Something about Burgundy (France) seems to be unusually inspiring to growers and winemakers in Northern California. Here we create wines with balance and style that we believe (perhaps prejudicially) rival any wine in Burgundy.
Burgundy’s primary grapes are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and its most famous vineyards are in the hands of the men who work them. The best of these vineyards are classified as Grand Cru. This is a story about Burgundian grapes and our own Grand Cru farmer (vigeron, in France) that grows them in Sonoma County. Paul Sloan at Small Vines is our vigeron.
Burgundy since the Middle Ages has defined much of what we take for granted about these classic grapes, especially Pinot Noir. The Church with an educated workforce had time to cultivate vines, experiment, and observe/record variances in vineyards. It became old-school which plots of land and which methods of growing were the best for their grapes, so that in the late 1800’s when a phylloxera disaster occurred, only the best vineyards were worth replanting. The Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy continue to produce some great wines.
In talking about the vineyards where fine wines are grown, the term terroir (pronounced “ter-wah-r” or “ter-wah”) is used. The definition is often “a sense of place” implying that the soil and climate impart a personality to the wine. But terroir stands for so much more than soil and climate, as any farmer will tell you, it is a complex combination of conditions to be gently guided year after year in the face of every challenge Mother Nature concocts. So the most often overlooked element of terroir is the person who tends the grapes and makes the wine (in France there isn’t even a word for winemaker it is just vigeron). This is why our local vigeron, Paul Sloan at Small Vines, is so important.
Many of us know our local farmers via roadside stands or farmers markets, because there is an increased awareness about food quality – we want our food to be fresh and healthy. We believe this type of food comes from a balanced environment that we can recognize. But when it comes to wine, we lack a reference for a balanced vineyard. Instead, we rely on a vigeron’s standards to develop and maintain a precise and controlled method for tending his vines that creates a healthy balance in the vineyard. In Burgundy, the quantity of fruit and the size / shape of the vine are regulated. The goal of these restrictions is to limit grape crop size to improve quality thus protecting the reputation of their wines. In the U.S., we lack a historical persceptive or desire to develop such planting standards. So our vigeron spends time year after year walking the land, breathing the air, listening to the leaves rustle in the wind, smelling the earth and the soils and the underbrush, sensing how the temperature and wind patterns shift hour-to-hour, determining alone what creates his balanced vineyard.
Paul follows Grand Cru standards for his vines, but it is more than regulations it is his meticulous attention to everything from canopy management, to cluster distribution, to crop load that creates an environmentally soft footprint and his perfect vine balance. It is a labor intensive, detailed monitoring that is this vigeron’s personal standard. It is an expensive method of farming both in the vineyard development costs (twice as many plants, stakes, etc.) and the year-to-year labor costs. Each vine requiring twice the attention as many other viticulturists might allocate to their vines. It would definitely be easier to farm the way others do. Paul’s vineyards require attention, but they reward him, which is exactly the point. Some times we forget the basics – it doesn’t always take fancy gadgets or the latest technolgy – sometimes just the simple, caring hands of a diligent farmer.
Paul’s mantra is “the smaller the vine the better the wine” which derives from the fact all the great wines of the world are made from lowish yielding vines. However, it is not true that simply having low yields or small vines will ensure wine quality. What is of equal importance is the circumstances under which those low yields were obtained. If not well managed a vineyard will never produce grapes capable of creating fine wine, so it comes down to vigernon that farms it.
It is said Burgundy wines appeal to the heart, I know they reach the heart of at least one vigeron and his family because it is reflected in their love of the vines and the land on which they are grown.
One of my great pleasures with wine is that its story never ends! My wine and viticulture exploration is filled with evolving knowledge and dedicated men and women that love the vine. They graciously share their hard-earned knowledge and collaborate to make this sensual treat we imbibe ever more delicious. What I truly love about wine is the context—the people, the place, the story – those that make it and those that share a glass with me. Paul and Kathyrn Sloan (our vigeron’s wife) are two of these dedicated individuals with gracious sharing hearts that want you enjoy wine as much as they enjoy growing the grapes and making their wine.
Having been a consumer of Small Vine wines now for many years, I have become a believer, because I find their wines to be complex, structured, and interesting. A wine that is in harmony; a wine that is as balanced as is the vineyard in which it is grown. Paul’s small vines do create better wine.
To get some of these wonderful wines, often requires an allocation, but reach out to Kathryn Sloan and I am sure she will find a bottle or two to share. Add good friends and family, and you have the perfect combination.
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