“You can make bad wine from good grapes but you cannot make good wine from bad grapes” so the old saying goes. Like most aphorisms, this one holds true because it underscores the importance of grape growing. Not withstanding the images of a “gentleman farmer” the manicured vineyards of places like Napa may conjure, the reality is that grape growing is agriculture and this line of work is tough. The agricultural aspects of wine making are particularly relevant because, while we do not talk about the taste nuances of the different corn crops, the life cycle of a grape does have impactful results in the end product of wine.
The grape grower, in conjunction with the wine maker, is all about nurturing vines so that they produce grapes that end up with the desired balance between essentially three factor: Pulp ripeness (the sugar contents), Skin ripeness (the “grapey” ripeness that encompasses things such as tannins and aromas), and Acid levels.
Sun exposure is crucial not only for photosynthesis, but also for the heat it provides. Although a bit simplistic, it’s been said that sunlight ripens the skin while heat ripens the pulp. Grapes will not ripen in a region that has an average annual temperature of less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the growing season. Grapevines also need about 7 hours of sunlight per day. If the climate is too cold, you will end up with acidic, low sugar (and hence low alcohol wines given that yeasts “eat” sugars to produce alcohol) grapes. The opposite happens when it is too warm and light-hours and heat are overabundant. Therefore, in order to achieve this balanced triumvirate, grape growers often turn to manipulating the effects of temperature and sunlight by deciding whether to plant their vines at high (mountain fruit) or low (valley fruit) elevations.
Bearing in mind that you will lose an average 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet of elevation you gain, mountain grapes enjoy the benefit of a longer growing season where they can have a lot of light without accrued temperatures. Conversely, in the valley floor where the temperatures are higher, the grapes often attain pulp/sugar ripeness before skin ripeness. These are the wines that tend to be alcoholic (remember: more sugars = more alcohol) and often lack the aromatic and taste nuances of those that have been crafted with grapes of better skin quality. The extra light from higher elevations is a function of being above the fog line and one that’s related to higher UV light exposure. As a result, these grapes develop thicker skins which in turn result in more of that “grapey” goodness. The cooler growing conditions also allow for preservation of acidity since the grapes are not exposed to the acidity reducing effects of heat.
But mountain fruit is not only about sunlight hours and temperature. It also has a lot to do with soils. On a mountain (or hill) the soils are not as fertile and in turn this compels the vine to work harder to secure the best possible ways to procreate by focusing in producing delicious grapes. Slopes also have better water drainage and this also contributes to “stressing” the vine to concentrate on the fruit. Therein lies the origin of another great grape growing adage: “Vines don’t like wet feet”.
For instance, the Cistercian monks of Burgundy over the years figured this out to the extent that they even codified those regions of the hills that work best. They would refer to the valley grapes as the fruit to make wine for the parish priests, the mountain top plots for the cardinals’ wines, and the mid-section vineyards as the most excellent ones…the wines for the Popes!
Next time you have a chance, try to mindfully taste the difference between these two styles. Try them from a similar region and with the same varietal. Napa would be a good place to start.
Who knows…maybe this will be a revelation that will have you screaming “Habemus Papam”!
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.