The cruisation of wine

Single-origin wines might not taste necessarily better than blends, yet they tend to translate into a more exciting sensory experience for the drinker

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In February 2011, the Catena Institute announced the publication of its research on the effect of soil composition and climate on a wine’s phenolic profiles. The study involved 23 different parcels - small areas of vineyards - distributed across Argentina’s Mendoza region over three consecutive years, whose grapes were vinified individually under standardised winemaking conditions.

Institute founder and leading Argentinian vintner Laura Catena claimed the study provided scientific evidence to “irrefutably prove” the existence of terroir.

“For the first time,” she explains, “this study shows that the terroir effect can be chemically described from vintage to vintage in larger regions as well as in smaller parcels. We were able to predict with 100% certainty the vintage of each wine of our study through chemical analysis.”

Catena is a terroirist, aka a strenuous supporter of terroir, that fascinating yet controversial French word that should define the combined effects of nature – and for some human intervention – on the finished wine, but that in reality is widely employed as a synonym for “soil”. 

“When I taste my White Bones Chardonnay or White Stones Chardonnay, both made from similar plant selections but just a few feet apart, and grasp how different they taste, I can’t help but marvel about the effects of terroir,” she says.

For Catena, the research’s findings demonstrate the superior value of single-parcel wines, as representations of a unique, unrepeatable expression of nature. “Mendoza is one of the few places in the world with strikingly different wine terroirs within short distances. Our study gives credence to what the Burgundian Cistercian monks called ‘cru’,” she points out, hinting at Burgundy’s wine quality system, where single-plot wines dominate over multi-vineyard blends. While the fact that a multitude of different soil compositions might characterise Mendoza and just a bunch of other regions is a statement that remains to be proved, the world’s growing obsession for the single vineyard – the cru – is indeed a French, mostly Burgundian and Bordelaise export.

France’s most successful export

“It is still France, the country that leads all trends in fine wine, and both Bordeaux and Burgundy tend to make wine coming from small parcels and small vineyards,” explains María José López de Heredia, fourth generation leader of one of Rioja’s best-known wine families. “Therefore, the whole world gets the inspiration from that, which makes sense since it has proof to be successful.”

Rioja wines have been traditionally made by blending fruit from different parcels and quality has been historically associated with the length of the ageing process, from fresh, unpretentious jovens, to crianzas, reservas and gran reservas. In 2017 however, the region’s Consejo Regulador introduced new regulations that granted producers rights to bottle single-vineyard wines (viñedos singulares). The old model was left in place, yet the introduction of the new single-plot category shifted the quality focus from Rioja’s traditional ageing process to a Burgundy and Bordeaux-inspired understanding of wine perfection.

“Until 2016 we would make seven single-varietal wines, Tempranillo Garnacha, Viura, etc,” says Eduardo Hernaiz, who specialises in exceptional viñedo singular bottlings at his bodega Hermanos Hernaiz. “Now we make just two top wines, and two ‘second’ wines, like a Bordeaux chateaux.”

On paper, Hernaiz’ best red wine is a reserva and his entry level expression a crianza. The ageing statement is visible on the packaging, yet relegated to the back labels. “We think that the ageing is not important. The most important information is the terroir,” he says.

Hernaiz admits that indications of age are still crucial for cheaper supermarket wines, but points out that labeling terms such as reservas and gran reservas are quickly becoming redundant for younger drinkers who find a wine’s single-origin more appealing.

Beyond Rioja

Rioja is far from being an isolated example. An increasing number of wine regions are rushing to undergo their own “cruisation” process. In Italy’s Piedmont, it was common practice to produce local Barbaresco wine by blending fruit from different plots. In 2007 however, 66 crus – there called Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive (MGA) – were established, and are now widely featured on labels, generally identifying a producer’s top wines. Barolo followed suit in 2010, with some 181 crus. Soave, in Veneto, officialised 33 crus in 2019. And the list goes on.

Sherry is the latest addition. Last September, its Consejo Regulador recognised the “pagos”, i.e. specific viticultural areas, as part of a major regulatory overhaul that will come into play next year. 

“The proposal was led and supported by the brands [already] working and selling under [the pago] model,” says Ignacio López de Carrizosa of Grupo Estevez-owned Valdespino, a bodega that has long been championing the single-vineyard philosophy. “Nobody is opposing or against it since it would add value to the image of our wines,” he says, highlighting how even the most conservative brands can’t neglect the single plot’s growing market potential.

De Carrizosa admits that “there are other factors which affect and guide the personality of a specific Sherry, i.e. the origin of the solera [system], the characteristics and location of the building where the solera is being aged, etc. There is uniqueness even in blending different soleras [and why not, even pagos].”

He claims however, that a single terroir should be Sherry’s defining element as the vineyard’s character clearly manifests itself in the final product. 

“If we taste sub-pagos in the area of Macharnudo [fairly central and higher than other plots] you will find a special finesse along with a well-marked mineral complexity. In-land pagos [e.g. Carrascal] will provide fuller-bodied wines, rounder and richer with robust structure. On the other side, coastal pagos and their Atlantic influence will show salinity, to some extent an ethereal lightness which can be clearly noticed in Manzanillas.”

From Jerez to bubbles

Even in Champagne, whose fame was entirely built on the art of blending, single-plot expressions are gaining ground. What was once a market dominated by Krug’s legendary Clos du Mesnil and Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises, has now turned into a lively category.

“The Château de la Marquetterie... is where my great grandfather was stationed in WWI,” says Vitalie Taittinger, while narrating the origin story of her own single-vineyard Champagne, Les Folies de la Marquetterie.

“After the war [he bought the estate] and set up our family Champagne house. Les Folies de la Marquetterie is made in his memory.” The wine’s name, she explains, is a nod to the fact that making wine from a single plot was seen as an oddity – a “folie” – when it was launched in the early 2000s. 

Today, it’s certainly no longer the case. “In order to survive we must all adapt,” admits Taittinger, “sometimes adaptation is driven by a trend, or by the weather.” 

She believes however, that the trend is unlikely to bring significant change to Champagne in the short term, as drinkers still value the consistency they find in blended wines. 

Furthermore, Taittinger adds that Champagne’s unreliable marginal climate means that single plots may not yield good quality fruit consistently enough to support a wider shift from blending to single-plot vinification, although global warming might prove otherwise.

“Perhaps more people will make them. However we must not forget that the weather in Champagne cannot be relied upon – being able to blend allows us to create a product every year because perhaps the Montagne de Reims had good weather while Vallée de la Marne had frost. If you make a single vineyard wine you will sometimes have very small years or perhaps some where you make none at all.”

Champagne might not be abandoning its traditional blending process just yet, but it’s in its glittering houses that the cruisation of wine reveals its almost spiritual character. “The purity of a single plot of Chardonnay”, as Krug describes its Clos du Mesnil, implies a parcel wine’s higher intrinsic worth when compared to a blend. The perception of purity as a sacred value, after all, is deeply ingrained in humans’ sensibility and of their understanding of good, from the virginal purity of Christianity’s Mary to Islam’s ritual cleansing procedure, the Wudu.

Matteo Ascheri, owner of Ascheri Vini in Bra, Piedmont, and president of the Consorzio Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani, adds that a plot’s uniqueness plays a part in the increasing cruisation of wine too, as rarity has long been associated with a perception of luxury: 

“Traditionally, [Barolo] winemakers would blend grapes from different areas, but now they vinify single plots to express the peculiar qualities of a place… An individual vineyard is the climax of uniqueness.” Single-origin wines might not taste necessarily better than blends, yet their power to convey a strong sense of authenticity, of superior virtue, of genuine identity, of purer expression of nature, tends to translate into a more exciting sensory experience for the drinker.

As wine regions across the globe homologise on a univocal perception of excellence however, alternative understandings of wine quality – from Rioja’s long maturation process in the cellar to Champagne’s blending across villages – are being left behind, and with them the flavours that they can generate and the cultural diversity that they represent.

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