There are four main factors that affect the taste and quality of a wine. They are: grape variety, vintage, producer and place of origin.
When it comes to distinguishing one wine from another, this is usually the first, and sometimes the only, factor most people consider. This is strange because this is only one factor and it is, arguably, the least important. However, the grape variety/varieties used to produce a wine does play a major role in shaping the final product. Different grape varieties have different characteristics, which include: thickness of grape skins, colour, sugar levels, acid levels, as well as a unique set of chemical compounds that determine the wine’s aroma.
Obviously, in different years, weather patterns and conditions may vary. In some places the weather variances are more drastic than in others. Factors such as temperature, rainfall, sunshine, frost and wind all come into play and can have huge impact on the taste and quality of wine.
Of course, the quality of a wine from a particular vintage (year the grapes for a wine are harvested) is not only affected by the weather, but how the grape grower reacted to the weather. Did the grower leave enough leaf-canopy to protect against the hot sun? Did they harvest soon enough to prevent frost from ruining the grapes? Did they harvest too early?
There is always a balance that must be achieved, in the vineyard, between what nature is doing and how humans react.
It’s worth pointing out that vintage makes a bigger difference in some wine regions than in others. Usually, arid wine regions only exist because of the addition of water – usually through irrigation. In these areas the weather doesn’t usually experience much change from year to year. In cooler regions, grape growers are at the mercy of all sorts of weather.
Who is producing your wine plays a major role in the final outcome. So many aspects are involved, from vineyard practices to harvesting methods to all the different decisions made in the winery. Vineyard practices would include things like: cutting bunches of developing grapes to reduce yield and improve quality, canopy management (how many leaves to cut off), and decisions about organic practices and pest management, just to name a few.
There’s also the decision about whether to hand harvest or machine harvest, which, depending of the gradient of the land, may not be a decision. Winery practices include things like: type of grape press, type of fermentation tank, what yeasts to use, type of vessel for maturation, how long for the maturation process, and whether or not to put the wine through filtration. That’s just a small sample. Some wine makers like to manipulate the wine in a lot of ways, others like to stay out of the way and let nature determine the final product. Needless to say, who is producing your wine will make a huge difference. It is probably the most important factor of all.
Place of Origin
While there are those who will argue that a wine’s origin is only important because of the wine practices and traditions in that area, experienced wine drinkers know otherwise. Wines, from certain places, taste a certain way. It is remarkably easy, for instance, to pick out a Tuscan red or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
For me, every wine region has a flavour that is its own. This simply cannot be attributed to practices in the vineyard and the winery, important as those things are. Yes, those things make a difference. But, so does the soil, the weather, the water and, even, things like the local plant life. All of this is comprised in the French concept of terroir. There is no single word, in English, that can translate the word. But, essentially, it encapsulates all the aspects of a place, from earth to sky. That is: the soil, the gradient of the land and the weather. In some definitions, it even includes the relationship between the grape grower and the place.
It all sounds like mumbo jumbo to some, but I don’t agree. There are so many things that affect the final wine. The difference of one degree in temperature, on one day, for instance, will affect the taste and quality of the final product. Not only does the soil of every place differ, if only in minor ways, but so does the water, the weather and the temperature, to name only a few things. And, what about pollens and other things being blown by the wind into the vineyard? What effect do these things have on a wine?
The debate rages on. But, one this is for certain. Where a wine comes from, definitely matters.
Armed with a better understanding of the factors that affect the taste and quality of a wine, you will likely no longer walk into your local wine shop and request a “Merlot” without offering more details. I recommend exploring the wines of a particular region or, even, a particular producer. If you are exploring wines from a particular region, take notice of the vintage. You may be surprised at the differences between wines produces in different years.
When you start to become familiar with the subtle differences in wines that result from the different factors that can affect a wine, you will be well on your way to becoming an expert wine taster.