When I was learning to write, my teachers told us to answer “the six Ws:” Who, What, When, Where, Why and hoW. It was and is a good lesson. In writing about or even beginning to understand any particular wine, it is essential to consider those Ws. We’ll start with the first five in order of consideration. What, Who, Where, hoW, and When. Then we’ll get to Why.
First, you have to know what you’re drinking. To begin to understand a wine you need to know who made it, where it was made, how it was made, and when it was made. This all seems pretty straight forward but there is a bit more to it.
Knowing what you’re drinking is the first step to understanding it but what does it mean to know what you are drinking? Is the wine red, white, pink, or sparkling? Is it old world or new? Is it Cabernet or Bordeaux (which may also be Cabernet)? Is it Chardonnay or white Burgundy (which is in fact Chardonany). If it is a red from Pauillac in Bordeaux, do you know enough about Pauillac to know what the dominant grape variety is? How about the soil type? How about the most likely winemaking techniques? “What” is important and the more you know about wine, the more the “what” tells you.
“What” narrows the field and defines many of the other questions. Assuming you are not tasting blind and so know the basic information present on most wine labels, “what” gives the educated consumer a big head start on at least where, how, and when. Which brings us to who.
Who made the wine? Which is really to ask, “Who is the motive force behind the wine?” Is that person the owner or the winemaker or maybe a consultant or a top manager? At most California wineries, the winemaker (who may also be the owner) is the most important personality or at least the person with the most influence on style. In much of the old world, the winemaker is less important and it is the owner’s active hand that keeps the estate on course producing stylistically consistent wines. Anthony Barton at Ch. Leoville Barton has been a good example of the steady owner as motive force. Until very recently, Bart Araujo in Napa was another such owner example. As owners have become richer (or even corporate), the estate manager has become more important. While François Pinault owns Ch. Latour (along with Domaine de Eugenie in Burgundy, Ch. Grillet in the Rhone, and now Araujo in Napa Valley), his estate manager Frederic Engerer is the motive force behind the wines. (Mr. Pinault may be the motive force behind Mr. Engerer but that is more a discussion for a business school seminar than for a wine essay.)
Another trend in wine has lead to the rise of the consultants. Most top wineries in Bordeaux and many in much of the rest of the world are now using winemaking consultants. In the sense of exposing the winemaking team to outside ideas and keeping a current understanding of how a property fits into the rest of the world of wine, consultants are good thing. And when the consultant lets the wine’s personality (from place and motive force) continue, that is a good thing. But when a consultant so marks a wine that the taster can find the consultant in the wine, that can be a less than god thing. Nevertheless, there are a number of consultants who seem to put there stamp on the wine to the point that they become the “Who.” Names you often hear in this sense of consultant as motive force are (fairly or not) Michel Roland, Stephan Derenencourt, Helen Turley, and Paul Hobbes.
“Where” is really two questions. The obvious question is “Where were the grapes grown?” the other question is “Where was the wine made?” Both places have their influence on the finished wine. It is obvious that where the grapes are grown has a huge influence on how the wine will taste. That “where” can be in the larger sense as in which region or sub region (which in old world wines is more part of the “what” than the “where” because of the more geographic identification of wines as Bordeaux or Burgundy than Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir). Maybe more pertinently, “where” refers to the specific site or terroir where the grapes for this wine are grown. In both grape growing senses, where has the most power in determining what grapes are grown and what vineyard practices are used. If the “where” in question is a good influence and the “who” in question allows the “where” to speak, the place the grapes are grown will give the wine most of its character. The general place (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rioja, Rhiengau, etc.) will provide the outlines and the specific terroir will fill in the details.
“Where” also comes into play in where the wine was made. Winery conditions vary. Some wineries are more technically advanced and other more low or no tech. Some wineries are pristinely clean and others have a more used agricultural look. All of this affects the wine. And how damp or dry, cool or cold a winery or cellar is both determines the flora (yeasts and molds) and other microbials (such as lacto bacillus) present and the evaporation rates during barrel aging. The cellar (winery) is the most underrated and under-discussed aspect of “where” in wine.
Just how was the wine made? Does the producing area have defined or even codified tradition and practice? What is that tradition and practice? Was the process for this particular wine typical of the type or the area? If not, how was it different. Typical Bordeaux fermentation uses pump-overs for cap management and extraction of color and flavor from the grapes. Typical Burgundy fermentation uses punch-downs for cap management and extraction. But some Bordelaise are using punch-downs. And some Burgundians utilize pump-overs. And some of both are combining the two techniques in using both punch-downs and pump-overs on the same tanks (they sometimes refer to this as “punch-overs”). How long was the wine in tank? How large were the tanks? Were they temperature controlled? Were they concrete, wood or stainless? How long in barrels? What percentage of the barrels were new? Where was the wood grown? How long was it dried? How much was it toasted? Etc., etc., etc.
Again, multiple questions start with “when.” The obvious is “When were the grapes grown?” Which is to ask “What vintage?” But you can also ask: When were the grapes picked (actual harvest date(s))? When was the wine made? When was the wine put into barrel? When did malo-lactic fermentation start and end? When was the wine racked? When was it bottled? As “where” (assuming the tradition and practice of the place) may dictate much of the “how,” so also the “when” of the vintage may dictate the answers to many of the other “whens.”
Why should you care?
All of these factors, these Ws, have their affects both large and small on the finished wine. But what is all of this to you? Why (the final W) does this matter? The more and better answers you have to all of these questions, the more likely you are to learn more about the grapes, techniques, and places that yield the wines you like the best. And the more able you will be to consistently pick out wines you will enjoy – which is really the whole point of tasting and learning about (as opposed to just drinking) wine.