Ambition is laudable: it’s how you achieve. Wine entrepreneurs often come from a position of success elsewhere. They bring leisurely capital to wine creation, intending to build a legacy. Others, less wealthy, have simply experienced the vertigo of inspiration which goes with the discovery of wine’s intricate pleasures. Both set off with the highest ambitions: the dream of making great wine in a new place.
What, though, do you do with those ambitions? This is where the difficulties begin. Of course there are models: the classical wines of Europe. The moneyed investor may have drunk them for years; their example fuels the work and passion of those less well-resourced. The notion of terroir is key, because that is what Europe’s otherwise disparate great vineyards have in common. It’s genuinely inspiring, teaching us to efface the self and to downplay technique in order to give voice to a place, a land, an origin. To let the place sing, in other words. There are even compelling commercial reasons for doing that. If a drinker falls in love with your wine because it reflects a unique origin, then they are yours for life; no other origin will do.
Great terroir, though, is not a constant quality, lurking in every unplanted site awaiting revelation. It’s rare, diamond-rare; far rarer than sites which are merely commercially viable. Distinguished fine-wine locations shade quickly away to ordinary ones in every acclaimed region, as Bordeaux and Burgundy both comprehensively prove. Those developing new sites would do best to focus at first on commercial viability (in itself of course dependent on market conditions and cycles). If I were terroir-hunting outside Europe, I’d concentrate on reassessing existing sites whose commercial viability has been long proven. Find the best potential within those. Look for old vines – not necessarily because they produce great fruit (though they do), but because their very survival testifies to that enduring commercial viability.
Reflect, indeed, on time itself. Every great European terroir has seen hundreds of years of trial, of experiment, of wrong turns, of eclipse, of failure. The hyper-prosperity of modern Burgundy and Bordeaux are recent phenomena: the gift of globalisation, but built on decade after decade of hard work and slow, incremental improvements by the humble, the modest and the selfless: Europe’s monks and winegrowing peasants. That’s how wine works. If this year’s results are a little better than last year’s, that’s enough. We build for our children.
Beware the varietal trap. Grape varieties are the means by which all terroir potential is expressed – but they are often chosen with commercial considerations in mind, before a terroir has been fully understood. The results (though, globally, we don’t yet realise this) are catastrophic: wasted decades of underperformance. Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – all of them originating in France’s cool climate or maritime zones -- are often wretched, second-rate choices for a plural world of vineyards. We need varietal experiment and open-mindedness, and the willingness to sell wine in ways which don’t rely on variety as primary signifier.
Remember, too, that every harvest is a message about terroir from the vineyard. In this sense, there are a pair of compelling reasons why winemakers should be as non-interventionist as they can be. You can only create a terroir wine by respecting the raw materials you harvest, and especially their chemical balance: adjustment means effacing terroir. Many great European wines are existentially strange, singular and – technically speaking -- “unbalanced”. That’s what we love about them; adjusted, we’d like them less or not at all. But if you feel that adjustment of your harvest is imperative, then the vineyard is telling you that it’s carrying the wrong variety – or, at worst, that it shouldn’t really be a vineyard at all.
Finally, too, if you are trying to make ambitious red wine of place, then you have to take grape skins and tannins seriously. Tannin structures and profiles still mark the biggest single difference between great European red wines and their non-European competitors. The personality and profundity of these wines is engraved in their often profound tannin structures. If Napa’s finest Cabernets are the only non-European wines to challenge European classics today in price terms, it is at least in part because of their skin-derived tannin structures: juicy, dense, ample, tender, resonant. Balance has little to do with acidity, while the sugar will nearly always look after itself. Find and express the tannins, and you will be well on the way to finding and expressing the terroir.