Nature Photography

Indigenous Life and Grapes

Riesling grapes are indigenous to the Rhine and the Mosel, but not to the Okanagan. Pinots are indigenous to the Rhône, but not to the Similkameen or the Shuswap. It’s just the way it is.

Loreley in the Rhine Gorge

Cleopatra sipped Traminer for its scent of rose petals. When Romans took it to the Rhine, it mutated into a spicier grape, which is now the Gewürztraminer that is grown in the Okanagan but is not indigenous to it. Gewürztraminer is indigenous to the Rhine. After all, it originated there genetically. A lot of it is planted in the Okanagan, but without genetic adaptation, it is not indigenous. It reacts to sun and soil and cold, but that’s not the same thing. Simple? Probably not. Here, let’s make this harder. The areas that grapes are indigenous to along the Rhine and the Mosel are largely volcanic and glacial, including cliffs, basalt outcroppings and glacial outwash sands.

A Hang in the Mosel

Such vineyards are traditionally called “hangs,” for the way the grape vines hang down, root, hang down again, and cascade, making carpets that draw the heat out of sand and rock and build microclimates of mould, yeast, rotted grapes and decayed leaves, which they then root in and spring from again. This is the Indigenous life of a grape plant, with the oldest vines up high and the youngest down below, and new and old sap, so to speak, mingling in the canes. In effect, the intimate relationships between soil, moisture, rot, mould, yeasts, age of vines and rooting, coupled with the natural tendency of grapes to mutate (pinot noir, blanc, and gris, for example, are all the same grape, at least originally), led to great individuality of grapes. It’s hard to grow grapes on hangs, though, so now they’re grafted, strung on wires, on engineered slopes, pruned to maintain youth, fertilized, crushed and innoculated with industrially-sourced yeasts for a standard product. Timing, temperature, and other characteristics are strictly controlled, to preserve fruit aromas in fermenting wine, and to control the digestive processes of the yeasts to produce all those quince, citrus, blackberry, cherry, and liquorice flavours that wine reviewers love to go on about, and then the product is sold as wine, the sap of the vine, and an expression of the land. It isn’t. It’s an expression of the collision between industrialization and the land. If we were growing wine that expressed the land, we would grow it on the volcanic outcroppings and post-glacial sands of the Okanagan and let it hang. We don’t.

Vineyard at the Rise, Vernon

Instead, we create a product that imitates such wine and produce it efficiently and technologically. To say that it expresses the land is to say that industrialization expresses the land. No. It applies the land as one of the raw products in its processes and aims for a standardized product. To be Indigenous is for your culture to be the land’s processes and by deepening them deepening the land’s capacity to produce richer processes. In the Okanagan, this process is encouraged to take place socially, right down to the insistence of wine hosts encouraging you to savour the notes of blackberry and plum in the pour of heritage they have just poured for you. Once the idea is in your head, it’s stuck there, and that’s what you taste. So, here’s a hint: if something is indigenous, you don’t have to be told how it tastes.

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