A study tour of California in 2000 included visits to several producers of ultra-premium wines ( + per bottle of wine).

In conversations with the people involved and visits to various vineyards and cellars involved in ultra-premium vinification, broad guidelines could be identified, despite differences of opinion. A few of these guidelines will be discussed below.

Terroir

Certainly the most important factor influencing grape quality and therefore the resulting wine quality, is terroir and with it the cultivar / rootstock combination for that specific terroir. In broad terms, terroir may be described as the combination of climate, topography and soils.

Generally speaking, quality producing areas in California fall in zone 1 – 3, according to the Winkler system. With regard to ultra-premium cultivation, certain smaller areas are identified within these climatic zones – this identification of smaller areas is of cardinal importance, according to certain wine grape producers. Weather stations and temperature models (to determine a cultivar’s ripening) are extremely important and certain areas are classified as high potential on the basis of climatic data alone. Soils and topography then play a significant role within these smaller areas. In the light of this approach, certain cultivars / rootstock combinations are selected. In some instances the cultivar is selected first, whereafter a specific locality is sourced. The goal at the end of the day is the combination of cultivar and terroir to produce superior quality grapes.

In many instances, however, producers manipulate vineyards regardless of terroir to produce grapes they subjectively consider superior – in some cases the tour group was not convinced that these grapes were indeed superior and the general opinion was that grape quality is in the first place terroir bound and cannot be controlled to such a large extent by vineyard manipulations. The ideal will therefore be a natural interplay of terroir and the cultivar / rootstock combination, with minimal interference, to eventually produce superior quality grapes.

Wynboer - April 2002 - The Approach Followed In The Cultivation / Vinification Of Ultra-Premium Wines In California Wynboer - April 2002 - The Approach Followed In The Cultivation / Vinification Of Ultra-Premium Wines In California Wynboer - April 2002 - The Approach Followed In The Cultivation / Vinification Of Ultra-Premium Wines In California Wynboer - April 2002 - The Approach Followed In The Cultivation / Vinification Of Ultra-Premium Wines In California Wynboer - April 2002 - The Approach Followed In The Cultivation / Vinification Of Ultra-Premium Wines In California

Soils and block layout

In the case of undeveloped areas, soil analyses are conducted to quantify soil variations – in accordance with the South African system.

In the case of existing vineyard areas, GIS (Geographic Information System) technology, NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) and/or Infrared Remote Sensing are predominantly used to determine vigour differences in vineyards. This forms the basis of block layout and rootstock selection. In new vineyards, soil variations dictate block layout, the main purpose being to obtain the least possible variation in a vineyard block.

Plant width and trellis systems

The ideal is to obtain a balance between growth above and under the ground, while the canopy is accommodated by the selected trellis system using only limited canopy control actions. This philosophy is underlined by the producers’ selected trellis systems. The desired norm in plant widths ranges from 2,4m to – 1,2m. Certain producers claim the contrary, however. In their case (narrow plantings) vineyard manipulations were the order of the day and vineyards are carefully manicured. In many instances this approach defies logical explanation, being an indiscriminate attempt to copy the French cultivation pholosophy.

Vertical shoot positioning is used exclusively for canopy control in premium vineyards.

Vineyard management and canopy control practices

The quality of pruning and canopy control practices is outstanding – everyone involved in vineyard actions knows the reasons for specific actions, due to the high level of training and management. Everyone in the production chain is aware of the end goal and realises the importance of actions from the vineyard to the bottle.

The latest technology is used for irrigation scheduling, for example, to obtain a better comprehension of situations and take focussed management decisions. If necessary, specialists are asked to assist with vineyard management practices.

Ripeness monitoring and pressing of grapes

Meticulous monitoring of ripeness, sampling as well as foliage and grape evaluations are undertaken to determine optimum ripeness.

Where variations occur within blocks, these areas (as determined with GIS or Infra Red Sensing) are monitored separately and pressed and handled individually. Grapes are pressed mainly in crates or half ton containers.

General

Especially noticeable was the involvement of the viticulturist / producers in the ultimate wine goal, as well as the knowledge and involvement of the winemaker in vineyard and grape matters. The involvement of the wine producer and winemaker in the entire value chain deserves mention.

In general grapes are specially cultivated to produce small quantities of ultra-premium wine. In the cellar, too, grapes from a particular block are handled on an individual level (small tanks). Hand sorting, good facilities, small tanks and the best barrels are the order of the day. In most instances a dedicated winemaker focusses exclusively on the vinification of an ultra-premium wine.

Vineyard block and wine history record keeping is taken very seriously.

The entire approach vis – vis capital expenditure in the vineyards and cellar, labour and management is not negotiable. If a locality looks promising, the organisation does everything in its power to ensure that the grapes end up in the bottle.

However, marketing is one of the most important foundations of the concept of ultra-premium wines. Relatively small quantities are sold at exorbitant prices, which in actual fact means selling the concept of exclusivity at a high price.

In a country such as the USA with its strong economy, the cultivation and selling of ultra-premium wines is therefore a lucrative business.

To ensure success, the quality of the wine must nevertheless also be outstanding

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