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A great wine requires right weather, good location

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John Brown John Brown
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John Brown is president of Brown Communications in Charleston. He writes a monthly wine column for The State Journal.

Most of us want simple answers to the questions that perplex us. Take wine appreciation, for example. I am often asked to describe the most important qualitative aspect in producing good wine. Well, unfortunately there is no simple answer, but there are two basic conditions that must exist for good wine to be made.

The two most important influences in the cultivation of grapes are the geographic location of the vineyard and the weather. Assuming these two variables are in place, then other influences such as soil composition, topography, orientation of the vineyard to the sun and a whole host of additional esoteric factors come into play.

You don't have to be a horticulturist to know it's impossible to cultivate a vineyard at the North Pole, in Death Valley or at the top of Mount Everest. We all know that grapes require a moderate climate in order to grow and ripen to full maturity before being turned into wine.

What, then, is more critical to the production of good wine? The vineyard location or the weather? The obvious answer is both, but reality is a bit fuzzier. 

For example, take the world-famous appellations of Bordeaux and Burgundy in France. The best wines from these two regions are among the most expensive on earth, some of which cost more than $1,000 for a single bottle. The French proclaim loudly that wines produced in these places are superior because of the soil in the respective geographic locations.

What they don't tell you is that less than five out of every 10 vintages is average to awful in quality. Why? Simply put: Mother Nature. Weather in both Bordeaux and (particularly) Burgundy can be less than ideal for grape growing.

A perfect year can quickly morph into disaster when a sudden hailstorm in the spring or torrential rains during harvest wreak havoc on the vineyards. Just this past vintage, weather reduced the Burgundy crop by almost 70 percent.

Conversely, wine makers and growers in California and Southeast Australia tout the consistently good weather as the reason for the outstanding wines they produce. It is not often that weather causes problems in these regions. Yet, too much of a good thing (e.g. long, hot growing seasons) can result in a vintage of out of balance, insipid and overly alcoholic wines.

So how do winemakers in the most prestigious appellations around the wine world deal with an imperfect geographic location or intemperate weather conditions? A lot of different ways actually.

Let's look at how some deal with the issue of location. For years, wine makers in California struggled to make decent pinot noir and consistently failed. It was widely held that the state was just too warm to successfully produce this fickle grape, which requires a long, cool growing season.

Then along came wineries such as Calera and Acacia who began planting the grape in cooler locations and using rootstock from Burgundy. Consequently, by adapting their vineyard practices to what the grape required, California has been making excellent pinot noir for the last 30 years.

In Bordeaux and Burgundy, growers and wine makers now use advanced weather forecasting to protect their vines and to know exactly when to harvest. In addition, they employ New World techniques in the winery to improve the quality of their wines. And voila (That's "hot damn" in West Virginian), they are able to mitigate some of the most vexing problems.

If you are still reading this and just about to fall asleep, the takeaway is to do a little homework before you go on a wine-buying spree. Check out vintage reports and tasting notes for the wines you are interested in, particularly those, like Burgundy, that require a serious investment. You can also use Google, Ask.com or any Internet search engine to get the latest information.

In the meantime, you might search your local wine shop for this gem. The 2011 Borsao Tinto ($11) from Spain is one of the best inexpensive wines I've tasted in a long time. Rich and full of blackberry and cola flavors, this grenache (85 percent) and tempranillo (15 percent) blend is delicious and would pair very nicely with braised beef short ribs in a bath of red wine onions and mushrooms.