By Contributing Columnist Richard Olsen-Harbich
Voluptuous, muscular, fat, brooding, sultry…for hundreds of years, descriptors of the human condition have been used to define the flavors and experience of wine. With the advent of political correctness, some of these descriptors (like “feminine” and “masculine”) have lost favor, giving way to more literal references.
What has not changed however is the way that wine can be compared to people.
When I speak about wine I often use sociological analogies. That's nothing new -- vineyards and wine have been used to tell stories about people since biblical times. It’s often a good way to help folks understand wine -- and themselves.
Consider a new vineyard: Grape vines have the same average life span as humans -- approximately 70-80 years. Early in life, young vines are precocious and can produce a great deal of fruit, resulting in vibrant and fresh wines that usually fade relatively quickly.
Young vines needs lots of training and guidance to achieve a level of moderation. Conversely, older vines tend to decline in output in their latter years, yet can produce quality fruit and wines that are profound and deep, with great aging potential (seniors love hearing that one).
Grown and raised well, vines and people will last longer and produce better results over the long term. Mismanaged, neglected and abused, both can produce inferior results and come to a premature end.
The issue of terroir is one that becomes much clearer when discussing it in human terms. Vines, like people, will react to the conditions in which they are being raised -- both environmental and manmade. Both are biologically the same the world over. Yet when grown and raised in different places, they can take on the characteristics only found in that area. For people it is language, accents, customs and mannerisms. For vines it's flavor, aroma and body. Over very long periods of time, both will begin to genetically evolve to become more suited to their surroundings.
And you thought terroir was just this crazy French concept that only related to wine…
The analogy also holds true when discussing winemaking. Winemakers
essentially work as parents to their wines, raising them in the way
they believe to be correct and then sending them out into the real
Wines themselves are much like children. Some start out young and attractive -- better appreciated in their youth -- only to fade quickly, aging poorly and offering nothing later on. Others take more time to develop, are more problematic in the beginning, but turn out just fine. Some might have been good grapes (kids) when they began but through bad winemaking (i.e. parenting) they become rude and obnoxious -- even outright spoiled -- providing little enjoyment. The best wines and people will always be beautiful and vibrant when young, age gracefully and still be attractive and giving in their latter years. Wines, as in children, require a combination of good genetics (nature) favorable environmental factors and proper winemaking (nurture) in order to achieve success.
Studying and describing wine truly can be a lot like sociology --
the many factors involved make the science sometimes difficult to
achieve. We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; the
perfect match for one person may not be suitable for another.
That’s why I always say wine is a very personal thing. Whatever you
think is good and you enjoy is what you should drink. The craft of
growing grapes and making wine is a great deal like parenting --
without the back talk of course. Good winemaking, as well as good
parenting, requires a delicate blend of love, commitment, structure and
discipline. Providing quality care during the first years of life and a
gentle, guiding hand the rest of way -- without too much intervention
-- can often be the best way to parent both children and wine.
After all, any good winemaker will always tell you -- it takes a vineyard to raise a wine.