Is a single vineyard designated wine a measure of quality?
In the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers, Canaan was considered one of the great grape and wine centers (the name of its royal city, Hebron, stems from the phrase “Valley of Grapes.”) The same was true for the Phoenician city of Byblos situated between Beirut and Tripoli. But neither of the two great wine centers seem to have promoted single vineyard designation. That distinction may have begun in Egypt.
By the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, some four-thousand years ago, the Nile Delta had gained official sanction as a wine-producing area. Later, the tombs of Pepi and of the child king Tutankhamen included wine bottles labeled with the vintage year, name of the estate’s owner, winemaker’s name, and the name of the vineyard designation—these were the quality wines.
Greeks established quality wine regions, too, as well as small family vineyards known for their quality, but wine production in both Greece and Rome relied largely on grapes from multiple vineyards under contract. Then, in the year 121BC, the Roman province of Campania shook the Roman wine world with quality wine produced from grapes grown in a single vineyard. It was a hillside site known as Falernum.
In actuality, Falernum comprised three single vineyard designations: Caucinian, at the top of the hill; Faustian, on the mid slopes; and Falernian proper, at the foothills. The level of perceived quality determined their individual price. Faustian was considered the best.
Unlike the recognized wines of Pompeii nearby, which had been produced on a mass scale, Falernum production was small, which added to the cost of its wines. Its single vineyard designation held its own for a few centuries until, around the second century AD, a proliferation of phony Falernum labels weakened the original wine’s status.
The next major single vineyard success arguably took place when Arnaud de Pontac’s combination restaurant and grocery opened in London in 1666. De Pontac also produced Haut-Brion wine in his hometown, the Medoc district of Bordeaux. Again, most wines were produced from multiple vineyards under contract. Haut-Brion was produced like Falernum had been produced, from vines grown in a single vineyard.
The status of Haut-Brion flowered in London, where the elite were known to dine at de Pontac’s restaurant and drink what they called “Ho Brian” wine. His success stirred the future success of single vineyard wine production at other Châteux in the Medoc: Margaux, La Tour, La Fitte, et al.
Legend has it that single vineyard designated California premium wines began in 1966 with the Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and added in 1975 the Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay from Chateau St. Jean. There may have been earlier ones, but certainly these two became legendary California single vineyard designated wines, because of their quality.
That is the short version of the path of quality single vineyard designated wines. And this is This Day In Wine History.