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From the historical perspective to likely attitudes and practices of the twenty-first century
Wine from the woods
The grape vine in its wild state is a climber. Its natural home is the forest. Hence its botanical name of Vitis vinifera silvestris -- the woodland wine-bearing vine.
Which woods did it originally inhabit? A vast stretch, in all probability, from western Europe to western Asia. Where was it first used to make wild wine? Noone knows. But archaeology can point out the place where it was first cultivated. The scientific evidence (like the Book of Genesis) points to the foothills of the Caucasus. Georgia has produced the earliest evidence of vine selection and hence the emergence of the cultivated variety: Vitis vinifera sativa. Carbon-dating puts this change to domestication at about 5,000 Be. Mankind was therefore still in his Stone Age when he first cultivated the vine -- and presumably made wine.
To understand how the grapevine grows, and how it responds to cultivation, one has to remember that it is a climber, and that in its wild state it grows in a tight tangle with other plants and trees, competing with some, supported by others. Competition is for light, for soil moisture and nutrients. To reach the light the vine climbed higher. To survive in soils full of competing roots it built up a degree of tolerance to drought. The support came from the trees it climbed. These responses to the environment determine how the vine's performance can be manipulated in the vineyard.
What the vine needs
European wine-growers have long known (and New World growers more recently) that vines react tosunlight, not only in spring but throughout the growing season -- even in winter. Sunlight on the woody parts, especially the new shoots or canes, means a more fruitful vine. At the base of each leaf is a bud -- the crop potential of the following year's vintage. The amount of sunlight on the vine when its new buds are forming acts as a signal, determining whether the buds become leafy shoots or embryo flowers for fruit. Thus the yield of each plant is initially dependent on the amount of light reaching the vine up to 15 months earlier -- April to June in the northern hemisphere, October to December in the southern hemisphere. In this knowledge the grower will manipulate the vine to achieve an appropriate balance between the production of leaves and fruit, above all avoiding a dense canopy of leaves which shade the 'bud-wood'.
Pruning: 'vegetable editing'
Unquestionably the annual growth cycle of the vine stirs deep emotions in most wine-growers, and pruning has traditionally been regarded as an art-form of fundamental importance to grape and wine quality. Every possible means of vine training has been tried through the centuries. Close-planting and hard-pruning of vines, almost in the modern manner, to produce small hedge-like rows was introduced by the Egyptians between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. When the focus of viticulture and winemaking changed from Egypt to Greece, the practice of pruning to increase the vine's fruitfulness and quality became standard.
The Romans, who learned their wine-growing from the Greeks and the Carthaginians, knew and practised most of the 'modern' pruning and training methods: the 'goblet'; cane-pruning, now credited to the 19th-century French researcher Professor Guyot; fan pruning; low bush training; high trellising, and so on. In the great vineyards of France this task is entrusted only to pruners who have been employed on the estate for decades, and who know every vine as an individual, every nuance of site and terroir as a fact of life.
The brutalist school
Is such attention lavished on each vine justifiable? In recent years Australian academics felt it was not. They proposed that a vineyard should be viewed as a modern commercial orchard: each row being treated as a hedge and trimmed with mechanical cutting-bars or even circular saws. Many grape-growers were only too delighted, since the crop itself was not harmed. And others have gone further, introducing 'minimal pruning', where the vines are not pruned at all in winter. There is an element of summer pruning but less than is practised on conventionally winter-pruned vines. It has proved an effective method. It works because of the vine's need for and response to sunlight. By not being pruned in winter, the vine's hormones are not stimulated to respond, and hence new growth is discouraged.
The yield-quality equation
The vine in balance
What, though, of crop control? It is an axiom of European wine-growing that the grower must choose quality or quantity. Yet there is more to the equation than simply less is better: more inevitably means worse. If there is a single truth it is the concept of a vine in balance: one in which the ratio of roots, canes, leaves and grapes is correct. There is increasing awareness that this can be achieved in very different ways. The vines may be small, with either no trellis at all or with only the simplest support. For vines grown like this the density of planting will usually be very high - perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 vines per hectare. Or the vines may be very large, supported by an elaborate trellis, widely spaced at a density of 1,5oo vines per hectare. In either system, high-quality grapes or poor ones can result, but that will depend on the skill of the wine-grower.
Planting at a density of 50,000 hectares, which was recommended in Roman times, precluded any form of mechanization. By mid-19th century densities of around 20,000 vines per hectare (with yields of 40 hectolitres per hectare or less) meant horse-drawn ploughs were in widespread use in all but steeply sloping vineyards. The reality of today is mechanization. In the future vine densities may be reduced as low as 1,500 per hectare (today they are certainly limited to 5,000 per hectare) to accommodate tractors and the increasingly sophisticated array of machinery capable of pruning, picking, summer hedging, lifting and dropping foliage wires, knitting the canopy, plucking leaves around the fruit to enhance exposure, even selectively thinning the crop itself halfway through the growing season. This all sounds distinctly unromantic, and so it is, but it is preferable to the do-nothing minimal pruning approach. Even with these vastly reduced planting densities, yields have increased and are continuing to do so. The question is whether the quality is dropping at the same rate.
The short history of plant-breeding and genetic engineering is a catalogue of successes and failures, benefits and disadvantages, opportunities and limitations, and while the French will have nothing of it, Germany and California, the two principal viticultural stud-farms, are forever playing with the genes of the vine. Healthier vines which consistently produce higher yields are the principal goals. Disease resistance and bigger harvests have both been achieved through the breeding of hybrids. Clonal selection is another route to the same goals. What has yet to appear in the commercial nurseries is a classic grape variety with enhanced disease resistance, or a classic variety with improved flavour, or a new variety which combines the attractions of the existing classics. Should such a vine make its appearance, it will almost certainly be due to genetic engineering.
Sprays and fertilizers
One of wine's great attributes is that it is among the most natural and stable of all food products. It is possible to make wine without any additions whatsoever, and in the vineyard and the winery there is a strong move to minimize human interference with nature. Many think we have been too clever and too profligate in our clonal selection and our use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides - all in the interest of larger crops of 'healthier' grapes. European growers have less flexibility than their New World counterparts in warmer regions owing to the higher rainfall that threatens the crops in the northern hemisphere, but there is a tendency towards reducing the use of all but the 'natural' sprays such as lime and sulphur, elemental sulphur and copper oxychloride or copper sulphate - fungicides which are sanctioned by organic growers - especially in vineyards where quality rather than cost or convenience is at a premium. The same thinking applies to chemical fertilizers. The best vineyard practice is to apply even organic fertilizer very sparingly. A Medoc first-growth uses only cow-manure - once every 19 years.
The grower's key role
There is a remarkable consensus, as the 20th century closes, that the opening decades of the 21st century will belong to the viticulturist: to the grower in the field. The catch phrase of the New World winemaker is 'growing wine in the vineyard', echoing the old aphorism 'great wine is made in the vineyard'. How the consumers of the next century will define great wine will be the preoccupation of both grower and maker. The challenge will be to produce wines for a society which consumes over 95 percent of all the wine it buys within 48 hours of purchase, and ones that will be revered in the year 2100. The same wine will not serve both aims, nor will it be made in the same way.
The choice is not a new one. It is between convenience, using the short cuts offered by mechanization in the vineyard and chemical adjustments in the winery, and the time-consuming alternative of painstaking physical control.
Winemaking that aims for quality, let alone greatness, requires a high level of personal skill and commitment. It minimizes chemical intervention. It focuses on eradicating disease in the vineyard, and depends on hygiene and the control of temperature and oxidation by physical, not chemical, means in the winery. But it would be too simple to see a choice between art and science, between the old ways and the new. The proponents of each method can and should learn from each other: if they do, better wines at all levels will be the result.
Copyright © 1992 Mitchell Beazley International Ltd Text copyright © 1992 James Halliday and Hugh Johnson Illustrations copyright © 1992 Mitchell Beazley International Ltd