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Environments of Wine

November 27, 2017 4 comments

We all love to wax-poetic about the wine – about the magic in the glass, about the liquid which can transport us through time, bring back memories, change our mood, brighten up any happy moments in our life and put smiles on our collective oenophile faces in the myriad of mysterious ways.

With all that magic, it is easy to forget that first and foremost, the wine is an agricultural product. The grapes are grown in exactly same way as tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, wheat, apples, and potatoes. Same as with any agricultural product, the success of growing the grapes depends on many conditions which we collectively call “the environment” – condition of the soil, conditions of the plants, climate/weather conditions, availability and quality of the water, avoidance of diseases and pests, ability to protect plants and fruits from animals and birds and many other factors.

 

Fall in the Vineyards

Once the grapes are successfully grown and harvested, this is where similarities with most (not all) of the rest of the agricultural products end, and grapes start their transformation to become that magic in your glass. But let’s leave that aside for now, and let’s get back to the grape growing environment.

Every year, the same process starts anew – with the first warm weather, the dormant plants come alive. The branches which looked completely dead just a day ago, are breaking with the tiny green leaves, and then at some point, a tiny clusters of future goodness show up, taking all the nutrients from the soil and the air, getting bigger and changing color from young green to golden and purple, until the time comes to collect them all and start creating the magic.

Every year, to get from the naked branches to the beautiful, sun-filled clusters, the vines have to be taken care of. They need enough water, they need enough sun, they need enough nutrients in the soil, they need to be protected from frost, excessive sun, mildew, and rabbits. The grape grower has to decide how to provide all of this. You can water the plants when you think you need to. You can bring in synthetic fertilizers. You can spray your vines with pesticides which will kill bugs and mildew. For many years, this is how the grapes were often produced, especially when they were produced in the large commercial quantities.

Little by little, grower by grower, winemaker by winemaker, the realization started that this might not be the right way to go. The chemicals and pesticides often bred resistance. Overfertilized and overwatered grapes simply lack the flavor and can never become the magnificent wines. With this realization, wine industry started changing its ways – the wines became “organic”, “biodynamic”, “sustainable” and even “natural”. All of these terms relate to the environment where the grapes are grown, but they are not interchangeable – organic is not always sustainable, and sustainable doesn’t equate organic. Let’s take a deeper look.

Sustainable might be my favorite term. There are many wine regions which define their own so-called “sustainable practices” – Australia, New Zealand, California, Oregon, Canada – all have their own sustainable practices defined, and for all I know, all those practices might be slightly different, but I’m sure they are all pursue the long-term relationship with the Mother Nature. Sustainability means that whatever we do to grow grapes successfully today, should ensure that the future generations will be able to continue to do the same with equal success. While we tend to the vines, we shouldn’t harm that environment, that habitat – use natural deterrents for the pests, use only natural fertilizers, ideally, generate our own power (think solar, for instance), be very cognizant about discarding the waste, or maybe have no waste at all, allowing land to rest and recuperate – the list can go on and on and on. At the same time, sustainable doesn’t mean organic – for instance, if you believe that one time use of the pesticide is warranted as the best way to deal with the problem (before it spreads or worsens), the sustainable rules will generally allow for it – but not the organic. All in all, the goal of sustainability is to leave the environment a little bit better than it was before – and I definitely like this approach.

We all know what “organic” means – only all natural elements are allowed in the whole entire process of getting from the first leaf to the harvested grapes – all organic fertilizers, all organic pesticides and so on. Do organic means better grapes? Yes, but only in the sense of absence of any harmful, bad elements. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean you would maximize grapes’ potential by utilizing dry farming. Organic doesn’t mean you will discard the waste in the ways least harmful to the environment. Organic doesn’t mean your power was generated in the sustainable ways. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for organic, but… I guess you understand where my preferences are.

Biodynamic? First, taking about biodynamic winemaking can be an endless endeavor – if we are talking about the magic of the glass of wine, biodynamic principles might be the most in tune with the subject of magic. Are the biodynamic methods sustainable? I believe they are to the largest degree as the end goal here is to create harmonious habitat, the best possible environment for the grapes and all other living beings to grow happily and successfully. Is biodynamic the same as sustainable? Probably not, as sustainable methods still cover more elements, such as power which we mentioned. But all the kudos to the biodynamic practitioners and their perseverance with magic.

Colors of Fall - grape leaves

And now, let’s touch on the most controversial “environmental affiliation” of them all – natural wines. It is interesting to see the first reaction of many people when they hear the term for the first time – “natural wines”???? “All wines are made from the grapes, aren’t they all natural”? The idea behind natural wines is low intervention. During the grape growing part of winemaking, the process is somewhat similar to the sustained/biodynamic principals with the exception that some of the rules are made absolute, like no irrigation under any circumstances – but unlike all other methods, where there are external bodies which certify and enforce the rules, the natural wines are the truth in the eye of the beholder – the winemaker, in this case – whatever the winemaker believe “natural” means, that is what she will be practicing.

The wine was first made about 8,000 years ago. Nobody would ever tell if it was sustainable, organic, biodynamic or natural – we can only guess that it was made from grapes. But if we want the wines to be made for the next 8,000 years, we need to take care of the environment. Sustainable, organic, biodynamic – let’s leave this place a little bit better than we found it, for all of those who will come after us.

This post is an entry for the 36th Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC36), with the theme of “Environment”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance, New, Pleasure, Travel, Solitude, Bubbles, Smile, Winestory, Obscure, Faith, Translation, Once Upon A Time, Memory, Eclipse

And if you really like this post, please vote for it here: #MWWC36