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Drawn to Wine Country (April 14, 2005)

A quote from Bill Bryson's travel book on Australia, In A Sunburned Country, gave me pause for thought. Bryson, who is usually a very astute observer of the human condition, even though he is a beer-drinker, wrote, "I've never quite understood why tourists from the more prosperous end of the market are so drawn to wine-growing areas. They wouldn't presumably want to go to see cotton before it became L.L. Bean slacks or caviar being gutted from sturgeon, but give them a backdrop of vines and they appear to think they have found heaven."

There are a multitude of reasons why people, and not only wine lovers, are drawn to wine country — reasons beyond the skirt-chasing, spittoon-swilling excesses of the hit movie Sideways.

Ten Top Reasons Why We Visit Vineyards:

  1. The scenery is beautiful: man imposing order on nature. Think of those serried rows of vines in such mountainous landscapes as the Douro Valley, northern Rhône, Priorato and Valtellina, to name but a few.
  2. The process is intriguing. Seeing how winemakers convert a perishable fruit into a beverage that can last 10, 20 and sometimes 100 years is a kind of miraculous alchemy.
  3. You can find wines unavailable elsewhere. Estate wine shops carry limited edition wines and experimental products served only in their tasting rooms.
  4. In Canada, you're helping the winery's bottom line. They earn more from selling you a bottle of wine from their own shop than they do by offering it through liquor boards.
  5. Wine always tastes better in the presence of the winemaker. Your natural civility inhibits criticism.
  6. Tasting comparatively sharpens your palate. By sampling four wines you can appreciate the differences between varietals and zero in on what you like.
  7. Where there's good wine there's good food. You'll find terrific restaurants in wine country around the world.
  8. Whatever the season, there is always something of interest going on: planting, pruning, picking, pressing – and always something to taste.
  9. Winemakers and their assistants are ready to answer all your questions – even the dumb ones, like "When does the self-guided tour start?" Or "Should I swallow my gum before I taste?"
  10. You get to leave the city and breathe clean air in a stress-free environment.

That having been said, there are certain things that I could do without when I visit a winery. If another winemaker says to me, "Wine is made in the vineyard," I'm going to throttle him.

Of course wine is made in the vineyard. Where else would it be made? In a cotton field or a buffalo paddock (even if some wines might taste as if they had)? The idea they want to express by this homily is a variant of that old cliché: "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." To make good wine you have to start with good grapes. Or, to put it another way, the best grapes make the best wine, a formula which – by inference – precludes the ministrations of the winemaker entirely. The winemaker is, or should be, a kind of midwife assisting (i.e., being present at) the birth of the wine. The less he or she has to do, the better the wine will be. And this presupposes healthy grapes to start with. But there are times when the hand of the winemaker is necessary to chivvy the fermentation along, to compensate for under-ripe fruit, to select the best maturation process or to blend for cosmetic purposes.

Another much bandied-about term is terroir. Terroir is more than earth. It is earth and what happens above and below it. Terroir is a combination of soil, subsoil, drainage, weather, wind, exposure and the flora and fauna in the immediate vicinity. All of these factors will influence the flavour of a wine. (For instance, think of the gum trees in the Barossa Valley, where accumulation of their fallen leaves imports a minty flavour to the Cabernets and Shirazes of the region.)

Finally, some reflections on a voguish wine-taster's term: over-extracted. Over-extracted wines are those that are very dark and opaque in colour, are concentrated and jammy and fruit-forward: New World wines on steroids, enhanced by excessively long maceration, and all are up-front. But don't knock them. Such wines have their place in the scheme of things: as when you're invited to the World Wrestling Federation Awards or to dine with your neighbour who owns pit bulls and the menu is either dinosaur ribs or you. But give me balance and harmony every time. That's why my license plate is CLARET and my best drinking experiences have been Burgundies.




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