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A Winemaker's Journal

BUT DOES THE WINE TASTE BETTER?

By Elias Fernandez

Count yourself lucky. Wine lovers today enjoy an unprecedented array of choices – wines from countless regions in the world crafted in lots of fascinating ways. One trend I’ve been watching is the growing number of fine wines coming from organic or sustainably farmed vineyards.

While I’ve welcomed these earth-friendly changes, I have often wondered if they also improve the wine.

My boyhood memories of California vineyards are of flat, straight, clean sites where only knobby grape vines grew out of the soil – no stray grass, no sign of insects, no life forms of any kind.

The only way to produce that effect is to pour on high-octane chemicals first to wipe out all unwanted plant and bug life and then to fertilize the stripped-down soil.

By the 1980s, that kind of farming was beginning to fall out of favor. Here at Shafer, we realized that if great wine is made in the vineyard, we needed to safeguard the long-term health of our property.

We started by planting our first cover crops in the late 1980s. Each winter we seed the rows between the vines with clover, oats, bell beans and other crops partly as a way of creating a home for insect life. We’ve learned that in this habitat the “bad bugs” that attack our vines are held in check by their natural predators, insects such as spiders and lady bugs.

Cover crops also compete with our vines for water and plant nutrients. A vine that struggles tends to produce smaller, intensely flavored berries.

Finally, when the cover crops die out, they enrich the soil.

Over time wineries like ours have turned to cover crops and other techniques to eliminate the use of insecticides, commercial fertilizers and other chemicals sprayed throughout vineyards.

At the onset of our sustainable approach, my gut told me that cleaner farming would mean healthier soil and vines. But would it ultimately make a difference in the quality of the wine itself? I wouldn’t have any data on that for more than ten years.

Each year I record the various components in our newly harvested fruit, including the levels of macronutrients like nitrogen and amino acids. A couple of years ago, looking back over this data, I realized that over the past decade there’s been a steady growth in the percentage of nitrogen compounds in the fruit. These are crucial to the success of fermentation, resulting in markedly cleaner, more pure flavors.

Clearly something has changed out in the vineyard and it’s showing up in the bottle.

You can have some fun testing this yourself. Invite friends to a tasting of earth-friendly wines such as those produced in California by Frog’s Leap, Shafer, and Spottswoode or go international with wines such as those from Chateau Haut Mallet in Bordeaux or Millton Vineyards in New Zealand. Even if you don’t come up with a definitive answer, you’ll have a great time going “green.”

 

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