04 June 2010
The structure of the soil varies considerably around the world; not just the topsoil - whether your garden is dominated by loam, lime or clay -but the deep sub-structure of the earth as well. The vine is capable of surviving without much water, so naturally sends its roots many metres into the ground, drawing elements out at all levels, which will directly affect the taste of the grape and its wine. But it's not the only factor that influences the taste of wine.
Although general geological features may be repeated in different countries and different areas, no two regions are precisely alike, and neither are their wines. Different soils, of course, suit different varieties of grapes, and occasionally you get a perfect combination of the two. That, when teamed up with an ideal climate for vine growing, makes for an exceptional wine.
In warm, southerly areas, such as southern Italy and the South of France, vines grow as prolifically and strongly as weeds, and left to their own devices under the baking summer sun, quickly become weighed down with excessive quantities of fruit. For wine-making purposes, however, such fruit is far from the best. The grape sugar level will have climbed too high, making it suitable only for over-alcoholic, characterless plonk, or worse still, merely for industrial alcohol. Modern wine-making technology has, however, overcome some weather problems, and it is now possible for good wines to be made in climatically 'marginal' areas.
So if too much sun is to be discouraged, what then is the ideal? The best yearly weather for most types of grapes and most types of wines goes as follows: a cool (cold even) winter, during which the vines will remain dormant and conserve their energy; a warm, frost-free spring so the vines will bud and flower, and the flowers will 'set' (i.e. start to turn into fruit); then a summer with a certain amount of sun rationed out gradually, so the grapes will grow and develop slowly, concentrating as much flavour and character within the pulp as possible. When it comes to harvest-time in the autumn, dry weather is an advantage of course, because ripe grapes on the vine can easily spoil, and they are best gathered in when it is cool but dry. Since a temperate climate - not unlike our own - is the one most enjoyed by wine-producing vines, you can easily see how wines made in the same area will vary considerably from year to year as the weather varies. This is how 'vintages' come about, and (where fine wines are concerned) accounts for the sometimes considerable difference in price between the same wine made in different years.
Even at the lower end of the price scale, the vintage or date of a wine tells you what to expect, too. For example, the summer of 1984? It was abysmal, not just in the UK but on the Continent as well, so wines made in 1984 in the more northerly areas are liable to have suffered as a result. Many are rather thin, with insufficient fruitiness to give much body, and are rather sharp and acidic as well. Think of tasting unripe fruit and translate the unpleasant characteristics of say, an unripe plum, to wine made in a poor year.
1985, in contrast, was a comparatively good year in continental Europe. Following an extremely icy winter and a rather cool spring (which reduced the size of the crop), a good warm spell came after a cold start and concentrated the flavours magnificently. The result is good wines in slightly short supply.
So the vintage date on the label tells weather-watchers a bit about the quality of the wine, and reveals how old it is as well. This is important information if you are to enjoy wine at its best. As a general rule, whites should be drunk young, a year or two after the vintage date, and reds should be allowed to acquire a bit of maturity before you pull, or 'draw', the cork. Most reds continue to improve for some years after they're made; up to a decade or more for some of the heavier styles. There are of course exceptions to these very broad rules. Not all wines, however, declare a vintage date on the label, only those made from the produce of a single year. Labels without a date signify that the wine is made from grapes grown in several years. With the exception of champagne, these are generally the lesser, cheaper wines.
The factors that together determine what a particular wine will be like, therefore, are: the type of grapes used; the make-up of the soil where the vines are grown; the climate (both in general and in particular during the year in which the wine is made); the techniques adopted by the wine-maker; and the age and maturity of the wine when it is drunk.
In the classic wine-making countries, centuries of experience in vine growing and wine production reveal the perfect spots for making particular sorts of wines; the areas where all the God-given factors just happen to be right. It is these precisely defined areas that are responsible for making the most famous, and most expensive, wines.
Prices and prestige are not merely arbitrary: it is simply that, as we have seen, the conditions for wine-making are more suitable in some areas than in others. If one or two of the critical factors are amiss it is bound to reflect directly and noticeably on the quality of the wine, so at the cheaper end of the scale, regrettably, you are never going to find an absolutely classic wine with all its attributes balanced and blended perfectly. What you can find, though, is a bargain in the shape of an excellent wine from a new area. Here, the natural factors may be either already perfect or modified and tailored by new technology, to enable a delicious wine to be made which as yet has had little time to be 'discovered' and sought after. As with any of the other luxuries in life, the prices of the best wines are lacked up by that annoying equation of supply and demand: if no-one had any interest in, say, diamonds, they would be cheap: and so it is with the best wines.
'Undiscovered' wines - undiscovered by wine snobs and label hunters, that is - can be surprisingly well priced. You may never get a bargain with a 'known name', but it is comparatively easy, if you know where to look to find an excellent and surprising buy.