Extreme Winemaking

Extreme Winemaking

Vines have just one simple goal in life: to get grapes ripe enough and sweet enough to attract birds, which eat the fruit, digest it, and distribute the seeds hither and yon, perpetuating the species. All they need is water, a little sunlight and warmth, and soil to root around in. And more is better: plenty of water to encourage growth, gobs of heat to ripen the grapes and lots of nutrients to help them grow up big and strong.

But when humans discovered those same grapes could make wine, they came up with a whole new agenda for the vines. Over a few millennia of trial and error, as farmers and wine lovers planted grapes on every surface that wasn’t solid rock—and on a few that were, too—it turned out that amazing, distinctive wines could be produced in godawful places. From blazing hot to sub-freezing cold, bone-dry to virtually soil-free, these outposts of extreme grape growing are a tasty tribute to both the resilience of the vines and the ingenuity of their custodians.

Vertical slopes, voluptuous wines

Looking at pictures of impossibly steep, rock-strewn slopes, you have to wonder why anyone would be insane enough to plant a crop in Germany, especially one that needs extensive hand tending. Go to the Mosel, the Saar, the RĂĽwer, the Mitelrhein and the other areas of nearly vertical vineyards (some approaching a 70- degree grade), and try to keep your balance walking down a vine row; then imagine doing that in a sleet storm at harvest time, and your doubts only increase. What’s more, until the string of warmer vintages in the past decade, German winegrowers only enjoyed a good vintage three years out of ten.

German winegrowers put up with these daunting conditions for centuries because when the wines were good, they were stunning. High among the purest expressions of fruit flavors in winedom, backed up with bracing acidity, they were (and are) wines that combine delicacy with a flavorful wallop. The secret of the Mosel masters is the template for extreme situations everywhere: find varieties that thrive under the same stresses that would make others flounder; devise ways to manage the available sunlight; and negotiate a working relationship with the water supply. The grapes will take care of the rest.

Every German winemaker will tell you that the secret lies in the soil. For the Mosel and similar outposts of vertiginous viticulture, this means slate, loose slabs and chunks of metamorphic rock—a texture nothing like the granular, compacted dirt in your backyard garden. Though the most prized colors of slate are red and blue, Mosel winemaker Martin Kerpen calls them “the golden nuggets of the Mosel.” Besides offering abundant mineral nutrients, the slate-infused soil traps rainfall, limiting the runoff a more “normal” soil would suffer, trapping moisture deep inside the hillsides where determined vine roots can eventually find it.

The climate in northern Germany is on the cool fringe of the winegrowing temperature range, and much of the area is simply not suited to grapegrowing. But as you float or drive down the picturesque, winding rivers that run through the wine country, the solution is hard to miss: plant on the south-facing hillsides, catch every minute of available sunlight and soak up the rays reflected from the water as a bonus. Plus, as Kerpen points out, with slopes that steep, the vines never shade each other.

And with Riesling, Germans found the perfect vine, with roots that can go on forever and the hardiness to survive cold winters. While the growing season is cool, it is also long: time enough, says Randolf Kauer, Mittelrhein winemaker and professor of organic viticulture at Geisenheim, for the grapes to accumulate intense and complex flavors and aromas. Riesling that ripens lickety-split in a warm climate is jug wine; Riesling that hangs for five months on German hillsides is magical.

Blazing schist

Here’s how an entry in the World Atlas of Wine starts: “Of all the places where men have planted
vineyards, the Upper Douro is the most improbable.” Portugal’s Douro Valley, home to the grapes that become Port as well as excellent red and white table wines, could be the Mosel’s evil twin: same preposterous, vertigo-inducing hillside vineyards, but bathed in furnace-grade heat, not the chill of Germany’s northerly latitudes.
Yes, the slopes lining the Douro are majestic—neck-straining if you’re looking up from the river, dizzying if you’re looking down from the top. The ground—again, it barely resembles what we normally think of as “soil”—is mainly metamorphic schist, extremely hard yet extremely brittle. Summer temperatures frequently reach 110ÂşF, enough to basically shut down the vines.

But dating back to Roman times, the vines that managed to grow here produced wines that were worth the trouble. The Douro received Europe’s first official regional winegrowing designation in 1756; in recognition of its historic role, the Alta Douro was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.

One reason this unearthly landscape works, according to Miguel Roquette of Quinta do Crasto, is that all those cracks in the brittle xisto trap water, rather than letting it run downhill into the river. Deep-rooted vines can find enough buried water to make it through the blazing summers; a good thing, too, since the costs of installing drip irrigation on the slanted Douro terrain are substantial. As for the sizzling temperatures, winemaker Luis Seabra at Niepoort’s Quinta de Napoles table wine facility notes that the Douro has a huge nighttime temperature drop, sometimes more than 30 degrees, preserving acidity and prolonging the ripening phase. The bigger that drop, the better the vintage.

The choice of grape varieties is crucial. If the growers in the Douro had followed the Mosel’s lead and planted Riesling, this stretch of canyon land wouldn’t be wine country today. Through trial and error, they discovered varieties—Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, SouzĂŁo and the rest—that thrived under the Douro sun.

The final secret of the Douro’s success as a winegrowing region is engineering. The best way to tame the precipitous hillsides was to build horizontal terraces, eventually hundreds of thousands of them, providing little ribbons of flatness for the vines and the workers as well. For centuries, the only earth-moving equipment available for terrace construction was hand labor. The endless, winding terraces add a striking visual dimension to the vistas of the Douro, in and out of the growing season; more important, they turned a desolate stretch of back country into a worldwide wine powerhouse.

How high can you go?

If the roasted rocks of the Douro aren’t forbidding enough, there’s always the mile-high vineyards of Argentina, producing excellent wines from Mendoza and San Juan in what can only be called a desert.

Lest that sound like an exaggeration, winemaker Victor Marcantoni of the Graffigna winery, located in San Juan’s Pedernal Valley, notes that the three and a half inches of rain that normally fall are less than the average for the Sahara. In the rain shadow of the towering Andes Mountains, the pittance of droplets sometimes arrives in the unfortunate form of hail storms during the growing season. And at 1,400 meters—just under a mile, and these aren’t the highest vineyards in the region—the sunlight is intense, unfiltered, and unrelenting, 300 cloudless days a year.

Rather than seeing a problem in these conditions, Marcantoni and other producers see boundless opportunity. The lack of rainfall and low humidity make for a clean, troublefree growing season, never haunted by the threat of harvest-time rains that plague many parts of Europe. Pest and disease pressure is very low. Thanks to its geographical isolation, Argentina’s high-altitude vineyard areas are free from phylloxera and able to plant vines on their own roots, without grafting onto special resistant rootstocks, a tedious, expensive chore in most of the rest of the world.

Solving the water problem is easy: just pipe it in from the enormous watershed of the nearby Andes and deliver it to the thirsty vines. The last piece of the puzzle is canopy management, safeguarding those tender grapes from the insistent sun. The traditional way out has been the parral system, training the vines up on posts and along overhead wires, letting the grape bunches hang down under a layer of leafy shade. More modern trellising designs do the same job.

The off season

Most winegrowers fret about conditions duringthe growing months; an unlucky few have to worry about the off season, too. In Russia, Central Europe and the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, sub-zero winter temperatures can damage and even kill vines, ultimately a more lethal threat than extreme summer heat.

Winter kill was what made the Finger Lakes shun vinifera grape varieties for decades, basing the industry instead on more winter-hardy French-American hybrid varieties. Hybrids (like Seyval or Baco Noir) make perfectly good wine, but don’t have the cachet or following of the familiar vinifera types (Chardonnay, Cabernet, and so on). Only in the 1960s did Dr. Konstantin Frank and a handful of pioneers break the winter’s lock and open the Finger Lakes up to vinifera.

Thomas Laszlo, winemaker at Heron Hill on Keuka Lake, says that the biggest factor making the growing of vinifera possible in the Finger Lakes lies to the north: Lake Ontario, 7,500 square miles of deep water that keep temperatures in a vast surrounding area just a precious bit warmer in the winter. Within Ontario’s benevolent orbit, the Finger Lakes themselves, all well under a hundred square miles each, function as what Laszlo calls “space heaters.”

The lakes help moderate winter temperatures, one reason most vinifera vines are planted close to the lakes. More important, the lakes stay cold into the spring, helping to delay bud break and reducing the chance that
he tender new growth will be killed off by a late frost. In the fall, when temperatures drop off sharply, the summer-warmed lakes help prolong a short ripening season.

While growers differ on the winter hardiness of this or that grape, everyone agrees that the cold-weather champ is Riesling—which just happens to be the Finger Lakes’ star variety. Yet even with the best spots and the best vines, winegrowers here still live on the edge. The winters of 2004 and 2005, with temperatures below -5° for days at a time, decimated the area. As insurance, most growers returned to the practice of “hilling up,” painstakingly mounding dirt up beyond the graft line between the rootstock and the bearing vine, adding warmth and insulation and making sure there’s something left to grow on if Nature orders up another deep freeze.

If you’ve tasted any Finger Lakes Rieslings lately, you’ll be glad the growers make that extra effort.

Wine in the tropics?

The only thing more challenging than a severe winter may be no winter at all—no break time in which the vines can rest and recharge. It has been an article of faith in the wine industry that a dormant season is essential for wine grapes, one of several reasons why growing grapes in the tropics was out of the question.

Until the advent of winegrowing in India. Sonoma winemaker/consultant Kerry Damskey was one of the pioneers who figured out how to tame the tropics, helping to establish Sula Vineyards in Nashik, northeast of Mumbai. Since there were no textbooks on tropical winegrowing, Damskey and other New World vineyardists made it up.

The good news in Nashik, traditionally a growing area for table grapes, was the existence of a decent growing season—the Indian “winter,” from September through March, where a familiar Mediterranean-style climate prevails. The bad news was that the rest of the year was fiery hot, monsoon-soaked, or both, preventing the vines from taking any time off.

The key came in an adaptation of an old technique, double pruning, once right after harvest in February
or March, then again in September, triggering new growth, budding, and fruiting. The vines respond to this pseudodormancy by producing high-quality grapes in the window of good weather, dry months in which the vineyards actually need irrigation. Sula’s Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Zinfandel have been well received both in India and abroad, and the ranks of Indian wineries are growing steadily.

And a last, cheerful note. That goal for grapevines, having the birds eat the grapes and sow the seeds, etc? Well since most new vines have been started from cuttings, not seeds, for the last several thousand years, these extreme winemakers have that whole cycle-of-life thing covered, too.

Published on December 2, 2008
Topics: WInemaking