- By Igor Serdyuk
- Jun. 18 2015 00:00
wine critic, columnist
At a wine tasting event where discerning members of the public were offered the chance to grade Californian wines, the chairman of an American organization gave the opening address. Confidently and without a shade of doubt, he said Californian wines are of the finest quality because California has an ideal climate. In fact, the wines turned out to be quite decent. After the tasting, however, I began to suspect something was amiss in the oenological chain of cause and effect.
The suspicion grew from my knowledge of classic winemaking, where there appears to be no direct relation between the quality of wine and the "ideal climate." On the contrary, almost all knowledge of outstanding wine and terroir is something that is nurtured and bred. This knowledge gives reason to suggest a reverse relationship. Almost always, there is some kind of strong nature, soil, or climate-related condition, which a winemaker striving for an excellent product had to overcome with varying degrees of diligence, humility and passion.
Research on Bordeaux's climate is quite a surprise. Being directly influenced by the Atlantic and under constant threat of precipitation, it is generally far more suited to white than red wines. To understand this, though, it is necessary to acknowledge the paradoxical fact that red wine has made Bordeaux famous. Indeed, until the second half of the 20th century, Bordeaux produced more white wine than red. In other words, the best Bordeaux red wines, which have become textbook classics, were created not thanks to, but in spite of the climatic conditions of the region. A couple hundred of the best growers — officially or unofficially certified as Grand Cru — have become the symbol of Bordeaux and are examples that serve for wide imitation. This is despite the fact that prestigious vineyards make up only 1.5–2 persent of the wine producers in Bordeaux. The majority believed in the minority.
No less strange is to appreciate the saying, "nothing ventured, nothing gained," when applied to the context of makers of Champagne. It happens that Champagne, with its image of eternal and carefree celebration, grows in an area that is perhaps the most risky for winemaking. The devotion of Champagne makers to wine, as to a sacred object, and the ingenious adaptation of technology has transformed their wine into something not only remarkable for its sensory characteristics, but also a source of poetic inspiration, and in doing so laid a path of pilgrimage for the devotees of wine. For 300 years, oenologists and wine lovers, like pilgrims, have headed to this most northern wine region of France. This is all despite the fact that in spring the vineyards of Champagne are regularly threatened by frost, and in the autumn grapes often fail to ripen.
Successive generations of Burgundy winemakers have cared for the same vines planted on the very same hills for centuries. Legacies and inheritances have divided and fragmented the land into ever-smaller estates. They have worked and continue to work the land in spite of the inevitable waning of the soil, and in spite of the ever-shrinking areas of their micro-vineyards. Detailed knowledge of every square meter of their vineyards enables them year-on-year to uphold an enviable standard.
The winemakers of the Rhone and Loire Valleys, of Alsace and Languedoc, and of Gascony and Savoy all produce outstanding wines under circumstances that point to the contrary. Rain, which can make wine watery, grapes that can spoil halfway through the harvest, spring frosts, creeping weeds, and dark autumns fraught with mold… The more we learn about French wine, which at first appears as a sort of trouble-free winemaker's paradise, the more it reminds us of a gladiator's arena.
Though the greater the mysteries, the more we are compelled to love their wines.
It seems this is the main lesson that France has given the world of wine. Love is not based on achievements, value is not based on purity, and nowhere is the climate so ideal that life appears simply as a miracle.