A STRATEGICALLY situated vineyard, with old vines, the correct soil and rich ripe grapes, is a prerequisite to producing grape wine. Yet, as important as these components are, it is the winemaker who controls the ultimate style and quality of the wine. The winemaker makes all the important decisions regarding the care of the vineyard and the handling of the grapes. Consequently, great grapes from superbly located vineyards can be ruined by incompetence or overproduction, while mediocre, underripe grapes from unheralded vineyards can produce surprisingly good wines when meticulously handled by a gifted winemaker.
Usually in consultation with a viticulturist, the winemaker's decisions relate both to the cultivation of the grape and to the nature of the vinification.
One of the winemaker's initial decisions is the degree to which the vineyard is to be fertilized. Will the winery utilize chemical fertilizer, aiming for high yields and a reduction in quality, or restrict fertilization to organic manure and composts? The most conscientious wineries are reluctant to use anything other than organic fertilizers, such as grape skins or manure, in the vineyard.
Another factor that affects the final quality of the wine is the degree of pruning the winery decides upon. The purpose of pruning is to limit the yield of the vine, thereby concentrating the intense character of the variety in as few grapes as possible. The finest wineries believe in intense pruning to limit production and increase the intensity of the varietal characteristics.
Perhaps the most critical aspects of the viticultural management and an essential in the production of top-flight wines are the age of the vines and the replantation scheme. There is a direct relationship between the age of the vines and quality of the wine produced. The older the vine, the better the wine. However, old vines are the least productive, and despite the high quality of the wine produced from a 50- or 60-year-old vine, economics often dictate pulling out such ancient vines and replanting with younger ones. Many of the world's finest wine estates deplore pulling out old vines even though the amount of wine produced from a 60- or 70-year-old vine is too small to be economically feasible. However, the majority of wineries today refuse to retain vines older than 30 years, preferring, instead, to replant with younger vines that produce more, but infinitely inferior, wine.
There are other viticultural decisions to be made. Which grapes are most suitable for the soil? Are chemical sprays to be employed to prevent mold and rot on the grape? Should grapes be picked early or be allowed to ripen for several more days, at the risk of rain?
While proper viticultural management is essential for producing healthy, high-quality grapes, the method of vinification and treatment of the wine in the wine cellar is even more critical to the ultimate quality of the wine. It is the vinification of the wine that gives it its soul and personality.
The first decision that must be made prior before vinification is whether the grapes are to be de-stemmed. De-stemming involves separating the stalks from the grapes before they enter the fermentation vat. The advantage attributed to de-stemming is that the wine is more supple to drink. In addition, the potential for vegetal flavors and harsh tannins and astringency is diminished by complete de-stemming of the grapes. Wine made from grapes that are not de-stemmed is often impossible to drink in its youth, evolves more slowly and often is more tannic. In the long run, though, these wines promise greater complexity and intensity. The debates will go on and on as to whether complete de-stemming, partial de-stemming or no de-stemming renders a better wine. The importance for the consumer is that ready-to-drink, supple wines can be produced only by a complete de-stemming of the grapes before fermantation.
The fermentation itself is the process in which the grape sugar is converted to alcohol. It is referred to as an alcoholic fermentation and usually lasts from three to eight days. At the conclusion of the alcoholic fermentation, the winemaker must make one of the most important decisions affecting the style of the wine: the length of time for maceration-cuvaison (how long the grape skins remain in contact with the grape juice). The length of time that the wine remains in the fermentation vat can be varied from as short as three or four days to as long as 30 days. If the winemaker decides to produce a light and supple wine for immediate consumption, the period in which the wine will remain in contact with the skins will be very short, usually no longer than seven days. However, if the winemaker has decided to make a wine with high tannin content and concentrated fruity flavors, the maceration period will be much longer, up to three to four weeks.
The winemaker must also decide the temperature of the fermentation. Wines that are meant to be consumed immediately are usually fermented at cooler temperatures to retain a lot of fruit. However, when fermented at cool temperatures there is not as much extraction of necessary elements for long-term development, and the wine should be consumed young. When a winemaker decides to ferment the wine at very warm temperatures, the color and extract is much richer, and the tannin content, necessary for preservation of the wine, is much higher.
After the fermentation is complete and the winemaker has decided the style of wine desired, he or she will often blend back into the wine juice that is called vin de presse. Vin de presse is obtained by pressing the grape skins that have been in contact with the grape juice, after they have been removed from the fermentation vat. Vin de presse has very intense characteristics; it is extremely tannic, rich in flavor and coarse. Many winemakers believe that by blending in 10 to 15 percent vin de presse the longevity of the wine will be greater and the character of the wine will be more profound. A winemaker who decides to blend in some vin de presse is obviously trying to produce a wine with plenty of body, tannin and structure. However, many winemakers today decide not to add any of the vin de presse to the wine because they want a more supple, easier-to-drink wine which will mature earlier.
After the wine is assembled, the wine will often be put in small oak barrels for aging. Today most white wines are given minimal aging in oak. However, some of the finest chardonnays of California and white wines of France are kept one to two years in oak barrels to provide complexity and to obtain tannin from the oak barrels. The amount of time that a wine spends in oak will greatly influence its flavor and its amount of tannin. A wine that is kept in new oak barrels will pick up a lot more tannin than a wine that is aged in older oak barrels. Today most of the best California cabernet sauvignons and bordeaux of France are aged one and a half to two years in small oak barrels. A wine that is kept in an oak barrel for less than a year is usually destined to be consumed early, and has a fairly short life span.
Another decision a winemaker must make is when to fine a wine, and whether the wine is to be filtered. Fining is a procedure in which wines are clarified by the use of a fining agent, usually egg white, which is put in the cask of wine. Suspended particles within the wine are attracted to the egg white and are precipitated to the bottom of the cask. Fining clarifies and stablilizes a wine. However, some wines can be overfined, which eviscerates amd damages the quality of the wine.
One of the most controversial vinification procedures is filtration. This is usually carried out immediately prior to the bottling operation. Many of the finest winemakers believe that filtration, no matter how slight, robs the wine of life and body. However, there are contrary opinions from many respected wine people who believe that filtration is necessary to stabilize the wine and prevent potential spoilage problems. This issue probably will never be settled, but my personal experience tasting filtered and unfiltered wines is that the unfiltered wines always seem to have more flavor and character than wines that have been filtered.
Of course, there are numerous other decisions the winemaker must make regarding the quality of the wine. Regardless of the historical significance of a vineyard, it is man who determines the quality of the wine produced.