Thursday, June 30, 2016

10 questions to ask about any wine appellation

Last weekend I had an email from a longtime correspondent who asked, for unstated reasons of his own, what 10 important questions I would ask about any wine appellation, and what one question is unimportant.

My first response: now there's a blog post. Visiting appellations and trying to tell their stories is the second best part of writing about wine. (No. 1: drinking all the great wine.) But I had never codified exactly what I'm looking for. So here goes.

1. History

The key to the narrative in most good appellation stories.

2. Climate

Not only does it tell a significant part of the story, it's also an easy part of the story to retell. "Cool summer nights enable the grapes to retain their acidity," for example.

3. What grape varieties are most planted?

4. What varieties grow best?

Here's a big difference between Europe and the U.S. In Europe it's expected that the answers to 3 and 4 are the same.

5. Who are the main producers?

For most consumers, the big players define a region.

6. Who are the best producers?

The answer is subjective, of course, but I can't write about a region without writing about wines from it that I like.

7. Where can my readers buy these wines? 

For any print publication, this is essential. Many will not let you mention any wines that aren't available locally. It's easier for me when I write for Wine Searcher or my blog, because I can recommend any wine a reader can buy online. But I still avoid exalting wines readers can't ever try, because it's obnoxious: "I had this wonderful one-of-a-kind wine in the cellar at the winery and it was the best thing I ever put in my mouth! Enjoy your Charles Shaw."

8. Soils

To the French it's everything, but honestly, most of the time I don't care. Potential answers to the question are infinite, but for consumers it's binary: good soils or not. Nobody ever picks up a wine list and says, "I feel like drinking something grown on granite." Moreover, most regions have a hodgepodge. All of that said, soils can have a great impact on the character of wine and when the answer actually is binary -- the blue slate of Mosel, the red dirt of Coonawarra -- it's essential.

9. Elevation

Some regions are defined by it. And unlike soils, it's easy to explain and understand.

10. Conflict

This is the hardest question to get a good answer to, but it doesn't actually belong last on this list because it's at the core of all the most interesting wine stories. I put it here for narrative impact. A good wine story is like any other story: it has characters and a narrative. Most appellation stories consist of the first nine questions: smart people making good wine on clay-topped marl in a short growing season at 1600 feet. I've written that story dozens of times; we all have. But the stories you remember, the stories people most want to read, are about movements, or petitions, or reclassifications. Young winemakers doing something their parents didn't. The wineries fighting the growers. The vintners association fighting a recalcitrant member. Something with a narrative arc. Wine writers (myself included) get many of their stories through cooperation with PR professionals, and PR professionals abhor conflict -- it's their job to minimize it. But you can't have great writing without it.

As for the one question that's unimportant:

0. Which wines get the highest scores?

Especially for a new region, this is often a big part of the press information: some wine earned 92 points from Wine Expectorator, an important milestone! Meh, everybody's got a 95 from somewhere. Put it on a shelf talker if you must but leave me out of it.

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