The Challenge of Winemaking

Vines love a challenge…

If vines were human beings they’d be into extreme sports, wakeboarding on the surf or abseiling down skyscrapers.

You see, give your average vine some nice cosy conditions – great weather, lots of luscious deep juicy soil – and they’ll give you lots of, well, average fruit. All quite worthy, if a bit dull. Then they’ll go down the pub. But give them a challenge; soils which are so barren and rocky that every sensible plant has given up the ghost, or a mountainside so steep that you’re in danger of falling off – and they’re in their element. Bring it on!

Which is just as well. Because every vintage has a story. Every vineyard is on trial.

Only a few weeks ago Bordeaux was hit by one of the worst frosts in decades. Hundreds of hectares were damaged. But while Estelle Roumage, owner of Chateau Lestrille, gazed at the devastation and shed a silent tear, her vines stood defiant. Battered and bruised, their buds lost, crippled but indomitable. “Don’t worry; we’ll be back. We’re vines, you see.”

Mount Etna erupted seventeen times between mid-February and the end of March this year. Imagine waking up and not knowing if your vines have been covered in ash. (Or whether your house is about to be consumed by lava!) Yet that is what our winemakers at Santa Maria La Nave and Al-Cantara face. We – and they – feel those slings and arrows are worth putting up with because of the fabulous complexity of wine which those vines produce.

Chablis lies at the extreme of the great winemaking areas. Philippe Goulley, winemaker at Domaine Jean Goulley, summarised the last vintage for us and included a weather report: “We had spring frost and hailstorms but they weren’t as significant as recent years. Then we had drought and a heat wave in June and July which totally changed the situation. In the end, the quantity was okay but not as good as we’d hoped.” This stoical acceptance of fate happens every year: Chablis suffered tough vintages in 2016, 2017 and 2019. Such is the lot of the winemaker – and the vine.

Weather can be capricious. California is often prey to forest fires – which can destroy vineyards or cause smoke taint. In 2020 the state recorded the hottest August and September on record, during which time thousands of vines were destroyed. We can only salute the fortitude of our winemakers at Far Niente, Raymond Vineyards, Lockwood Vineyard, Oak Ridge Winery and Quady, as well as our newest addition – Sanford.

Australian winemakers face another hazard: drought. They have always had to contend with agricultural risks such as frost, hail and flood. But climate change has made things tougher for growers and winemakers. Wineries rely on natural rainfall for their grapes, but in drought season, irrigation is a must. The amount of water being drawn for the river systems and the underground aquifers may be unattainable in a hotter drier climate. (And that’s before China pulls the plug on Aussie exports!) We’re grateful for wineries such as Berton Vineyards for continuing to produce amazing wines and amazing value-for-money wines in the face of such adversity.

Of course, just as most people prefer the easy life, some people – like vines – love a challenge. Operating out of often impenetrable and inaccessible vineyards within Galicia, winemaker Xosé Lois Sebio has produced a stunning collection of wines as a result of a personal quest: to find wines with unique personality from more risky processing zones and with a very marked identity. He is no respecter of fashions and conventions. His main challenge is to respect and express the soil, variety and area – producing wines with soul and personality.

A different sort of challenge is faced by the winemaking team at Frescobaldi. How to live up the expectations of a Florentine family with thirty generations dedicated to the production of great wines across six Tuscan estates? Well, you do it with a combination of tradition and innovation. With the goal of being the most prestigious Tuscan wine producer, and with over 1,000 hectares of vineyard, Frescobaldi firmly believes in respecting the local land while focusing on the highest quality grapes for its wines. This means different winemakers for each estate, each forging the terroir’s identity, while all living up the quality standards demanded by Lamberto Frescobaldi, chief winemaker. Gambero Rosso awarded Frescobaldi with the prestigious ‘Tre Bicchieri Winery of the Year Award 2020’, in recognition of its uncompromising commitment. Here is one family living up to the challenge!

How to reinvent something? That’s a challenge. For Badiola, a change from a quality hierarchy based on terroir rather than on ageing was a paradigm made possible by the change to the Rioja classifications of 2018. They set out to make wines of place rather than wines of style. The Vino de Pueblo wines are sourced from 300 plots in three villages in the foothills of Sierra de Cantabria in the Rio Alavesa from vines with an average age of around 50 years (many were planted in the 1920s, 30s and 40s). A challenging concept, but thankfully the wines are brilliant.

And then of course there are some winemakers for whom one challenge is not enough. They want to be challenged every day. Take Gérard Bertrand. It would have been easy for him to have rested on his laurels when inheriting his father’s domaine in Corbières. But the drive which saw him play rugby at the highest level saw him purchasing numerous estates, then upgrading them painstakingly. This was followed by his conversion to biodynamic farming, following the principals of Rudolf Steiner.

Now, he presides over some of the most prestigious crus of Languedoc-Roussillon. Formerly the IWC Red Winemaker of the Year and Wine Enthusiast’s European Winery of the Year, his expertise ensures that wines bearing Gérard Bertrand’s signature have a unique style, driven by the values of excellence, authenticity, conviviality and innovation. In 2020, Gérard Bertrand was awarded Green Personality of the Year, by the Drinks Business Green Awards. He is arguably the most dynamic winemaker on the planet. Now there’s a chap who loves a challenge.

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