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The Where of Wine

What we talk about when we talk about geography

by Peter Mitham
elkton oregon
Conditions for ideal grapegrowing can be uniform in spite of varied locations. The cool Pacific air heralded in the Elkton Oregon AVA (above) is enjoyed by viticulturists in Napa, Calif., as well.
Vancouver, B.C.—A fascinating aspect of visiting tasting rooms, guided tastings and other events where experts have a chance to talk about particular growing regions is the way certain stories or ways of talking about a place come to the fore.

An enduring memory of my first visit to Napa, Calif., in 1997 is the way the morning fogs were spoken of as a manifestation of the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean, forming when cooler, moist ocean air collides with warmer air of California’s Central Valley then dispersing as the air warms up.

Smaller regions, too, share stories about themselves. Visit any small vineyard in a region where you least expect to find grapes, and the talk usually focuses on the microclimate or other unique qualities of that specific location that make it ideal for growing wine grapes. (Vineyards in cool-climate regions often drop references to how the latitude is shared with some famous region in Europe.)

While skeptics find hay to be made from some of the explanations, they often highlight some basic truths about the place. The stories validate regions and give growers ways of thinking about where they’re at, what might work best and what might be possible.

Beyond the Washington State Wine Commission’s tagline, “the perfect climate for wine,” lies the story of the Missoula floods as an explanation for Eastern Washington’s unique geography and soils.

Further north, the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia claims Canada’s only patch of true desert in the steppes around Osoyoos. The popular narrative links it to the Sonoran desert of the U.S. Southwest (with architecture to match), though it is more closely connected with the Columbia Plateau of Eastern Washington—a much less romantic connection.

And in Oregon, the Willamette Valley’s southward reach between the folds of the Coast Range and the Cascades gives it an orientation challenged by the AVAs of Southern Oregon. When the Elkton Oregon AVA was announced earlier this year, proponent Michael Landt explained how it possesses a unique climate thanks to its exposure to cool Pacific air flowing in via an opening in the mountains at the mouth of the Umpqua River.

This makes good copy for journalists, but sometimes the stories can be told too well.

Truth in advertising
During a panel discussion about California wines at the Vancouver International Wine Festival earlier this year, an audience member questioned a winemaker from the Edna Valley AVA about the potential challenges of growing in a valley that runs east-to-west rather than north-south like so many other valleys in California.

Of course, the narrative kicked in: Exposure to the moderating influences from the Pacific flowing in from the west combined with a hot inland climate combined to make the region unique—but perhaps no more so than Napa, with its own dose of cool of Pacific air moderating the climate of its own valley.

The good news, of course, is that science is paying attention to what we might call these founding legends of our great wine-producing regions. Petitions for new AVAs do a great deal to establish a scientific basis for each appellation and sub-appellation, but as Kevin Pogue noted when talking about his research into the effect of geography on climate in the Columbia Valley, there is more work to be done.

Growers, for instance, have long known that cold air pools in the valleys of the Columbia Basin. But putting numbers to that knowledge that can help growers understand where to plant—rather than just make guesses based on trends—is the job of the researchers, record-keepers and data-loggers.

Pogue, through his research, is confirming the promise of some areas, and is likewise shocked by some of the numbers he’s put to phenomena such as continuous frost-free days and suitable elevations for vineyards (for more on Pogue’s research, see “Topography and Temperature”).

But this where science, while not necessarily busting received wisdom, certainly helps marry it with scientific data (because, as the old saying goes, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote”).

Scholarship doesn’t have to be the enemy of romance. The stories we tell—and the marketing pitches we make—can help boost the credibility of the wines we produce.

Speaking at the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair in November, Lisa Perrotti-Brown—successor to Robert Parker as editor-in-chief of The Wine Advocate—said wine must be intellectually stimulating if it hopes to make inroads in Asia’s “hedonistically saturated” markets. Data can ground romance, and give it a dose of authenticity.

It’s something consumers in emerging regions such as Asia want, especially in a more austere era when quality needs to be less ostentatious and more discreet.

Stephen Williams, managing director of the London, England-based Antique Wine Co., told Wines & Vines that there’s a new focus on understanding the intrinsic value of fine wines rather than depending on the external signifiers of value.

Being able to tell stories backed by hard data has a role to play in developing that understanding.

“We have a market that is now open to explore and discover quality, not blinded by brand,” he said.

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