With the harvest in the cellar and the general expectation of exceptional quality for the 2015 vintage, I thought about what really determines quality.
Jamie Goode wrote a very insightful article on wineanorak.com discussing what makes one wine better than another. Often wines from similar terroir sells at very different prices. What creates the quality perception?
Jamie lists three main reasons why some wines are perceived to be great and other just good or even ordinary – and I have to agree with him.
1. Terroir – certain growing areas have proven themselves to offer better quality grapes. Sometimes there is a micro-climate within a specific area that makes for those specific flavours and complexities that can result in an icon wine.
2. Reputation – being an established estate, a well-known brand and being renowned for quality can influence the quality expectation and price.
3. Scarcity – while it will be more expensive to produce a small quantity of wine, demand and scarcity also influence price. There is also a perception that small volumes of hand-crafted wines will be of a better quality.
Quality perception, brand equity and pricing on one hand, genuine wine quality does start in the vineyard. This year our analysis and flavours are exceptional. Why would that be? What would be the ideal vineyard conditions to produce a quality wine? Between myself and La Motte Cellarmaster Edmund Terblanche, we have compiled a list of optimum conditions for a quality South African harvest.
- A cold winter – That is cold in the South African sense of the word. Extreme cold, regular frost and snow in the vineyards are not prevalent in our area, but it gets cold enough to ensure decent dormancy and eventually even budding. (In areas such as California, a variety of innovative ways are used to prevent frost damage to vines.)
- Moderate summer temperatures – While a cold winter is beneficial, moderate summer temperatures are better for wine grapes than extreme heat. Hot weather creates a negative metabolism, low varietal character, an over-ripe style of wine and hastened evolution. Grapes can even get sunburnt. Planting vineyards at certain aspects together with techniques such as canopy management can protect bunches from excessive sun exposure.
- Winter rain – being a winter rainfall area, the winelands of the Western Cape requires rainfall to replenish both ground water and reservoirs. Reservoirs are of course important for supplementary irrigation in the warm summer months before harvest and ground water is especially essential to dry-land vineyards.
- Low summer rain – A refreshing bout of rain here and there can replenish water levels and cool down excessive summer temperatures, but prolonged rain, accompanying humidity and a lack of wind can easily result in rot and mould. A dry, moderate summer with low humidity is good for health and fruit concentration.
- Moderate wind – While breezes are important for their cooling effect on grapes at the end of warm summer days, strong winds result in damage to vines and interfere with the plant physiology.
- Drainage – while some water is always necessary, the flavours of grapes grown in very dry conditions can be concentrated and complex, while poor drainage and excess water will be to the detriment of grapes and flavour concentration.
- Good conditions for biological activity – a biologically balanced environment attracts good insects to the vineyards while natural surroundings with enough food keeps animals such as baboons and bucks out of the vineyard.
This is of course not an exact science and while all varieties enjoy the conditions as described above, some are more sturdy and can deal with unfavourable conditions better than others. Shiraz for example, is much less temperamental and will not reflect unsuitable conditions as prominently as the more ‘sensitive’ Pinot Noir for example
These optimum conditions paired with an experienced viticultural and winemaking team, trusted techniques and access to the latest technology will have a definite influence on your quality – regardless of the reputation of your brand or the price consumers are willing to pay.