Are Single Vineyard Wines Really Better?

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte Rosé)

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When I look over my highest-scoring wines in Wine Enthusiast’s database, it’s hard not to notice the prevalence of vineyard-designated bottlings. About 90-95 percent of my top scorers have borne either the name of a vineyard, or had the word “estate” or “estate-bottled” on the label. Steve Heimoff

The gist of the Heimoff posting (http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2010/03/23/its-all-in-the-vineyard/ ) is that working with the grapes from a single vineyard allows the vineyardist and the winemaker to concentrate on the vines in a way not otherwise possible.

When I read this, I had a reaction I so often have when I see a conclusion drawn from a premise. The Latin phrase, “Post haec, propter haec” says it ail (“After this, because of this.”) It’s the statement of a fallacy. That something follows from something else doesn’t mean it’s caused by that something else. Or, stated another way, a correlation does not mean causation.

And I think when it comes to vineyard designations, Steve’s conclusion is a fallacy. It may be true that vineyard designated wines score better, but there can be lots of reasons for that besides the assumption that single vineyard wines are better wines.

Most obvious is the possibility, or more likely probability, that many producers reserve a vineyard designation for wines they consider to be superior. They may in fact have lots of vineyard specific wines, but choose only the best ones for that special “vineyard designation”. There could be twenty different vineyards, each processed with the same meticulous care, but of which only a few are judged to be good enough to warrant a designation. The rest get relegated to a cheaper wine. It may even still be from a single vineyard, but isn’t designated as such.

I think something else in the Heimoff article tips us off that this is in fact the case. For not only vineyard designated, but estate bottled, wines score higher. Estate bottled may be from many different vineyards, the only requirement being that the winery controls (and control can be pretty loose) the growing, and the wine is made on-premise at the winery. A winery is far more likely to designate a wine as “Estate Bottled” if it considers that blend (and it probably is a blend) superior. So, again, it is the winery’s assessment of the quality of the wine, not the fact that it came from a single vineyard (or winery controlled multiple vineyards) which explains the superiority of the wines.

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8 Responses to “Are Single Vineyard Wines Really Better?”

  1. Arthur says:

    This assertion is not entirely false. Some vineyards do have that certain something that only gets diluted and muddled when that vineyard’s fruit is mixed with fruit from other sites.

  2. Gottfried says:

    yes - agree - there are some vineyards which are so well suited to wine growing and a specific variety. With individual characteristics. But I also believe in that many varieties can show their origin much better (traditional field blends). The soil,… comes more thru.

    I think its ok when a special place is scored higher than big blends.

  3. KathyS says:

    One of the fun things about drinking a single vineyard wine is being able to taste and then understand the vineyard itself. Not possible when drinking a wine blended from multiple sourced vineyards. I often find that single vineyard wines are just more interesting.

  4. Todd says:

    I agree with Kathy that single vineyard wines generally are more interesting, but rarely does “interesting” result in higher scores — in fact it could be considered a strike against the wine on a 100 point scale.

    Arthur is correct that blending tends to result in reversion to the mean (hence less interesting). Blending can hide shortcomings in a portion of the fruit - so if wine is bottled as a vineyard designate it usually will have very few shortcomings to begin with and have a few interesting characteristics that justify the bottling.

    Perhaps demand from discerning consumers who want interesting wines is what drives this result? I think most people who frequently drink quality wine seek out something interesting and are willing to pay more for it if it is good.

    That said, we’ve all had estate wines that were interesting in an unpleasant (unbalanced) way. These typically score in the low 80s on the 100 point scale. That fruit might be better served in the cuvees where it can perhaps make a contribution, or perhaps just hide. Again, reversion to the mean, but from the other side of the bell curve.

  5. Alison Crowe says:

    If you are looking for an emotional attachment to a place to enhance your enjoyment of a wine, then you may well judge a single-vineyard wine to be “better” than a blend.

    As a winemaker, however, I can attest that almost always I can make the objectively “better” wine (more balanced, more nuanced, richer, more complex) by blending across rows, blocks and vineyards of my Russian River Pinot Noir. It’s such a wide appellation that I love combining the blackberry of the eastern benchland part of the appellation with the tighter, more mineral western edges.

    Single vineyard wines carry their own story (and the added enjoyment factor thereof) but a carefully, purposely crafted blend can speak its own truth too. It’s like listening to a cello solor vs. a string quartet. Which experience is “better”?

  6. Don Phelps says:

    I think you are right on in your assessment. There is one other thing that did not come out but is certainly a factor and that is ‘How many wineries submit their poorer quality wine, whether vineyard designated, estate grown or otherwise, for evaluation?”

    One other factor in the estate column is being able to process the grapes much quicker and not having to truck them several hours from the vineyard in 90 degree temperatures. And because they are estate grapes the winemaker might take just that little bit extra time and effort to produce a better wine. Neither of which means the grapes are better just because they come from a single or estate vineyard.

  7. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Kathy, I agree that sometimes single vineyard wines are very interesting. But what Jeff Miller is saying, is that often, it is only a few out of many one-vineyard fermentations, that get bottled as such and then sold in the market.

    Now, in Burgundy, it is a different story. Ah, Burgundy. AAAAhhhhhh, Burgundy.

    Jeff, thanks for your article. Many times, the wine writers and the public don’t have a clear idea of what you, the winemaker, start with and what you end with as a labeled product on the shelf or on the list.

  8. As far as I can remember, every winery I have ever visited (all in California, unfortunately) makes their wine not just vineyard by vineyard, but block by block. The wines are usually (not always) kept separate until the final blend is put together just before bottling. Many choose their best barrels, from whatever particular vineyard or block, and combine them for a “Reserve” bottling. I would guess that if you used many different vineyards, and one (or more) was consistently better than the rest, then a single vineyard bottling makes sense.

    Unfortunately, it’s easy to go overboard, making a number of mediocre single vineyard wines when judicious blending could have made one or two very good wines (see Pinot Noir, Oregon).

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