This December was my time with the in-laws (a pleasant affair I have to say, as I hear from friends it could also be a challenging one…) So it’s my privilege to be typing this newsletter in Kleinmond, sitting at a big dining room table overlooking the sea. The problem comes in, where it’s taking me noticeably longer to write than usual. The reason is probably the one that my brother identified when he skyped me this morning: He: “Hi” Me: “Hi”. He: “How are you?”. Me: “Fine, trying to write my newsletter but it’s not working”. He: “well, stop staring at the sea, close the curtains, and get on with it!” It’s very much like that with Grapes. Outside physical environmental factors influence the quality of grapes produced in a major way!
In 2000 I worked for an American winery called Cakebread Cellars in the Napa Valley, California. The previous year, a new block of Pinot Noir grapes were assigned to the red wine winery, where I worked. The vineyard is situated high up on the cooler slopes on the western side of the Valley – The perfect terroir for the production of Pinot Noir! (Pinot Noir is a delicate grape variety. It typically has soft tannins, with light fruit like strawberry and cherry. Because of this, we need the longest possible ripening period, in order to give the grapes the opportunity to develop optimum colour concentration in the skins. The coolest possible terroir is therefore normally selected for the production of this noble variety.)
Back to my story: The 1999 wine produced from that specific block of Pinot Noir was HORRIFIC. It had enough colour and good tannin structure, but it had an overwhelming one dimensional synthetic and unfavorable EUCALYPTUS flavour. They suspected that it had to do with the fact that the block was surrounded by lanes of Eucalyptus trees on 3 sides of the vineyard, but had to do an experiment to prove their suspicions right. Because of the poor quality of the vintage of the previous year, our vineyard management team decided to remove the 2 lanes on our property. Unfortunately they could not convince the neighbour to do the same, which left one lane of trees lining the vineyard on one side.
As an experiment, we set off on foot and tied a ribbon all along the line where we could find Eucalyptus leaves on the ground. Our goal was to separate the vines where the leaves were lying from the rest, in other words, splitting the block in 2 sections.
We then harvested the grapes in 2 separate lots and fermented the grapes in 2 separate tanks, next to each other. Even in the early stages of fermentation the tanks differed TREMENDOUSLY in flavour. The result: Not a hint of Eucalyptus was found in the second batch, whereas the first batch absolutely reeked of eucalyptus!
Conclusion: Environmental factors can make a humongous difference to the character of grapes (& hence, the wine). In this instance, it was a very obvious factor (I mean, you could hardly miss the huge eucalyptus trees, could you!), but it can often be very subtle indeed & yet affect the quality of the wine tremendously, despite your most meticulous attention to detail in the winemaking process itself.
(PS: We tried marketing the eucalyptus flavoured wine as a nasal decongestant herbal remedy, but somehow it never caught on!)