Kevin Day is an Italian Wine Scholar™ with Highest Honors, and the editor-in-chief of the popular online wine magazine Opening a Bottle. In 2019, he was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer International Wine Writer’s Award in the category of Emerging Wine Writer. He lives in Denver, Colorado.
Few, if any, moments in wine are more dramatic than when a producer decides it is time to pick fruit. Whether they rely upon a Brix reading, a visual cue from the grape seeds, or the finely tuned instrument of their own palate, making the call to harvest a plot of grapes is a decision fraught with consequence. Get it exactly right and you can have a legendary vintage. Get it wrong, and nothing that follows from the vine to the winery to the bottle can make up for an ill-timed harvest.
“Ripeness is balance at its apogee,” notes Julia Harding, a Master of Wine, wine critic, contributor to JancisRobinson.com, and the co-author of the often-referenced book Wine Grapes. Yet given the frequency with which “ripeness” and “balance” are used as terms in wine discussion, it is worth our time to take a step back and try to find a consensus on what they actually are (or even, if they are the same thing), and the ramifications this may hold for our sensory perception.
As we discovered, defining where that apogee of balance lies can be exceedingly difficult. Balance “resists codification,” says wine writer and Wine Scholar Guild Academic Advisor Andrew Jefford. “It varies culturally; it varies by individual; it varies by region and by variety.”
For our latest Great Debate, Andrew Jefford and Julia Harding tackle the finer points of ripeness and balance in wine. Their back-and-forth covers a lot of ground: how to decipher balance on the palate, the differences between tasting wine and drinking a wine, putting the value of alcohol levels into context, the role climate change is playing in defining our sense of taste, and even the dangers of allowing one’s intellect to override the sensual response. All of it, Jefford suggests, is in a quest for, what he calls, “resonance.”
While we may not have arrived at any convenient new truisms, in the end, wine’s remarkable ability to reveal the harmony of nature is — at least for now — something we can all agree on.
In many ways, wine education relies on face-to-face contact between educators and students. After all, wine is a drink to be shared and which — for centuries — has stimulated conversation among those partaking. So last March, when it became apparent that the global spread of COVID-19 was about to alter the nature of “face-to-face” contact across every aspect of our lives, many wine educators were faced with a daunting prospect: how to carry on with classes.
Few consumer products in the world are more steadfastly focused on origin than wine. Think of the last great bottle of wine you enjoyed and, odds are, its place of origin featured prominently on the label.
Known as appellations, these defined areas of wine production have fostered a fanatical faithfulness to origin across the industry. Whether it is a Chianti Classico or a Chambolle-Musigny, a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon or a Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, how we interpret wine often comes down to how we interpret the place of origin.
While the general concept around the world is the same, the approach certainly is not. In the European sense, appellations define not only the boundaries of a region but the permissible production of wine (including grape varieties, yields, winemaking techniques and more).
“It is better to call non-European systems of this sort ‘Geographical Indications,’ since outside Europe it is generally only a producing zone which is defined,” says wine writer and Wine Scholar Guild Academic Advisor, Andrew Jefford. “Grape varieties and production methods are left up to the producer, and are a matter of free choice.”
Studying the differences and similarities among appellations, as well as their traditions and modifications, can lead to a lifetime of enjoyment — or frustration.
“The tail is vigorously wagging the dog,” says wine writer Robert Joseph, who is also a producer and wine analyst. He notes that too many places lack the distinction required to make appellations practical, useful and relevant to today’s consumer. Add in the not-so-little wrinkle of climate change, and the very purpose of appellations going forward becomes a rousing debate.
So: are appellations too “rooted to the spot” to be useful in a changing world? Or do they still offer producers the best chance to market their wines on a crowded global marketplace? We sat down with Andrew Jefford and Robert Joseph and hashed it out.
Whether it is in the bilingual wine labels of Alto Adige, or the occasional Slavic grape name in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italian wine often reveals the duality of culture present in some of the country’s border regions. Tucked into Italy’s northwestern corner, Valle d’Aosta certainly demonstrates this, as its language, cuisine and wine seem to have one foot in Italy and another in France.