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A Winemaker's Journal


By Elias Fernandez

Imagine two glasses of red wine sitting in front of you. Both are California-produced Cabernets from the same vintage.

In the glass on your left, light blazes through the wine creating a bright ruby glow. When you drink this Cabernet, it offers one or two dominant flavors and that’s all. When it leaves your mouth, everything vanishes except the memory of a wine that is thin and tart.

Something different is going on in the glass on your right. It holds a wine that’s so dark almost no light passes through it. At first sip the flavors are big, complex and extracted. When the wine leaves your mouth, a lengthy, delicious flavor remains.

Two wines from the same growing season, same grape variety, and same state – with so little in common. Why are they so different?

For the answer, we’ll have to travel back to the vineyards where these wines originated.

Remember the glass on your left, the wine that was thin and tart? This vineyard is huge, hundreds of acres in size and it’s oppressively hot. The vineyard is well watered, the soil is rich with nutrients. The leaves are big and abundant. And the clusters are large, packed with big berries. It is the very picture of health and vigor. At harvest, the grower will probably get 10 to 12 tons per acre.

But vines that enjoy this level of happiness rarely make great wine.

Let’s look at the vineyard for the wine on your right – the Cabernet with lush flavor and mouthfeel. In this vineyard the vines are smaller, the leaves are fewer. The grape clusters are loose and the berries are small. The soils are thin and rocky, offering scant nutrients for the vine and irrigation is rare. When water is given to the vines it’s doled out drip by drip.

The vineyard may yield only two to five tons of fruit per acre at picking time.

You’ve probably heard that vines have to struggle in order to produce quality fruit. Part of the reason for that is to force the vine into a decision -- will it pour its resources into developing its leaves and stems? Or, into its fruit?

If the vine has plenty of nutrients and water, a great deal of its vitality will go into the greenery and the fruit quality suffers. But by placing the vine on the edge of survival it must choose -- and the choice it has to make is to favor the fruit, because the fruit is where the seeds are and the seeds are the future of the species.

Now it’s your turn to play armchair wine detective. Pour two glasses of wine, taste the difference and then look up some information about their vineyards. Good resources can be found both online and in a number of reference works.

Remember, about 90 percent of what’s in your glass is the result of what happened in the vineyard. About 10 percent is the work of the winemaker, which is not something I should probably admit.