Good Wines from Poor Soil
Grape vines grow like weeds. They are climbers which throw out tendrils to secure them in their upwards climb. Early visitors to America’s eastern seaboard reported woods where the trees were covered in vines. When vine canes touch the ground they will grow roots to obtain more nutrients to sustain the plant in its spread. In summer their growth rate is amazing. The vine also wants to produce many grapes. These remain green until the seeds inside ripen then change colour to red or black to attract birds and animal which eat them and deposit the seeds in their excrement where the seed will have a good start in growing a new vine.
For commercial grape growers this vigour is something that needs to be restrained. Energy spent on growing canes and producing leaves is wasted energy which should preferably be spent on growing a few superior quality grapes. So a major task in running a vineyard is pruning back growth. In some places vines are grown unsupported as small bushes which naturally restrict growth. Mostly vines are trained on wires strung between stakes and are pruned back during the winter to two canes for the following year. Extra growth during summer is cut back.
Rich productive soil is not necessary for a vineyard and some of the world’s best wines come from land that you wouldn’t think possible to sustain life. It is easy to get a vine to produce a large amount of grapes and frequent watering will swell grapes. But grapes swollen with water are tasteless and, if making red wine, a high ratio of juice to skin leads to pale coloured watery tasting wines. This is why it is prohibited to water or irrigate vineyards in many wine regions in Europe.
The ideal wine vine has a few bunches of small grapes. Thus the flavour is intensified. We can imagine that the vines roots can extract just so many nutrients and flavours from the ground and the more grapes it bears the wider they are spread.
Viticulturists restrict grape production by stressing vines. Vines are severely pruned, grown without water in poor soils and during summer bunches of grapes will be removed in what is called a ‘green harvest’ to leave an optimum amount. This is risky as a late hailstorm or hungry birds or animals could devastate those few remaining ripening bunches.
And that is one reason why good wines are more expensive. Those cheap branded wines you see stacked high in supermarkets come from large vineyards in ideal conditions where they can produce large quantities of grapes.
Quality in wine, like in every other area of life, has to be paid for.
(Note: Grapes are naturally turn dark skinned when ripe but over centuries some varieties have mutated and they remain green. Seedless grapes for eating have been deliberately bred.)
What do you think? Discuss on our forum.
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.
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