Fall has finally arrived and we feline five our enjoying ourselves immensely. Brisk mornings have the wait staff up early and feeling frisky, a feeling we share. There are still enough lizards about during the day for a little game of tag and it’s hard to find a better place for a nap than that layer of leaves that collects on top of our favorite patch of sand.
As daylight hours shrink, we do find ourselves venturing inside a little earlier. Just a few extra minutes that we can spend drinking wine. Mostest suggested that we could use these extra minutes to increase our wine knowledge. It makes for such a pleasant way to wrap up the day – a glass of wine, a book about our favorite topic and a few cat treats on the side.
First up on our reading list is one the staff brought home some time ago but which we have only recently managed to dislodge from the shelves. Deirdre Heekin, co-owner and official greeter for the Osteria Pane e Salute in Vermont, has a fascinating book called “An Unlikely Vineyard”. The story is straightforward – Heekin and her husband, fellow co-owner Chef Caleb Barber, move to Vermont to create their vision of a true farm-to-table restaurant. The goal – to create a farm that can supply most of the ingredients used in the restaurant.
Eventually, this idea grows to include the wines that are served. Oenophiles everywhere are no doubt shuddering at the thought of wines from Vermont, but what follows is Heekin’s introduction to the concept of terroir and the modern concept of biodynamics.
Mention terroir and most people probably think soil. There’s this notion that terroir is simply the French way of describing the impact of soil on the flavor of a wine. Plant your grapes in an area that’s heavy with limestone and your wines will have that mineral clarity. Plant in a dry, arid region and your wines will be dry as well.
But true terroir is more complicated than just the soil. It encompasses all of the elements that impact the vines and the grapes. The type of breeze, the surrounding plant life, the type of trees that share the soil, not to mention the animal life; all of these have an impact on the vineyard. Terroir, at its heart, is about recognizing the particular biome of an area, whether that area is an acre or a few thousand acres.
The best vineyards understand the type of biome that exists before they start planting. Studying the types of plants that grow naturally is the surest way to understand the characteristics of a plot of land and the type of grape that would thrive there. Too many modern vineyards ignore such factors and simply plant the type of grape that produces the most wine. At the end, you often end up with vines that will only survive for fifteen or twenty years, then be pulled out and replaced. For wine lovers, this is heartbreaking. The best wines tend to come from older vines, yet there are so few of these today.
Heekin, though not an expert by any means at the start of the book, has an intuitive understanding of this idea, and they smartly plant lesser known cold-weather grapes from areas that have a terroir similar to the area of Vermont where they’ve chosen to settle. There’s a bit of luck involved with those first selections, but as the vines begin to flourish, Heekin’s knowledge and understanding of terroir also increases.
Heekin’s book reads as a passage of discovery, and she shares much of what she’s learned along the way, particularly when it comes to the field of biodynamics. This new area is best described as science meets terroir. And yes, biodynamic winemakers plant cow horns in the vineyard, but there’s a valid scientific/agricultural reason, not just some woo-woo custom. We’ll just say what mother always said, “Read the book.”
This is a fantastic look into the heart of a farm, and a true understanding of how all the bits and pieces fit together. Every item that’s added has an impact, whether the vines themselves, the beehives, the choice of flowers, or even the type of potatoes. It’s a book that all wine lovers should read, just to understand how much goes into developing the flavor of a wine, and to appreciate how much art is involved in producing the best wines.