A wine starts long before it hits the chemist’s test tube. In fact, it starts out something like this …
Baco Noir Grapes in the Okanagan
At this early stage of their development the grapes are laying down the foundation of the flavours that will come out in the mouth of the man or woman who drinks them a year or two later. At this point, they are almost entirely malic acid. Beginning in August, much (but not all) of this acid will convert to sugars.
Don’t be fooled by those sugars. It’s nice to think that the sun makes sugars and rich fruit flavours for the wine, but it doesn’t. It makes acid. As for the fruit flavours, they come through the process of fermentation, as the different digestive systems of different strains of yeast transform complex compounds in the grapes into flavours recognizable to the human tongue. The chemical compounds themselves come from the interaction of the grape vine with the earth. This, for example, is some vineyard earth:
Vineyard Soil in the Mosel
Traditional wine makers will tell you that the minerality of this soil finds its way into the wine. High tech winemakers will tell you that’s all bahooey, as there’s no way at all for chemicals to pass through the chain of photosynthesis and get lodged within the wine itself.
There’s another way of looking at that, which has implications for how grapes are grown and where they are planted. At the moment, it’s a primary principle of grape growing in the deserts of the Okanagan, the Okanogan and Southern Washington that grapes need sun, lots of it, and that with enough sun anything can be made of them in the laboratory. Above Lake Geneva, this principle was taken to incredible lengths over a century ago — but with the attention given to the grapes before they were harvested, not afterwards. Back then, the old monastic vineyards halfway between Montreux and Lausanne were carved up into terraces so that in that cool climate the grapes could get as much sun as there possibly was, so now they get sun three ways: from the sky, striking the slopes at optimum angles, reflected up from the lake (again at good angles, due to the steepness of the slopes) and at night, when the sun’s heat radiates again out of the rocks. The results, the Swiss like to say, are rich wines made from low quality, short season grapes. Walking among the vineyards (or riding a little tourist tractor-drawn train) is a primary form of tourism in the area as well, and why not, it’s stunning, with a view clear to France…
The Vineyards of Delazney
Soaking up sun from a sky that changes every ten minutes — which makes the sun hard to hold onto and balance, but well worth the effort.
The perfection of Delazney aside, it’s not just sun that grapes need, and to rely solely on it is a terrific mistake. The wines of Lake Geneva are charming, and demonstrate how the climate can be used to transform a wine long before it hits the bottle, but they lack the complexity of, say, a riesling from the Mosel Valley. There, the vineyards are also arranged on steep slopes (in fact, far steeper than those above Lake Geneva), in a valley with little sun (as well), and with intricate terrace systems to boot…
Early Morning in the Mosel
A little to the South and East, along the Rhine, almost all vineyards of this steepness have been abandoned long ago, yet as the evidence of the Mosel suggests, not because they made inferior wine.
The thing about slopes like this is that the soil is very shallow and so full of rock that it is full of air. Like a good wine, it breathes. Oxygen from the sky filters down through the particles of the soil, and is breathed in by the roots. What’s more, the roots bring in the minerals that the vine needs to lay down flavours in its grapes, but these are only accessible when the soil is rich with microbes, which gather around the roots, breathe in the carbon dioxide the roots give off, and transform rock particles into chemicals that grapes can absorb. Simply put, grapes thrive in porous soils, in which microbes transform minerals into organic compounds. Even more simply: grapes ferment twice: once in the vat, and, before that, once in the soil. By lucky chance, most of the vineyards of the Mosel naturally complex wines in what, by principles of the sun, should be an unsatisfactory environment. Here’s another look…
Note the forests above the vines. From them, waters rich in bacteria and dissolved organic mineral compounds wash continually through the vines, and leach out more minerals from the slate soils of the steep slopes. This form of fermentation is driven by gravity.
Where volcanic cliffs break out into the air at bends in the valley, the vineyards look a bit different yet …
Volcanic Vineyard, Mosel
Traditionally, these vineyards did not dominate the landscape. Before vineyard culture became industrialized in the 19th century, farmers largely grew grapes for their own pleasure. Their small vineyards were interspersed with fruit farms, arranged according to a system called meadow planting. It looks like this:
Streuobstwiese (Meadow Orchard) in Trier
Traditionally, these vines and those fruit trees would not be separated as they are here, under the requirements of industrial agriculture. In fact, fruit trees and the pasture land surrounding them, dominated.
Chances are, traditional wines were different from those today — and not just because techniques have become refined over time. They differ because much environmental richness has been lost. There are many indications of what a traditional wine environment might have looked like. This, for example…
Abandoned Vineyard Plots in the Mosel
Green water passes down from level to level down these cliffs. Formerly, all of these small, almost-natural terraces, would have been planted largely to fruit trees and pastures.
The simple act of planting these lands solely to grapes likely changed the wine more than any other thing. Maybe many vineyards like this …
Abandoned Vineyards, St. Goarshausen (on the Rhine)
The expense of this kind of farming is no doubt a factor in its decline, but perhaps 19th century monoculture played a role as well, by eventually exhausting the complexity of the soil, which showed up eventually in a decreased complexity within the wines, until they were abandoned. If that’s the case, the soils are slowly building themselves up as living entities again, as trees and wild grapes and grasses infill the old terraces.
One thing is for sure: the lay of the land matters, but not just because of the sun. This kind of terrace, for instance…
19th Century Terraces in the Kaiserstuhl
Steep sun exposure is twinned with a dominance of wild slopes over cultivated ones.
… produces far better wine than the large industrial terraces elsewhere on the same soil, which were created with bulldozers in the 1970s…
The Modern Terraces of the Kaiserstuhl
The sins were many: the living environment of the topsoil was destroyed, the slopes had less sun exposure than the old terraces that preceded them, and they sloped away from gravity and caught frost against their back walls, reducing production considerably. What’s more, although they have considerable populations of wild plants on their open slopes (which catch most of the sun, that should go to the grapes, as they’d say in Delazney), the green water and bacterial wealth of those slopes is distributed only to the plants at the back troughs of the terraces, and do not flow through the rest with gravity, and those are just the plants that have had their crops blasted off by frost. The terraces are visually ugly, too.
So, a few principles:
1. A vineyard is a living environment; rich wines come from rich green water systems.
2. Sun is important, but not too much, and in balance with water. At best, water should be green water that has exposure to rock.
3. Leave wild land or rich orchard and pasture environments above your vineyard and allow gravity to draw it down through your vines.
4. The fermentation of the wine begins not when the grapes are delivered to the winery, but when the rain falls on rich organic soil.
4. The sunniest location is not always the best. The location with a complex relationship between soil, life, water, sun, and gravity can often prove better.
And that, I think, is why so many wines of the Okanagan and Washington have no middle at all: the sun has just cooked it out of them, and any green matter in the soil has just washed down through the deep sand. There’s nothing much there but fermented sugar, and a shock of acid to dazzle you for a moment, and then just a taste of water: good clear water, filtered and pumped through trickle irrigation tubes and tasting nicely municipal. If you want to taste what might be possible in an Okanagan wine, go to Larch Hills in Salmon Arm and try one of these wines grown without irrigation, in a forest environment, and according to principles of cool climate growing, where by any principles popular in the Okanagan no wine should be thriving at all. The hot wine aficionados are having their day right now, but only small parts of this climate are hot. As our vineyards deplete the organic matter of their shallow desert soils, it might be time planning for a green future now, before the soil gets tired.