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When a Vine Walks the Line Between Sweet and Dry Wines, That’s Amore

Some vintners make two completely different styles of wine from the same vineyard

Roger Morris By November 9, 2021
Quinta de Roriz estate in Duoro Valley, Portugal
Quinta de Roriz is one of the oldest estates in the Douro Valley, Portugal. Photo courtesy of Quinta de Roriz.

Winemakers around the world are in love with their vineyards, and most are prone to boasting about how one particular grape variety is perfectly suited to their specific terroir. 

But a few adventuresome vintners look at their vineyards and the rows of vines and see things quite differently. These winegrowers gaze out at the option of picking the same grapes in the same vineyards and making two completely different styles of wine from them the way a football quarterback can decide to run the ball or pitch it to another player.

These special vineyards, like the Roman god Janus, have two contrasting faces that offer winemakers two options.

Decision time

How different winemakers choose which path to take varies. For some, it depends on current conditions in their vineyards, while others choose according to what wine lovers happen to be drinking at the moment, especially if their vineyard qualifies for more than one appellation.

For example, Portugal’s Symington family has been in the Port business for five generations, dating back to 1891, both as shippers and as growers of the luscious, fortified dessert wine made from a blend of local grape varieties grown on vines clinging to the steep hillsides of the sun-soaked Douro River Valley. But because their production quotas are limited by industry regulations, the Symingtons and other winegrowers historically have not been able to make Port from all their grapes, often selling them for bulk wines or commercial alcohol production a waste of grapes and resources.

“For several years, we had been making a little dry table wine for our personal consumption from the same grapes we used in making Port,” says Symington Family Estates CEO Rupert Symington, but the family had agreed not to market it. “Then in 1999, I made an impassioned plea to our board to reverse that decision.” His arguments to diversify without needing to buy additional vineyards were convincing, so the Symingtons took on a partner with table wine experience. Today, Prats & Symington is a leader in dry wines made from traditional Port vineyards, or quintas, but marketed under the Douro DOC appellation. “We turned a problem into an opportunity,” Symington says proudly. 

Bérénice Lurton owns Château Climens, a family wine estate in the Barsac region of Bordeaux, which historically produced only sweet wines from grapes that are dried on the vines by the attack of a water-draining fungus, botrytis. In recent years, some producers began making both dessert and table wines from the same grapes, mainly Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, yet the white table wine could be sold only under the generic Bordeaux Blanc or Bordeaux Sec labels.

The Prats & Symington barrel cellar in the Douro Valley

The Prats & Symington barrel cellar in the Douro Valley. Photo courtesy of Prats & Symington.

But even as demand for dessert wines in world markets slowed down, Lurton resisted making table wine. “Climens’ terroir and reputation require excellence,” she says. “There was absolutely no way that we would create anything but a very special wine!” Two things made her change her mind. One was a frost in spring 2017 that killed many of her vines, necessitating replanting. The second was a chance meeting that fall in New York with Loire winemaker Pascal Jolivet, who convinced her there were ways she could also make a superior dry white wine. “My new wine, Asphodele, was conceived, if not born, in New York City,” says Lurton.

A third vintner with options is Jean-Francois Deu, whose Domaine du Traginer owns a mixed-variety vineyard in the Catalan region of France near the border with Spain, a vineyard officially classified to make either dry red wines as Collioure or a concentrated sweet dessert wine as Banyuls. Standing among his mountaintop vines overlooking the Mediterranean not long ago, Deu explained his decision-making process. “It depends on what I have too much of in the cellar. Then I will make the other wine.” Deu likes the fact that he doesn’t have to pull the trigger on making that decision until late summer.

Two-faced vineyards elsewhere

Of course, there are other places around the world that allow this unusual practice of making two wines from the same grapevines. Generally, they are where the producers, like Symington, Lurton, and Deu, can produce both a table and a dessert wine. 

In other instances, a winegrower may decide to make a table wine and a sparkling wine from the same vineyards. In France, these regional bubblies are generally known simply as crémants. Conversely, a few Champagne houses produce a Pinot Noir still wine called Coteaux Champenois, sometimes from a sole vineyard. This practice also takes place in New World wineries. For example, the historic Klein Constantia Estate in South Africa produces sparkling wines and table wines from adjacent blocks of Chardonnay in the same vineyard, though it is now being replanted with new clones. 

One reason these two-faced vineyards are somewhat rare is that the grape profile at harvest varies according to the wine being made from it. When Lurton and Jolivet tasted grapes from her new vines, “We realized that we should pick early to keep a good level of acidity and take profit of the crispness and freshness of the aromas,” she says, a perfect recipe for her first table wine. Grapes from older vines, designated to make traditional sweet wines, would naturally hang longer, awaiting botrytis.

In the Symington Port Quinta do Vesuvio, “we make the decision early on how much we will need to make our Port quota,” Symington says, “then we will pick the other grapes a little earlier for the table wines.”

Insurance policy

Is there really that much of an advantage in owning a two-faced vineyard? As consumer demand and the prices that can be charged can fluctuate considerably, in addition to the variable weather brought on by global warming, it certainly is. Take the Cazes winery, which since 1895 has made wine in Roussillon, particularly in the Maury region where both dry and sweet wines can legally be produced. 

Lionel Lavail, Cazes’ CEO, says, “When my grandfather made Maury, people who produced pricey sweet wine were richer than growers outside of Maury who could make only dry wine. In the 1950s and ’60s, they called people who lived in Maury ‘the Americans’ because those winemakers had money and were the first in the region to own automobiles and television sets.”

But by the time his father was making wine, Lavail says, “tastes had changed, and we produced about 50/50 dry and sweet wines. And today, we make 85% dry wine and only 15% sweet.” 

Which, Lavail adds, means that now almost every winemaker in and around Maury can be “an American,” driving a car and owning a TV, whether they make a sweet or dry wine or both.

6 wines from Janus-faced vineyards:

bottle of Prats & Symington Prazo de Roriz Douro Red Wine 2017

Prats & Symington Prazo de Roriz Douro Red Wine 2017 ($19)

A good everyday red, with fruitiness up front and a tangy finish with lingering old-barrel notes.

bottle of Symington Family Quinta de Roriz Vintage Port 2016

Symington Family Quinta de Roriz Vintage Port 2016 ($68)

Very smooth, very rich, with excellent persistence of flavors, chiefly ripe plums and dried figs, lightened by fresh acidity.

bottle of Domaine les Clos De Paulilles Cazes Estate Collioure France 2017

Domaine les Clos De Paulilles Cazes Estate Collioure France 2017 ($25)

Good richness of both red and black fruits with hints of savory garrigue and barrel notes in the finish. 

bottle of Pix Wine Cazes Les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls Grand Cru VDN Rouge 2013

Cazes Les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls Grand Cru VDN Rouge 2013 ($55)

The flavors are similar to those of an aged Left Bank Bordeaux dried blackberry, cigar leaf, figs but with a sweet richness that comes to earth with a crisp ending.

bottle of Château Climens Asphodele Blanc Sec 2018

Château Climens Asphodele Blanc Sec 2018 ($35)

Made only of Semillon, it is a very elegant and complex white with lots of minerality, notes of honeycomb, whey, and dried stone fruits with a touch of tanginess in the finish. 

bottle of Château Climens Les Cyprès de Climens Barsac 2016

Château Climens Les Cyprès de Climens Barsac 2016 ($77)

As the estate’s second, more-affordable wine, Cyprès is nevertheless very layered with aromas of honeysuckle, beeswax, and tropical flowers, but its flavor is mainly one of luscious, super-ripe peach tapering to an excellent, balancing acidity.