What Our Wine Icons Mean
With the Essential Winemakers secion of this site, I not only want to guide you toward the most compelling and reliable winemakers in Italy and France, I want to give you a sense for what they are all about at a single glance. The same goes for my wine reviews, as sometimes the best features of a winemaker’s practices are not disclosed on the label.
To do this, I use the following icons throughout Opening a Bottle*, which were designed by Hailey Day of HeyDay Creative (who also is responsible for the site’s design and functionality).
*This practice began in May 2020.
Nothing is simple in wine, and I admit that this is an imperfect practice, but I feel like these attributes are either worth celebrating or worth disclosing to you as a wine lover with similar interests as me.
So here is a breakdown on how I determine whether to apply these icons to each winemaker and their wines, or not.
In the Vineyard
Certified vs. Practicing Organic / Certified vs. Practicing Biodynamic
There are several reasons for winemakers to “go organic,” and even more reasons for wine drinkers to seek out their wines. For me, the evidence is personal. I’ve walked through organic vineyards, as well as conventionally farmed ones. The former were teeming with life. They seemed like enjoyable places to work. The latter? Not as much. That said, I am not inclined to rule out conventionally made wines. This is a subject matter with a lot of gray. If a winery is not organic, that does not necessarily mean their vineyards are the scene of chemical warfare, as some natural wine proponents like to portray it.
I assign the organic icon to both certified organic winemakers and practicing organic winemakers. If the icon is colored green, the producer went the extra lengths to be certified as such, which to me is an added measure of transparency worth recognizing. If its gray, that means there is gray area in how much is organic. They can claim to be 100% organic, but without more editorial resources, without a full year to witness their operation with my own eyes, without — in short — certification, I have to take their word for it. Even if I have visited the estate and everything seems organic, much of this is based on trust. Looks can be deceiving, so it stays red or gray, just like the other icons. Greenwashing is as real in wine as it is elsewhere.
Now, why not recognize only certified organic? Because its costly and bureaucratic to get certified. Some producers can easily afford the certification process, but for others on a razor-thin margin, its an expense that can deplete their resources. Organic viticulture is also easier in some places. Where it is difficult to enact (usually because of humidity and rain), being about to apply certain non-organic treatments in certain doses might be the ripcord a winery needs to survive a vintage. The choice is easier for some than others. By and large, most practicing organic winemakers that I’ve encountered are truly following through on this promise, and the health of their vineyards would suggests as such.
Biodynamic is more intensive, and also more controversial. Following the tenants of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic farming, in short, seeks to improve the overall health of the vineyard as an ecosystem by increasing microbial life in the soil, allowing and managing cover crops for biodiversity, and timing certain actions with the phases of the moon (thus, the icon).
What could be controversial about that? Well, the devil is in the details. Certain biodynamic tenants could still use more support from scientific study, and some feel that we should be leery of the absolutism the movement sometimes engenders.
That said, if an approach works for a winemaker and their particular vineyard and winery, and they have evidence to suggest its the right approach for what they want to accomplish, I am all ears. The jury is still out for me on biodynamics, but I do find aspects of the practice compelling, such as treating the vineyard as an interconnected part of the ecosystem, as well as timing certain procedures with plant cycles. I’ll also say that many of my favorite wines happen to be biodynamic. What I’ll likely never know is if they are my favorite because they are biodynamic, or just because they are meticulously made wines.
As you can see, I am not dogmatic on this topic, but I do want to celebrate the commitment to reducing the use of chemicals, or at the very least, limiting their application. There are other certifications that I hope catch on as well, most notably certifying wineries for operating with biodiversity in mind. This will be an evolving subject matter for sure.
This is a measure that is near and dear to my heart, but probably the most nebulous to assign. Wineries with this icon have at least one vineyard where the labor to farm it is so intensive, you question their sanity. (“Heroic” for the record, is a wine industry phrase, and not my own invention). To me, “improbable viticulture” is a good way to look at it. Farming the slope would seem unlikely, but somehow they make it work.
In Europe, there is an organization called CERVIM that is devoted to the preservation of mountain viticulture. (Each year, they have an “International Congress on Mountain and Steep-Slopes Viticulture” … these are my kind of people). CERVIM has put a formal definition on heroic viticulture that is handy. The first measure for heroic viticulture is the steepness of the slope. Vineyards that require terracing just to defy gravity are a clear hallmark of heroic viticulture — think of Valtellina in Italy, or the Côte Rôtie in France. Terracing alone is not required. The vines of Cartizze and Valdobbiadene grow on very steep pitches, but the root systems hold much of the hillside together (most of the time).
The second measure is altitude. High-altitude vineyards — such as Valle d’Aosta and the upper slopes of Alto Adige, Etna and Savoie — have extreme weather that dramatically raise the stakes for farming.
The last measure is remoteness, often defined by small island viticulture with minimal infrastructure and a combination of the previous two measures.
Some regions are entirely comprised of heroic vineyards, such as the aforementioned Valtellina and Côte Rôtie, the Amalfi Coast and Pantelleria, Spain’s Ribeira Sacra, and Portugal’s Duoro. Others — like Alto Adige — have a majority of their vineyards on workable, gently sloped land, with a few outlier vineyards of extreme steepness and exposure to the elements.
Heroic vineyards and the wineries that work with them are constantly under threat. Their very existence is tenuous, and from my experience, the only reason they continue to exist is because they yield unbelievably expressive wines. They should be duly celebrated.
Vines are very much like people. When they are young, they grow at great speed and yield grapes with a lot of energy. (Ever try putting a toddler down for naptime? Yeah, vines can be hyperactive like that). As they age, vines will yield less fruit, and if they have lived a long and healthy life, the grapes they do yield can have exquisite character. I like to think of these vines as carrying a certain wisdom from their experience.
However, vine age is relative, as some grape varieties, like Grenache, can live for 150+ years, while others hardly ever reach their 40th birthday.
Because of this, the old vines icon requires a bit of a judgment call on my part. But for the most part, it signifies that the winery has one or more wines that benefit from the wisdom of vines that are 50-plus years old.
In the wine world, it doesn’t get any geekier than discussions on soil type. I happily partake from time to time, and have even begun to notice certain “tells” of soil types when I taste — a genuine sign that I am in too deep. I could have icons for limestone and granite soil, too, but volcanic soils have earned an icon mostly from a storytelling standpoint. Tending vines in volcanic soil requires an extra set of management tools for winegrowers, and in some cases, that is because the vineyards reside next to an active volcano.
Whether the responsible party for these soils is active or dormant, the drama from these soils seems to register in the glass as well, in the form of faintly smoky, sulfury aromas and flavors; lean and precise fruit; and a prickly texture. Wines from volcanic soils are not better, they’re just very unique.
For this icon, the threshold is a century of wine production, rather than some notion of fame or historic accomplishment. Longevity is the takeaway, and with such longevity is the thrilling prospect of tasting older vintages from such a winery. In many cases in Italy and France, these historic wineries are also multi-generational family businesses as well, so you often see these icons as counterparts.
One of the most underappreciated measures of quality in a winery is whether it is managed by a family, especially in Europe, where wine-making approaches are often passed down from generation to generation like precious heirlooms.
Again, this is not a fool-proof method for assessing quality in a wine, but if they are listed as Essential Winemakers, there is a very high likelihood that their success stems from a family effort. Plus, there is the added intrigue of multi-generational wineries, who have to honor their family’s past reputation, while forging a path forward in an uncertain era of climate change. This equation makes family-operated wineries all the more precious to me, and worthy of our support.
This icon celebrates co-operation [insert laugh track]. No really, co-operative wineries are fascinating little ecosystems in their own right. Throughout Europe, communities of winegrowers have often banded together to make wine under a single label. The growers contribute grapes from their parcels, and the winery makes and sells the wines to the marketplace. Simple, right?
Not so fast. For one, the politics within co-operative wineries can be intense. Not all vineyards within a community are equal, and winegrowing families often have varying viticultural practices, some of which have been passed down from generation to generation. (Try telling a winegrower that the way his or her parents were doing it was wrong). Then, decisions in the winery — everything from fermentation vessel to aging regime to labeling — have ramifications beyond just the winery. That’s because co-op wineries carry the name of the community. The winery’s reputation can become the community’s reputation. (No pressure).
Keeping the community of winegrowers happy while producing a quality product is a tightrope act to say the very least. It is a big reason why many co-ops have a poor reputation — they allow economic and political considerations drive their decisions (who can blame them, I guess?), and aim for volume rather than quality.
So if a wine shows up on Opening a Bottle from a co-operative winery, I’d like to tip my cap to them for threading this needle and creating a wine that is noteworthy. To make the Essential Winemakers list deserves a standing ovation. So yes, this icon does celebrate co-operation.
A négociant is simply a business model. The company buys their grapes (rather than harvesting from vineyards they own) and makes wine from their purchase. Sometimes, the négociant also buys wine and blends it or bottles it under their own label. And sometimes their business is a mixture of purchasing grapes and owning vineyards. None of these distinctions are a metric of quality. I’ve had good and bad from both sides of the divide. In certain regions, such as Champagne, the négociant can be a sign that the winery has additional financial resources that can be applied in the cellar (such as storing numerous vintages of réserve wines for blending) or towards research and development.
I only mark wineries as a négociant if this business model is central to their story (versus, for instance, a winery that produces a single wine from bought grapes).
Good example: Charles Heidsieck
Once the wine bug has bitten you, older vintages begin to consume your thoughts. The prospect of tasting the fruits of the year you were born — or if you’re really lucky, the 1945 vintage when World War II ended — is the stuff of legend.
What makes a wine age-worthy in a cellar is a complex set of factors, and it can all go wrong if you don’t have ideal storage conditions. But knowing which producers make wines built to last is something you’d like to know, and I’ve done my best to mark winemakers and their wines that are ideal for aging with this icon. And by age, I’m going with 10 years after vintage date, as a minimum. Also note that this icon next to an Essential Winemaker does not necessarily mean all of their wines are collectible — look to the top of their roster, and work your way down. (For instance, Vietti‘s Barolo, Barbaresco and Timorasso are collectible, but their Dolcetto and Arneis are best drunk young.)
Requires Some Searching
Reading Opening a Bottle may result in frustration when you try to track down the wines we feature.
Sorry, not sorry.
The thrill of the hunt is part of wine’s appeal. That’s why I have no problem writing a lengthy article on a producer I’m fairly certain is hard to find. What they demonstrated to me in the bottle — and the story of their winery, their region, their grapes — is compelling enough for inclusion. Like any business, their survival depends on being known, so … I make them known to my readers when it feels noteworthy.
So be forewarned if you see this icon. You’ll need to do some hunting (start by contacting the importer, which I try to make a point of listing, too).
Stay at Winery
Once upon a time, before the Big Bad Coronavirus swept the world and shut everything down, people would travel to wine regions for pleasure. I am confident that this will resume someday soon, and when it does, it will provide a much-needed revenue stream to the wineries featuring this icon. I’ve been fortunate to stay at some incredible farm-stays in Europe, and will continue to be on the lookout for more opportunities that mix excellent wine with cozy digs, once travel resumes in full.