Natalie Berkowitz, author of The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique, and Terroir, explains how the flavor of wine is dictated by soil and terroir, but also by the skill of the winemaker:
What makes the difference between ordinary or poor wine, sometimes called plonk, and truly great wines with complex characteristics? The current explanation dictates terroir is determined by terroir, those elements nature provides, such as soil, the amount of sun, rain, wind, and the influence of nearby rivers or oceans. The magic that comes to grapes starts when the vines derive various flavors from a soil’s characteristics. It seems counter-intuitive, but a great wine’s concentrated flavors are the consequence of grapes grown in mineral-rich soils that are often volcanic or strewn with pebbles and rocks, forcing the vine’s roots to dig deeper to find water extracting flavors from a soil’s various strata. In contrast, deep, loamy, soils produce grapes without character and flavor since the roots stay closer to the surface, reducing the opportunity to extract complex characteristics. Winemakers at large- scale wineries are less fussy about soils since they prefer optimum quantity over optimum quality while vintners with a goal of complex wines choose soils that give their vines a head-start.
A vineyard manager can moderate some of the issues surrounding soil ‘s fertility in order to achieve grapes with more concentrated flavors. Soil and terroir are part of a three-legged stool. The winemaker is the third leg of the stool, the one who is challenged by each vintage and goes through the infinite steps that start in spring, ends at harvest and is finally bottled. A winemaker brings acumen, training, philosophy, artistry, patience, and aptitude to the task. To say wine is totally determined by nature is akin to saying a Beethoven piano concerto flows from the keyboard without the pianist, or paints jump onto the canvas without some help from the painter.
Good wine can’t be made from behind a desk or by committee. An individual winemaker infuses wine with passion, heart and soul personal style. A vintner interested is producing the best wine possible must be committed to managing every detail starting in the vineyards, overseeing every step of the way from spring to harvest in the fall. Each vintage creates endless nail-biting moments that start in the early spring when frost or hail can impact negatively on grape buds. Countless decisions along the road to getting wine in the bottle is fraught with potential problems. Picking too early or too late changes the wine’s profile. Harvest is the most pressured, hectic time when a year’s income often rests on crucial last decisions in the fall. But issues of fermentation, decisions about barrel aging age, what kind of barrels will help wine’s flavors, on to bottling, and finally to getting the wine to the consumer are questions a talented winemaker must deal with through the winemaking cycle that starts over again when spring rolls around.