking team in the 1990’s by Mr. Jacques Boissenot.  Mr. Boissenot was a premier left bank Bordeaux consultant awarded, by Decanter Magazine, the title of “Winemaker of the Decade” in July of 2010.  Wine Spectator, after Mr. Boissenot’s death in 2014, referenced him as Bordeaux’s secret weapon.

STARTING: Starting the process may be the most difficult part depending on what you know about your vineyard.  Work with your vineyard teams to get as much data on paper about the specific plots of land and the varietal(s) on them.  Record this data on an easy to read map similar to the older 1990’s photograph below.

Notice the clone and rootstock material have been listed on the aerial photograph of a Napa Valley property but one could just as easily draw this, use computer models or from a satellite image.  This is the start of the process and you can record even more data by researching deeper into the soils. 

  Digging pits, with a backhoe, can reveal a great deal if willing to go that far.  Make several copies of this image for your future harvest(s).  Update it when needed as well.

HARVEST: During the harvest each year make sure to record, beyond typical grape chemistry, the harvest date of each block and to note that on the map.  Assign a lot code to the wine made from that area in the vineyard and do your best to keep the lots pure from any outside blending for at least 8 to 10 months (mostly red wines here).  If blending is forced, due to cellar and tank considerations, do your best to isolate samples or even a carboy just before the blending happens.  Bring that sample to the tasting table when appropriate.  Note from the photograph the date and lettering based on the harvest sequence.

SET UP A MEETING: Set up a meeting every year, or more often, with your vineyard team.  Taste the wines blind and evaluate them.  Have the vineyard give their comments about each wine.  Explain to them the different oak used, yeast or techniques to have them understand to dig deeper into the wines glass to tasting the soils.  If canopy management trials were done and kept separate remind them to search for that and be sure to identify any control lots of each wine as a reference.  Make sure to allow the wines time to open up and for critical tasting of each wine in a relaxed environment.  Don’t rush.  Unveil each lot and speak about them individually.  Note other conditions that may have affected certain nuances beyond the soils such as weather, virus, weak section, frost, irrigation issues, etc.  Dig in with discussion what the soils brought to that specific wine glass at that instance.  Record these observations and distribute them to the team.

EXCHANGE HARVEST STORIES: Talk about the harvest and each lot.  For example: relate to the batch that was on a truck that broke down and the sunshine greatly warmed the fruit.  Do you taste that extra heating?  Was it desired as a wine or not?  Speak about the fruit that was delayed at the crusher and what impact that may have had.  Speak about the extremely successful lots and pinpoint how nice they are.  Why are they so nice?  What variables went into them being so nice?  Share the memories of the harvest and each lot.  You will be amazed at how much each one of you will recall about each day of the harvest down to the minute details.  The team building becomes a huge secondary benefit to this process.

COMMIT TO A DECADE: Most likely the first year of doing this your team will squirm in their chairs and attempt to claim ignorance.  You will all most likely struggle and why shouldn’t you?  There is no base line for what you are doing but you must establish the baseline of knowledge.  It won’t be until years three, four and five that that similarities will start to form and evolve and that’s only if Mother Nature cooperates.  Excitement will start to build and draw everyone into what is happening.  Once the excitement catches on the squirms at the table will turn into well thought out questions and well stated observations. Confidence.  What if we do this next year?  Could we pick the weak lot of Cab Franc separate from the strong rows?  Why does the Merlot on our best land seem thin but tight?  The questions will go on and now the true research and trials can begin.  Make sure you commit to a decade at the very least to make sure this excitement catches on and pays off.  If done properly it will.

BLENDING SESSION: Although the blending session can happen with the same tasting team it will most likely happen with another team.  The discoveries need to be shared after a blind tasting with the blending team.  See if they agree.  Is a certain nuance truly an enhancement or does it push the wine out of balance?  Get their feedback on the lots that are the best. Relate that back to the vineyard, the vineyard management and the soils.  Did anything else contribute to the favorability of the wines?

EVOLVE: Start to slowly evolve as a cohesive vineyard and winery unit toward goals established and agreed upon to pursue.  Small nuances of every aspect of what is happening in both the vineyard and the winery will start to raise questions from each person as to “how did that affect the wine”?  Information will be passed along for certain processes that may have had a positive impact.  The team will be looking for that same positive impact and trying to capture that again with knowledge and intent.   Before they didn’t even know what they were looking for.  Now they do.  Critical thinking of each aspect of growing and winemaking will start to gain traction along with the sharing.

Photo of Pascal Bourreau families’ winery Domaine-Gefaudrie in the Loire

Summary: Promise yourself, if you don’t already track it, that you will formulate a map and start to track the wine lots within that map.  However crude and basic you start is of little importance.  Taste the wine lots individually before blending the wines to relate the vineyard soils to the glass.  Sip the soil.  Once you start to see the results the desire to build on the database will certainly kick in.  In several hundred years we will know as much about our land as Europe does about theirs.

CAUTION! Try not to get too distracted with this new endeavor.  We still have wines to rack, lab tests to do, tanks to empty and bottling schedules to keep.  But ohhhhh what you will learn from this!

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