Five Keys to Great Wine

Did you ever wonder why the folks in Napa Valley can make great wine while those on the Louisiana Bayou can’t? After all, to make wine you just need to be able to grow grapes, get some yeast involved and let those puppies ferment, right?

Napa has it all. | Courtesy Napa Valley Vintners

Quality wine, however, takes a lot more than that. Let’s look at the five key ingredients necessary to make an opus happen.

To make wine you just need to be able to grow grapes, get some yeast involved and let those puppies ferment, right?

No. 1 is a climate that is warm enough in the daytime and cool enough at night for the grapes to be able to develop flavors while retaining acidity. It is also beneficial to have weather that warms gradually at the beginning and cools gradually at the end of the season. This also creates the necessary balance of flavor and structure.

Rainfall or availability of water from irrigation is another factor. As with temperatures, the right amounts at the right times are needed.

No. 2 is soils. For starters, the ground should drain well so the grapes will have to struggle enough to promote the grape components that create flavor and complexity. Soil content also affects the temperature of the vineyards such as the rocky slate that retains daytime sun energy and warms the cool, steep vineyards in Germany overnight. Although flavors are not transferred directly from the ground, soils such as the marl and limestone in Burgundy do create an environment that encourages the development of molecules that make wine better.

No. 3 is farming. Wine grapes are grown in two main ways: the stand-alone gnarly old vines often seen in the Sierra Foothills or in some form of trellis system seen driving through Napa Valley. Viticulture also includes things such as irrigation, pruning, fertilization, pest control and an encyclopedia of other variables that determine the grapes’ fate.

Burgundy Grand Crus. | Lou Phillips

No. 4 is winemaking. There are many practices that affect the way the wine tastes. Controlling temperature of the juice, various fermentation and aging procedures; use of wood barrels and the timing of these and other procedures can make the difference between nectar of the gods and vinegar.

No. 5 is the resources factor. This consists of either owning or being willing to buy the best vineyards to get the best grapes, of having the best growers and winemakers working for your project and of spending what is necessary to make the best wine. Napa is a perfect example because the cost of grapes alone can be 20 times that of lesser regions, not to mention the winery space, equipment and cost of paying top wine talent.

So, if you want to try making vino in the Delta, don’t let me discourage you. Just don’t blame me if it tastes like Mississippi mud.


Lou Phillips

Lou is a Level 3 Sommelier based on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, who loves traveling the wine world doing research for his writing. He also consults for collectors and businesses buying and selling fine wine and creating special events.