The Question of Land-Focused vs. Hand-Focused Wines
Today, in nearly any thoughtful discussion of fine wine by knowledgeable drinkers, one finds a near universal bias towards Land-Focused or “terroir-driven” wines over “Hand-Focused” or winemaker-driven wines. This land-focused bias—the belief that wines that accurately depict a terroir are “better” wines—is nothing new. Old World wine drinkers and vintners have held this attitude for generations and have codified the bias into appellation laws.
What I’ve been wondering is this: Is a land-focused fine wine bias a more reasonable or legitimate approach to understanding and appreciating fine wine than a hand-focused bias?
What’s interesting about this question is that neither Land nor Hand focused wines can be said to have a monopoly on authenticity. A wine that is made to depict a style sought by the winemaker is no less authentic than a wine that is made to depict a specific terroir. Both are legitimate choices that can and are made by winemakers to create wines of individual personality. So claims of “authenticity” cannot be reasonably used to justify a determination that Land or Hand focused wines are “better” than the other.
Even more interesting however is that hand-focused wines are always more unique than land-focused wines.
Theoretically, five winemakers using the same grapes and dedicated to a land-focused approach to winemaking should produce very similar wines. On the other hand, if five Hand-Focused winemakers are using the same grapes they should only make similar wines by coincidence and most likely they will all five produce wines that depict different styles—making them more unique and in fact more individual.
Whether a land or hand focused wine is a more legitimate or reasonable approach to the production of fine wine is not a question of quality. That is, it’s not really possible to say whether a land-focused or hand focused wine is objectively better than the other. This is a matter of opinion.
If a winemaker chooses to create a 50/50 blend of stainless steel fermented Sauvignon Blanc and ripe, barrel-fermented/full malolactic Chardonnay, you may not like this wine as much as you like the wine made from the same grapes but both fermented in stainless steel. But from an objective perspective, that preference of yours is just about all you can say about the quality or deliciousness of the wines.
And despite this, there still is no question that the vast majority of fine wine devotees profess to prefer land-focused, terroir-driven wines. It’s something about the current day zeitgeist, isn’t it.
We live in a world where nature has been conquered. Discoveries of new places and new lands are behind us. Landscapes are groomed and manicured closely. The vast majority of the foods we eat and prepare are largely pre-prepared for us…even when we cook for ourselves. The mystery of far off lands is no more. Instantaneous communication and real-time images and video are constantly upon us. We live in a very composed, highly organized, very tiny world.
A land-driven wine seems more real and in contradiction to this tiny world in the same way that a backyard-grown, heirloom tomato sliced open and bit into seems real and uncomposed and timely. This bias toward land-focused wines over hand-focused wine is surely a response to the plastic nature of our lives and world.
But it is certainly true that these land-focused wines we seek out and glorify are in fact themselves highly composed. They are made with grapes grown on carefully pruned vines laid out in very straight, man-made rows. The grapes are harvested at a very particular moment, often determined by exact measurements. And the winemaking is also measured and careful and deliberate, almost as though it was hand-focused.
I too am very interested and drawn to land-focused wines. I’m simply curious what a piece of land will produce on my palate. But I have to admit, I’m equally interested in wine that is driven by the mind, the intellect and creativity of the artisan winemaker who goes at a wine the way a painter goes at a canvas or a sculptor goes at his block of clay. From this kind of effort have come monumentally singular wines that depict determined mind.
I understand the bias toward the Land Focused. But in an age where plasticity is everywhere and discovery rare, the unique creation of a single mind can be very compelling and perhaps an even more legitimate way to express an idea than land-focused wine.