Last week at the Salon des Vins de Loire I tasted with Anthony Hwang of Domaine Huet in Vouvray, and he mentioned how winemaker Noël Pinguet has been experimenting with different techniques of pressing in order to obtain a higher-quality juice. Hwang said, “I’ve come to realize over the past few years with Noël that what winemakers always like to say, that wine is 95 percent made in the vineyards and five percent in the cellar, is really bunk. The pressing is so important, as is attention to detail throughout the cellar.”
I liked this statement, as I’ve also thought that cellar work is sometimes not emphasized as much as it should be. There’s no question that quality originates in the vineyard, and when a winegrower says that he or she cannot improve upon the quality of the grapes that are harvested, that is a true statement. People should obsess over viticulture, and I’m glad that they do. (Remember, I live in Champagne. We need as many people thinking about viticulture as possible in that region.) It’s also true that wine that ignores viticulture and is made largely in a winery (think of some mass-market champagnes or industrial brands from California and Australia) is lifeless and uninteresting to drink.
But sometimes I feel that it’s become unfashionable to talk about vinification, as if any action somehow automatically constitutes manipulation or spoofulation of the wine. Oftentimes you’ll hear winegrowers talk on and on about viticulture and then say, “After harvest, I do nothing.” (Of course, with some natural wines, this is quite literally true, with unfortunate consequences.)
I do think that a great wine is a combination of high-quality viticulture and diligent work in the cellars, and one without the other tends to yield less than satisfactory results. Wine, after all, doesn’t happen on its own—it’s a process of deliberate choices and actions by humans that guide the wine towards its final state of being. No matter how “natural” and “non-interventionist” you say you are, there is a certain minimum of human action and intervention that needs to take place, or it’s not wine. Grapes left completely to their own devices will turn into something that you would likely not want to drink. As a wine producer, you make decisions at every step of the way, and these decisions generally result in some sort of action. (Although even a decision to do nothing is still a decision.) Clearly some decisions are better than others, depending on the individual wine and the surrounding circumstances, and if two winemakers received identical lots of grapes, the one who made the better decisions would create the better wine. Even if you cannot improve upon the quality that Nature gives you in the vineyards, it’s up to you to maintain that level of quality. As Hwang puts it, “It’s true that you can’t make good wines from bad grapes. But I’ve had many bad wines from good grapes.”