Vintages come and go and with each passing harvest your focus slowly edges away from tanks, barrels and technique to dirt and climate. For wines of character and individuality, it all comes down to the vineyard, all the rest is background noise. In the cellar, it is your job to get out of the way. Actually not out of the way, that’s too simplistic. An artisan winemaker’s job is to know what to do, when to do it and to do nothing more than is necessary - minimalist winemaking is the term I prefer over “natural”. In industrial winemaking, intervention is the rule not the exception, which is the correct strategy if your goal is to produce commercially reliable wines that taste the same year-after-year.
There is little we know for sure in winemaking, but one thing I do know for sure is that if you don’t have the right dirt in the right place and the right vines in that dirt, you might be able to make good wines, but you’ll never make compelling memorable wines.
It is very simple. If you want to make exceptional wine you have to have the right grapes in the right place farmed by the right people. The right people is easy, it’s you if you have the passion, resources and discipline to do the work in the vineyard. The variety and place are much more complicated matters.
While visiting the east coast a few years ago, wondering about what it was like to grow grapes in such humid conditions, I asked a viticulturist how often he sprayed his vineyard. His response was every week - almost up to harvest. Another time I was talking to a grower from a famous west coast AVA who was farming “organically”. Asked about his spray program, he revealed that they were applying forty pounds of sulfur per acre every year. I was equally shocked in both cases because extreme measures had to be taken to grow grapes wine grapes on their sites. (Obviously calling that vineyard “organic” is a stretch of the imagination.) The vineyard on the east coast suffered from a climate unfavorable to wine grapes. The west coast vineyard was in an ideal climate, but either that individual site was less than ideal or the variety they had determined to grow in it was wrong for the site - or both.
The range of soils that can grow great wines has proven to be much broader than once thought. For example, you have pinot noir grown on high pH, alkaline soils in Burgundy, while Oregon’s Willamette Valley is dominated by low pH, acidic soils. Yet in blind tasting after blind tasting skilled, experienced wine tasters are fooled and confuse the wines of Burgundy and the Willamette Valley. However, the climate is much less forgiving than the soil - assuming healthy soils. Selecting the wrong variety for the site is almost as bad. Try to grow cabernet franc on too cool of a site and you’ll end up with pyrazine tea. Grow pinot noir in too hot of a site and you end up with a very expensive version of MD 20/20. Differences, I assure you, even amateur tasters can spot. You have to have the right variety in the right climate, the right terroir to make exceptional, memorable wines vintage after vintage.
I am always confused by terroir deniers. Any farmer knows terroir exists no matter if they are growing wine grapes, apples, asparagus or tomatoes. One major difference between wine grape farmers and other farmers is that winegrowers will insist on growing a crop that is not economically viable in their growing conditions. Or, worse yet, will insist on overcoming nature and selling wine produced from chemically abused vineyards using every winemaking trick in the book to produce commercially and critically acceptable wines.
The surest way to know if you’ve got the right vine in the right place is that the vineyard can be farmed year-after-year using ultra low-input agriculture. If you have to blast your vineyard with chemicals every week just to stop the grapes from rotting with mold before you can pick them perhaps you should rethink your choice of crops. Just because you can grow wine grapes does not mean you should.
If each year you are in a battle with Mother Nature, you will eventually lose the war.