Is the Making of Iconic Wines an Art or Science?

stack of wooden wine cases

Recently, while undertaking a tasting of wines for our Green Acres Summer Wine Sale, myself, Donal Morris and my son Patrick debated what are, and what makes icon wines – iconic?

We debated about the grapes, the regions, and the winemakers. In essence, I suppose, we were discussing the art vs science topic of winemaking. 

I’m going to attempt to re-produce our discussion by way of this blog post, along the lines just mentioned. grapes, regions and winemaking. Towards the end I’ll give you my list of producers that are most likely to produce iconic wines.

First of all we agreed that growing ‘great’ grapes was the start of the journey for iconic wines. There are essentially two elements to bear in mind here, a) terroir and b) vintage. We’ve covered these topics in many of previous blog posts, so I am not going to repeat myself here.

For the record, terroir is a reference to a region’s climate, soils and flora. And for vintage I am referring to all the processes and preparations made throughout the year leading up to, and including, harvest that define the job of viticulture or wine growing.

There are more than 10,000 varieties of grapes in the world but here is a listing the most widely grown ones:

  1. Cabernet Sauvignon, 840,000 acres (340,000 hectares)
  2. Merlot, 657,300 acres (266,000 hectares)
  3. Tempranillo, 570,800 acres (231,000 hectares)
  4. Airén, 538 700 acres (218 000 hectares)
  5. Chardonnay, 518,900 acres (211,000 hectares)
  6. Syrah, 470 000 acres (190,000 hectares)
  7. Grenache Noir, 402,780 acres (163,000 hectares)
  8. Sauvignon Blanc, 299 000 acres (121,000 hectares)
  9. Pinot Noir, 285,000 acres (115,000 hectares)
  10. Trebbiano Toscano / Ugni Blanc, 274,300 acres (111,000 hectares)

After everybody was happy with our list of grape varieties, we agreed on the top regions in Europe that are more likely to produce iconic wines. We decided to focus on Europe in order to make our discussion a little easier (and focused).

(Needless to say many wine producing regions outside of Europe are producing iconic wines also, but I’m sticking to Europe in this post.)

What are the top wine regions in Europe for Iconic Wines?

We picked 14 regions in Europe. I have no doubt that some of these regions might not be on your list and, you might argue, that I am missing some. However, have a look at what I’ve chosen – they are in no particular order and you decide which ones you agree with.

  • Champagne Region

One of the most famous wine regions in Europe. There are many Champagne houses to explore in both Reims and Epernay, where you’ll find all the prestigious names.

  • Piemonte, Italy

Piedmont is famous for its red wines that include Barolo and Barbaresco. If you are looking for rich whites, then Cortese, Arneis, and Erbaluce are here for you also.

  • Bordeaux, France

Bordeaux is known, informally, as the wine capital of the world. There is an enthralling combination of history, medieval culture, and good food and wine that makes Bordeaux a prime destination for wine lovers. Some of the most recognised regions in the world are here, including Medoc, Graves, Saint-Émilion, Pomerol, and the Sauternes region.

  • Burgundy, France

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay fans love the Burgundy (Bourgogne) wine region in France. In this region, terroir is taken very seriously, and labels are given to designate between the most prestigious plots of land, from Grand Cru vineyards to village-specific appellations. It produces some of the most sought-after wines on the planet. Regions that would make this list on their own include: Côte d’Auxerre (Chablis), Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune,  Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais, and Beaujolais.

  • Douro Valley, Portugal

The Douro Valley is an UNESCO listed world heritage site and nowhere else will you find vineyards growing on such steep slopes along the river as in the Douro Valley. Of course, the region is also known for its Port wines.

  • Rioja, Spain

The Rioja region on the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains is well known for its Tempranillo wines that are aged and sold at just the right drinking age to be properly enjoyed.

  • Loire Valley, France

Another well-known wine region in France. It’s made up of many separate sub regions, including the Muscadet, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé regions, along with others like Vouvray, Anjou, Saumur, Bourgueil, and Chinon. The grapes most characteristic of this area are Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc with some Melon de Bourgogne.

  • Tuscany, Italy

It is one of Italy’s most famous wine regions, which encompasses a lot of area. There are multiple sub-regions within Tuscany that are well known on their own, like Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Montepulciano.

  • Mosel, Germany

It might just be the 3rd-largest wine producer in Germany but is often considered one of the most prestigious. Its popular wines are mostly made from Riesling grapes and are known for having a scent of spring blossoms, a pale colour, and a fruity acidity.

  • Rhineland Pflaz, Germany

This is the second-largest wine region in Germany and the wines here are primarily dry white wines, although there are over 22 varietals of grapes that are officially allowed, so the variety is immense.

  • Istria, Croatia

We wanted to put this in here due to its history. As the region is made up of small, family-owned operations they don’t produce large quantities of wine, which is why you probably haven’t tried some. The main grapes you’ll find in Istria are Malvasia Istriana, a white grape that makes a fresh, fruity wine, and Teran, which makes a rich, earthy red.

  • Santorini, Greece

Serving the world with its fine wine since the middle ages the island’s flagship grape is Assyrtiko, a strong, bold white grape used in many single-varietal and blended wines in Santorini. It is unique to the island. You’ll also find Nykteri (another white), and Vinsanto, which is the island’s sweet white wine.

  • Rhone Valley, France

Names such as Côtes du Rhône, Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and Beaumes-de-Venise spring to mind. The area is divided into the northern and southern Rhone. The northern sub-region produces red wines with the Syrah grape, and white wines from Marsanne, Roussane and Viognier grapes. The southern sub-region produces many different blends of reds, whites and roses. The Rhone Valley is where the prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pape is made.

  • Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary

This lovely wine region is where the world’s oldest botrytized wine originated, known as Tokaji aszú wine. Botrytis, or noble rot, is a beneficial type of fungus that grows on grapes and produces a really nice sweet wine. Furmint and Hárslevelü are two grape varietals that have been growing in the region for centuries.

As you can see, I have only selected some top/popular regions in Europe. Of course, there are many more throughout the Continent to enjoy.

Is making iconic wines an art or a science?

Winemaking involves a host of scientific disciplines, including plant physiology, meteorology, agricultural engineering, plant pathology, entomology, chemistry, and microbiology.

Grape growers must know how the soil and climate will affect the fruit, and they must implement the latest techniques for preventing the spread of pests and disease.

Even seemingly simple things, such as knowing when and how much to irrigate, requires scientific precision in order to grow high quality fruit while conserving resources.

Science also tells us that more than 680 different compounds have been identified that contribute to wine aroma.

Besides aroma and flavour compounds, phenolic compounds also contribute significantly to wine taste. Phenolic compounds include the tannins and pigments in wine, as expected, in much higher levels in red wines.

The point I’m trying to make is that the scientific element of winemaking is an integral part of making an iconic wine.

Despite this scientific learning though, winemaking hasn’t fundamentally changed over the last 50 years. At its very basic level all winemaking is the same: get the right balance of flavour, sugar and acid, add some yeast, and away you go.

However the iconic wine producers must still make judgements regarding the effect of grape and wine handling on flavour, balance, extract, and style. There is no winemaking machine; wine quality is still immeasurable and subjective.

“Making good wine is a skill, making fine wine is an art” -Robert Mondavi

“Making good wine is a skill, making fine wine is an art” -Robert Mondavi #greenacresirl Click To Tweet

So, if I can use Robert Mondavi’s apt quote to explain my own thinking on this question. I believe that improved science and technology is helping to produce quality wines, more consistently, but it’s hard to ignore the undefinable x-factor of iconic wines. In this I mean, one that’s hard to quantify in a scientific manner.

And, art is also a very personal choice that really comes down to the eye of the beholder. Winemakers have their own ideologies which they want reflected in the wines and which they consider a work of art. I believe it is their magic touch that makes iconic wines.

To be honest most of our debate circled around the quantifiable aspects of winemaking but at the end of it, we all agreed that both the science and the magic were an integral part iconic wines.

My Producers list of Iconic Wines.

At the start of this post, I promised you a list of producers that I believe are most likely to develop iconic wines. So, here it is – my top 12 iconic wine producers!

Of course, “top choices” are almost always subjective – any grand title of recognition foisted on someone or something is bound to be met with an equal amount of derision.

You might well disagree with my eventual list and more than likely, as they are iconic, there probably won’t be many surprises. Also, it was hard to keep it to 12, but anyway, in no particular order:

1.Rhone, France – Chateauneuf-du-Pape: Château Rayas

2. Bordeaux, France – Pomerol: Petrus

3. Bordeaux, France – Medoc: Château Margaux

4. Burgundy, France – Auxey-Duresses: Domaine Leroy

5. Bordeaux, France – Graves, Sauternes: Château d’Yquem

6. Alsace, France – Ribeauvillé: Trimbach Estate – Clos Sainte Hune

7. Burgundy, France – wines of Dominique Lafon

8. Burgundy, France – Vosne-Romanée: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

9. Tuscany, Italy – Masseto

10. Valladolid, Spain – Finca Vega Sicilia

11. Reims, France – Champagne: Maison Krug

12. Mosel, Germany – Saar district: Weingut Egon Müller

Conclusion

If you are stocking your cellar with dozens of trophy (or cult) wines you might actually be missing out on some of the world’s finest examples of terroir and winemaking. We would suggest that if you are collecting, you should really start with the icon wines of a region.

Icons are emblematic of grape, region, and winemakers. Often these wines are already legendary and might even be trophies.

I have chosen my list of iconic wines producers above but if you are not a collector and are a regular reader of the Green Acres blog you will know that I always suggest loving the wine you’re with.

People often tell me of some incredible bottle of wine they have that is just waiting for that perfectly important event. Sometimes it’s a bottle they’ve saved up for and purchased or maybe at a tasting they fell in love and then spent three times as much as they normally would.

Maybe it IS an icon bottle of wine that just demands an epic special event. However, more often than not it’s lonely, growing old and melancholy, and probably not stored all that well either.

With the misplaced logic of waiting for that worthy occasion, the special bottle of wine, just dies a slow lonely death of solitude and neglect.

Then in the worst-case scenario, when they do finally open it, it is not showing well, and a great wine moment was lost as that iconic wine’s time has passed.

If you do want to start collecting or just purchase an epic wine to put away make sure you contact either myself or Donal Morris here in Green Acres who will gladly steer you in the right direction.

One last thing – did you know that we launched the Green Acres mobile app recently? Now you can bring us home in your pocket. Book tables, browse wines, learn of special offers, check events, connect with us, earn loyalty rewards and much more.  We would really appreciate if you would click on either of the tabs below to download for free.

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Talk to you soon, James.

wine bottle and glass silhoutte