Wine column: Vintage challenges, here and abroad

10/09/2011 12:32 PM |

For Long Island’s vintners, the vintage of 2011 has been one of the most difficult in 30 years. Beginning with a fierce winter that made pruning vines in drifting snow a reminder that viticulture is a test of humans’ desire to dominate nature, the growing season proceeded with one challenge followed by another. Relentless spring rain followed by soaring heat spawned unfriendly fungi and delayed ripening. Localized hail damaged some clusters. Worse, the ripening ability of many vineyards was badly affected by salt spray from Tropical Storm Irene, which caused leaves to shrivel and drop while berry sugar counts were still too low to make wine.

However, much winemaking is romanticized. Ultimately it is like every kind of agriculture; growers must always countenance crop losses. Global climate change, as predicted, has brought heavier than normal weather events. Experienced winemakers become philosophers, taking the good with the bad and making the most of every situation. Some are luckier than others; where one vineyard is denuded by salt spray, another may be favored by a sheltered location and sustain little damage. Many fine wines will still result from this vintage; the lesser wines will be light quaffing stuff, consumed and forgotten by harvest 2012.

While vintners all over the world deal with the vagaries of nature, I found on a recent trip to far-flung parts of the world that some of the oldest wine-growing regions have different challenges, caused by customs, politics and religion.

In modern Turkey (a secular nation created in 1923 from parts of what used to be Byzantine and Ottoman empires), the wine industry has roots going back to 4000 B.C. Noah’s biblical vineyard was located there, and the Greek god of wine, Dionysus (or Bacchus to Romans), was born there. Although the Ottoman Muslims prohibited winemaking during the 500 years of their reign, Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, founded a commercial winery in 1925 in his efforts to westernize Turkey. By 2009, wine consumption in Turkey reached 20,906,762 liters, with national production currently at over 275 million liters.

Increased acceptance of and international investment in Turkish wine were spurred by the introduction of international grape varieties in the 1990s. But even as that wine industry has grown, the secularization of Turkey has met with fierce resistance from its increasingly radicalized Islamic community. Today, its government is run by a Muslim prime minister who has hindered the Turkish wine industry by taxing alcohol and prohibiting restaurants from serving wine in outdoor spaces. I was shocked to find the cheapest wines sold in Turkish restaurants priced at $40 and up due to exorbitant taxes on alcohol.

In contrast, in the (formerly Soviet) Republic of Georgia, the Western-friendly government encourages its wine industry, which has been favored by new infusions of capital. There, the obstacles have more to do with custom than religion. Georgians have made wine for over 8,000 years; their wines are part of their identity.

While it was a state of the Soviet Union, Georgia’s winemaking was centralized and production driven by volume, not by quality. In the Kakheti region, a broad fertile valley under the Caucasus Mountains, households historically made their own wines in buried pottery amphorae, kveris, which were filled with grapes and left to develop, unopened, for several years. Thus, traditional Georgian wines differ greatly from modern, stainless steel fermented wines. They are dry, textured and tannic. I found some I tasted to be compellingly complex and not as oxidized as I expected, but many are just plain funky.

When I went to Vinoterra Schuchmann, a new Georgian winery funded by German investors, I saw how difficult it is to merge this ancient winemaking technique with new methods. Their assistant winemaker, Roland Burdiachveli, grew up in a winemaking family and was educated in Germany. He showed me how new kveris are used to ferment some of the fruit, then removed to French oak barrels for finishing rather than being sealed up for years. The result is a hybrid style that needs to find understanding and acceptance both at home and abroad.

With 60 percent of its wine made in modern tanks, with new technology, and 40 percent made the old way, Schuchmann is betting on both sides of the fence. For them, the search for identity is as much a challenge as an opportunity. They have to train their workers to change both techniques and attitudes. And they, like vintners everywhere, have to contend with weather, too.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.