Wine myths, part I: Vines have to suffer to make great wine

Drinks: Drinks, Wines

In this series on wine myths, Darren Smiths sets out to debunk some commonly held assumptions about wine and its production…

We’re familiar with the idea that vines must suffer to produce good wine. It paints a dramatic picture – poor soils that are barely able to sustain life and the irrepressible vine, its roots shouldering through fractures in rock to reach the tiniest scintilla of nutrition or water.

We learn that it’s through this struggle, as the root system expands and multiplies below ground and the vine concentrates its energies on fruit production above, that the best grapes – and the best wines – are produced.

Increasingly, however, this idea is losing currency to different ways of thinking about viticulture, especially those associated with organic and biodynamic farming. All organic growers place emphasis on maintaining healthy soil, seeing it as a living medium rather than an inert substrate. Indeed, we’re increasingly coming to see the microbial life in healthy soils as being fundamental to terroir expression.

‘If it is true that a vine living in excess of abundance rarely makes good wine, it is just as true that a vine suffering will not make it any better,’ asserts Alsace grower André Ostertag, who has been working biodynamically since 1997.

‘Only harmony resulting from a fair proportion of vital elements will allow the production of quality grapes. To love one’s vine is not to make it suffer, but to make it joyful and it will make [wine]well beyond your expectations.’

Meinklang Graupert Pinot Gris

No vines were harmed in the production of this wine…

Werner Michlits notes that the sprawling wild Pinot Gris vines that make this wine naturally produce berries with a high skin to juice ratio.

To some people this may sound like hippy nonsense, but it contains an idea fundamental to biodynamic farming – that it’s a balance of life forces that promotes vine health and creates top-notch fruit.

Biodynamics expert Monty Waldin puts this sentiment in more concrete terms.

‘The term “organics” came from the biodynamic idea of each farm (or vineyard) being a self-sustaining living organism, creating its own fertility,’ he says. ‘Working with living substances is what biodynamics promotes – compost and field sprays based on seven wild plants, animal manure and one naturally occurring mineral, quartz, our planet’s most abundant mineral.

‘Working with nature creates “ease” rather than “dis-ease”, in the words of James Millton [a biodynamic grower in Gisborne, New Zealand]. This is what biodynamics is about: ease in the soil, ease for the vine, ease for the winemaker, ease for the drinker.’

To emphasise this point of working with nature, Demeter-certified Austrian winemaker Meinklang has left around 5% of the vineyard plantings on its farm in Burgenland to grow wild – no pruning whatsoever – for the past 17 years.

‘To me, it is extremely important that we harmonise the being of something – plant, animal, human being – and watch how the organism is supposed to behave and grow following its natural way,’ says Meinklang co-owner Werner Michlits.

‘This is one aspect that viticulture nowadays does not respect – the natural growing habits of the vine. After being cut, the vines need to reorganise their inner growing balance and harmony. We see pretty well that the vine finds its balance by itself.’

This is extreme, if though-provoking, stuff, and it’s no longer a sideshow. Many of the world’s most revered producers – Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Rousseau among them – have embraced biodynamic principles in the vineyard. No one is saying the wine industry needs to start letting its vines grow free up trees; rather that, as with wine itself, balance and health should take precedence over struggle.

‘Growers who talk about vines needing to suffer,’ Waldin concludes, ‘are often those who boost yields artificially with soluble fertilisers, then “green harvest” to reduce the excess yield they promoted by their poor soil management. The only thing that suffers here is the local watercourse, full of algal blooms from NPK run off!’

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Darren Smith

Darren Smith is a freelance wine writer, and one half of wine and music events duo Wine & Vinyl. @darrennsmith @wineandvinyl

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