Talking about wine today. Thinking about how the bacterial crust on the soil shows up in the wine. Thinking that it’s a story of light. So pick up a glass, sip that sun, and walk with me for a moment through the Okanagan Llight…
Vineyard in Westbank Source
aka: Afternoon Light
Current fashion in wine talk is to gush (yes, gush) about flavours (black currant, tobacco, lychee), body (heavy, light), character (reserved, loud, bold, big), acidity, residual sugar and other things describing the capabilities of the human mouth. Why, you would think it was about us.
This is the correct method. The tongue can taste sour, sweet, salt, and bitter. That’s it. End of story. The nose, though, ah, the nose. The nose can lead you away from yourself into time and space and that dandelion you picked back there on April 14 and held up to your daughter’s chin. Every wine photographer knows that wine is all about light, and that humans are just suckers for light. Humans and grapes, we share that. Wine publicists? Usually they’re knocking the stuff back and writing tasting notes. Tasting notes? Maybe it’s time for smelling notes. Source.
As far as grape plants go, even smell is not the story. It’s about what we call light, air and water. Grapes trap photons of light, using enslaved bacteria, they mix it with air, and then they mix that mixture with water. Along the way, they steal a bit of energy, trap it in acid, then trap another photon of light, with more enslaved bacteria, to turn it into sugar. They do this as long as the sun shines. All plants do that. Grapes have a couple other tricks up their sleeves, though. First, they can absorb 25% more sun in their leaves than other plants before they stop photosynthesizing. They love heat. Second, they have a secondary form of photosynthesis in the skins of their fruit — the same that pineapples and cacti use to survive in the desert. The effect is that a grape plant is playing around and making art. They start small. Where there’s lots of light, they lay down lots of fruit buds for the next spring. They ramp it up a bit. They store acid in their fruit (young grapes are pure acid), and then convert it, later, to sugar. That looks like this:
Pinot Noir Grapes Undergoing Verraison. Source
At the Verraison stage, grapes begin the process of turning their acid berries into lush fruits. This process is a kind of secondary or delayed photosynthesis — a synthesis of fruit. The third form of secondary photosynthesis will happen during fermentation, when the manipulation of sugars goes through a third stage. Many different processes can live off of light. The wine is their record.
During and after Verraison, the skins of the grapes begin their transformative work. First, they shut their skins down during the day, build up on complex acids, then turn those into sugars during the night. It’s at night they breathe. Secondly, however, these acids are laid down in complex patterns according to how much light is shining on the berries, in union with the bacteria and fungi that live on the skins of the grapes and which will eventually lead to fermentation (or rot). Third, these acids, especially on shaded grapes, prejudice the grapes towards fermentation over rot. They are amazingly resilient. It is all a story of light.
The Vineyards of the Elbe
Radebeul, Saxony. Late June, 2010. Temperature 45 Celsius.
As I said, grapes love light and manipulate it right into the dark. Seeking light is what they’re about — and conserving it. They climb trees to get up higher at the light. They waste none of that light in producing heavy stalks. It’s all about following their growing tips, which are following the light, and where almost all of their sugars are produced, but it’s also about the shade of those trees, and how that, too, is recorded in the fruit. Light and shade: it’s a language. Out of languages like that, art is made. The grapes, however, can’t do it alone. You see, like all plants, the light’s not really their thing. It’s bacteria that really do the chemistry: they are the cholorophyll that live in symbiosis with the leaf; they are the fellow travellers around the root hairs that bring minerals to the roots; they are the soil crust that allows the earth to breathe and preserves water in the heat; they are the crust of the berries that prevent rot; and they are the yeasts that turn the whole year’s reach for the light into wine.
The Body of Christ
Sun, Vine, and Cross in Rüdesheim am Rhein
As humans, we can see light. In the wine, we can drink it. Not only that, we can drink an entire year, and because our noses have trapped molecules of every smell we’ve ever encountered, and compare new scents to them, we can taste them. So, let’s honour that, and stop talking about jam flavours and the warm notes of vanilla oak, and just talk about the light, the light, the light.
I mean, how often are we given such a chance to get outside our own heads and think like the most ancient, most life-giving processes on the planet? Wine is humbling.