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An Interview (Part II) with Jean-Luc Colombo: on the Impact of Climate Change and Quality Winemaking

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

Second in a two-part a feature on French winemaker Jean-Luc Colombo. Part one appeared on Tuesday, Nov 9, 2020.


DRY FARMING and SYRAH


In classic French style, Jean-Luc Colombo gets down to business toward the end of the meal, “entre la poire et le fromage.”


The subjects are water and the Syrah grape. Unsurprisingly, Colombo broaches both provocatively.

“Global warming is good for me!” he states.


By now, everyone at the table is used to OBV’s (Original Bon Vivant) manner, but this statement takes all of us aback. Is Colombo about to tell us he’s a Climate Change denier?


Colombo’s vineyards use organic farming as much as possible. But his true religion is dry farming. Far from being in the United States on a diplomatic mission, Colombo is here in large part to consult on vineyards in the Taub portfolio, like Saracina Vineyards, that are located in California’s Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.


Colombo is really saying that he’s already ahead of the curve. Other vintners may be in trouble if water becomes scarce due to climate change. But he will not have to worry about it. It is his way of alluding to the advantages of dry farming.


“Dry farming is even better than organic farming! Organic farming still allows irrigation. But irrigation gives high yields that take all the complexity and subtlety out of a wine. Dry farming loses volume. But dry farmed wines gain in elegance.”


Colombo is reinforcing the point that giving a vine lots of water may help it to create big, plump grapes that are excellent for producing mass quantities of wine. But it is not so good if one wants to make quality wine.


In fact, there is nothing wrong with using irrigation to produce less expensive wine. But Colombo is outraged at irrigation used for expensive wines. “Water for a $500 wine? Never! Irrigation for a wine like that is a crime!”


He pushes the point: “think about forests. They don’t need to be irrigated. The roots of a grape vine will reach down to find the water deep in the soil in any case.”


“Great wines from the Rhône have the color of Gaugin and Picasso; they are full of subtle flavors, of flowers and minerals. California has too many areas that irrigate and produce big wines without any subtlety.”


That is not to say Colombo dismisses the greatness of many California wines. “There are areas like the Anderson Valley, and producers like Phillips Hill, that do things right.”


Colombo is a good friend of Paul Draper, the Winemaker who brought respectability back to Zinfandel in the 1970s at Ridge Vineyard, and won 5th place at the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976.

Draper is a firm believer in cool-climate viticulture, which does not require irrigation because the vine doesn’t get beaten down by the sun.


Yet it takes 3-4 years to convert a vineyard to dry farming. Which brings us to Syrah.

I ask Colombo about Syrah, the only grape permitted in Cornas, in the Northern Rhône. Why doesn’t Syrah – a grape that often produces wines far more complex than Cabernet, and arguably as complex as Pinot Noir – catch on more broadly in the United States?


“Many grapes are like an everyday clothing store. But Syrah is like Hermès: it is expensive.”

And yet, it does not make enough money to justify setting up a winery in areas like Napa that fetch $250,000 per acre, or even $100,000, like Sonoma. Only Cabernet and Chardonnay are popular enough among consumers to break even on that kind of investment.


Delaying any return on a vineyard a further 3-4 years in order to convert it to dry farming? That’s just not in the cards for most wineries.


And consumer attitudes about Syrah need to change before its greatness is realized. Consumer wine sophistication is higher than it’s ever been in America, but Americans still often expect wines that are higher than 14% alcohol, and drink their wines by the glass.


Colombo prefers wines that pair well with food, and for that, “12-14% alcohol is the maximum one should drink. Any higher, and it will not pair well with anything. To appreciate Syrah, one needs to appreciate the subtlety, fullness, mineralogy and elegance of this grape. That is only possible with dry farming. It will probably be 50 years before Syrah is accepted along with Cabernet and Pinot Noir.”


True to himself, Jean-Luc Colombo exits provocatively.

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