As even the most gifted winemakers will admit, great wines are made in the vineyard and not in the winery. Thus, knowing about the vineyard should, in theory, reveal a lot about the quality of the wine made from it. Unfortunately, it rarely does. The term "vineyard" is used so loosely today, particularly on wine labels, that it is almost meaningless. Thus, we need to take a closer look at the term, and how it can be helpful to you as a wine consumer.
A good place to start is with Burgundy and Bordeaux. Although considered the two greatest wine regions of France, their respective concepts of a "vineyard" are almost polar opposites. Because most regions follow one model or the other, or borrow pieces of both, understanding these contrasting approaches is important.
Of the two regions, Burgundy comes closest to having what I suspect is the idealized popular conception of a vineyard: a bucolic plot of land, owned and tended by a patient farmer or a devoted winery, making a single great wine. A few famous Burgundy vineyards fit this description almost exactly. For example, the illustrious La Romanee Conti vineyard in the heart of Burgundy's Cote d'Or is a scant 4.5 acres. Every precious square inch is owned and meticulously tended by the Domaine de La Romanee-Conti winery, which will part with one of the 4,800 bottles it produces each year for about $1,000 a pop.
Yet, even in Burgundy, this arrangement is the exception rather than the rule. Such wholly owned vineyards are so rare that they have a special, legally denominated name, monopole (one owner). Most of the other renowned grand cru vineyards, such as Le Chambertin and Le Montrachet, have multiple owners. With multiple ownership, the neat and tidy picture of a "vineyard" starts to look ugly. A notorious illustration is the walled Clos Vougeot. Owned by Cistercian monks a few centuries ago, it is today a patchwork of more than 70 owners, many of whom produce wine unworthy of being called Burgundy, let alone Clos Vougeot. Yet all are entitled to label their wine with the prestigious Clos Vougeot designation.
In Bordeaux, the concept of a vineyard is more like a brand. Despite the incessant chatter about each chateau's unique gout de terroir (taste of the soil), the "vineyard" of most Bordeaux grand crus is actually a series of separate, scattered parcels, rather than a single plot as in Burgundy. Unlike Burgundy, however, the vineyards must be owned exclusively by a single chateau, and all wine sold under the chateau label must come from its own vineyards. This has the advantage of consistency. When you spend $150 on a bottle of Chateau Margaux, you never have to ask whose Chateau Margaux it is, as you would with Clos Vougeot. On the other hand, if you are paying extra for Chateau Margaux's gout de terroir, you might wish to look a bit deeper.
Whatever the advantages or shortcomings of the Burgundy and Bordeaux concepts of a vineyard, understanding them can help you choose a wine of your liking, wherever it comes from. In Napa Valley, for example, do you really want to pay top dollar for a vineyard-
designated wine? Yes, perhaps, if it's from the Fay Vineyard, a superb vineyard owned and bottled exclusively by Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, or the Backus Vineyard, owned and bottled exclusively by Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Perhaps not if it's from a Beckstoffer vineyard, which can be great or not so great, depending on which winery's bottling you are drinking. In addition, some wineries are attempting to impart cachet by labeling their wines with vineyard designations. That doesn't mean much if the vineyard isn't very good to begin with. On the other hand, in cutting through the maze of German wines, recognizing the difference between a vineyard-designated wine (such as Piesporter Goltroepchen) and a commercial, inferior blend (Piesporter Michelsberg) is essential.
Finally, bear in mind that most of the world's great (and good) wines follow the Bordeaux model of blending different vineyards to make the best possible wine. In this case, the surest guide to quality is the integrity and reputation of the winery that puts its brand name on the label.
WINES OF THE WEEK
* Masi Masianco Pinot Grigio and Verduzzo 2004 ($14: Italy): This delectable wine improves on the fresh, fragrant pinot grigio style by an unusual technique, called appassimento, that dates to Roman times. While the pinot grigio grapes are harvested and vinified in the usual way, the native verduzzo grapes are harvested late and then further ripened on racks for three weeks before undergoing fermentation and aging in wood barrels. The effect of the appassimento process is to further intensify the naturally robust flavors of the verduzzo, which is then blended with the pinot grigio to add some needed heft to the wine. Crisp and fragrant, with a delicate hazelnut note imparted on palate via the rack-ripened verduzzo, this is a superb aperitif that also will pair well with steamed Maine lobster, crab and poached fish.
* Red Bicyclette 2004 Chardonnay ($9-$10; France); Red Bicyclette 2004 Syrah ($9-$10; France): Though marketed as so called "fun wines" aimed at younger wine drinkers, these offerings from the Languedoc region of southern France happen to be quite tasty. The chardonnay is made in a lightly oaked, faintly minerally Pouilly-Fuisse style. The syrah has plenty of body, firm red fruit and a lightly smoky bouquet reminiscent of a more expensive Croze-Hermitage. Both are great values.