A Lesson Learned in the Pacific Northwest: All Great Wines Begin in the Vineyard

rural Oregon landscape, Willamette ValleyThere are certain grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon (among reds) and Chardonnay (among whites) that take well to barrel fermentation.

There are others, such as Riesling, that would have their aromas and flavors obliterated by exposure to oak, and thus are aged in neutral stainless steel tanks.

Other winemaking techniques can be undertaken in the cellar, such as malolactic fermentation, the temperature and length of the fermentation, and whether specific lots of grapes are blended immediately or kept separate and blended later.

But regardless of the cellar techniques or the skills of the winemaker, there is one thing all vintners agree upon: There never has been a good wine made with inferior grapes. In other words, what ends in the cellar must begin in the vineyard.

Hard to believe, but there are around 10,000 different grape varieties used to make wine, although the number utilized in any great quantity is far, far fewer than that. Still, like any agricultural product, each variety has its own set of specific requirements in order for it to attain its full quality potential.

In planting a given variety, the farmer/grower must consider the type of soil, sun exposure, water availability and overall climate. For instance, some varieties fare better in soil that’s depleted in nutrients and generally lacking in water, a combination that forces the vine to work harder, resulting in grapes that are extremely concentrated in aromas and flavors.

Other varieties prefer cool climes, which extends their growing season and enables them to attain full maturity. Still others require almost desert-like weather and air temperatures in order to strut their stuff.

All of these factors help determine which varieties should be planted in a given vineyard, or whether that plot of land should be planted to wine grapes at all. Over the years, as more has been learned about matching specific varieties to specific climates, many grapevines have been grafted with other varieties, or with other clones of the existing variety.

I remember traveling through the Pacific Northwest when the wine industry there was still in its infancy. It wasn’t unusual to encounter Cabernet Sauvignon planted in areas that were too cool for the variety (mainly in Washington state), or the wrong clones of Pinot Noir being used (mainly in Oregon).

But over the years, the grape growers and winemakers — through both education and experimentation — made the necessary adjustments. Today, some great Cabs and Merlots are coming out of Washington, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon rivals Burgundy as one of the world’s great producers of Pinot Noir. You can taste how far things have come in the Pacific Northwest by savoring the wines in Vinesse’s PNW collections and clubs.  If you’re lucky enough to be a subscriber of our regular wine deals, check your inbox today!

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Posted in In the Cellar
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