Not that sort, the Posh ‘n’ Becks sort. We’ll do that another time. Viticulture, the cultivation of grapevines. It is key, of course, to the nature of the wine in the bottle, and lies at the heart of all that we are, and all that we (that is me, and the Black Dogs) stand for. Great wine is made in the vineyard. So is terrible wine, but whilst terrible wine owes at least as much to what happens after the vineyard, great wine arguably owes less, for less after the vineyard is often more, if you follow. And within the scope of viticulture lie the many answers to the question that I am most often asked
Yes, we sell organic wine. Well, wine made from organically grown grapes. But…..
There is another that has been increasingly cropping up recently, and it relates more to the vat-room than the vineyard;
You see, these are two questions that have complicated answers, and to tackle them we will have to look at the labels that are placed upon the different kinds of viticultural and winemaking practices, and the relevance of those labels to the low-production/high quality kind of wine that comprises our stock-in-trade.
At its least attractive and most intensive and commercial extreme, this can mean taking high-yielding clones of whatever varieties are ‘in trend’ and planting them in relatively fertile soils on a flat topography in a warm, dry climate, the rows spaced to allow the passage of machinery. Drip-irrigation is provided. Weed growth between the rows is checked by the application of systemic herbicides. Synthetic fertilisers are applied when deemed necessary, pesticides are used to kill unwanted fauna, and powerful fungicides to tackle mildew. The grapes are harvested by machine. The soil resembles a dry, blasted moonscape, and has as much life within it.
“Brain cancer mortality among French farmers: the vineyard pesticide hypothesis”
which studied the effects on male farm workers in France aged 35-74 for the years 1984-1986 found that “mortality from brain cancer among farmers was significantly higher than mortality for the overall population..” and that “….analysis (of the results) revealed a significant link with pesticide exposure in vineyards.”
We can tentatively conclude that full-on, high input, intensive grape production is not a good thing, certainly for the people that are involved in doing it, and we may assume that – and I repeat, at the extreme – it isn’t great for the consumer either, for even if you take health matters out of equation, it doesn’t result in great wines. Or even good wines.
However if the inevitably somewhat dilute, overcropped and characterless grapes that result from the viticultural practices described above are to be made into wines that are even remotely attractive or interesting to drink, the proverbial pigs ear into the silk purse, they will require significant manipulation through the various stages of vinification. Such manipulations may include any or all of the following. High doses of SO2 will be added to kill any natural yeasts, as well as bacteria and microbes. This may be preceded by a heating or pasteurisation of the must. The concentration of the musts can be increased by techniques such as ‘reverse-osmosis’ or ‘cryoextraction’. The dead musts will then be innoculated with a commercially produced yeast strain, which will propably have been derived from tomatoes in a laboratory in Belgium. The choice of yeast strain will be a significant influence as to the precise character of the wine, indeed at least as significant as the grape variety itself. The natural sugar levels in these dilute grapes are probably still too low to provide sufficient potential alcohol, so they may now be adjusted, a process known as chaptalisation. Fermentation will now take place anaerobically, in sealed stainless steel fermentation vessels which are subjected to very precise temperature control. After the alcoholic fermentation is completed the secondary or malolactic fermentation will be either blocked, or the musts will be innoculated with bacteria to kick-start the process. Once the fermentation process is complete, the wine may treated to clarification enzymes, acidity may be adjusted by the addition of tartaric acid, and if an illusion of oak barrels having been used in the maturation process is required, giant ‘tea-bags’ containing oak chips will be suspended in the vats. Finally the wine will be subjected to a harsh filtration, further SO2 will be added, and it will be bottled. These final stages may well take place in a warehouse in Bristol following shipment in bulk. Wines made to a greater or lesser extent using high-intervention viticulture and vinification are almost certainly the wines that feature on the soulless shelves of your local Tescburys, and they will precisely conform to the findings of anonymous tasting panels and ‘consumer focus groups’.
I now propose to explore the alternative viticultural practices, and finally will look at ‘low-intervention’ winemaking.
Reasoned Production or ‘Lutte Raisonnée’
This refers to a pragmatic approach to viticulture whereby the grower will follow practices which will be organic by default, but in which the option is retained to apply such minimal non-organic treatments as are essential to the production of a healthy crop. As such, weed control will be by means of a combination of sowing grasses between the rows and ploughing, and such soil fertilisation as is required is by means of animal manures and natural composts. Biodiversity will be encouraged, with techniques such as ‘sexual confusion’ (the use of pheremones) to discourage malign fauna from reproducing, or other forms of so-called integrated pest management such as the introduction or encouragement of prey species. Whilst the guidelines may be fairly clear, there are no regulations governing the precise interpretation of reasoned production, and one can safely assume that such interpretation will be fairly wide and loose. However, it is undoubtedly a significant and important step in the right direction, and it is one favoured by increasing numbers of wine producers, most particularly those at the smaller end of the scale. The reduction of petrochemical based sprays is healthier for the vines, the greater ecosystem and for the health of those who work the land. It is entirely sensible.
As above, but without any use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or fertilisers. However, copper sulphate, which many consider to be a poison, is permitted even under certified organic regimes. Any other applications that are made must be approved by organic certification bodies. It should also be noted that organic viticulture will produce wines that are not ‘organic’ as such, but that are made from grapes that have been organically produced. Regulations that lay down the strictures for organic grape production do not make any reference to what happens in the vat-room, and it should be therefore borne in mind that any or all of the the interventions laid down under the heading ‘High Intervention Winemaking’ above can take place regardless. In short, the word ‘Organic’ on a wine label is no guarantee whatsoever that the contents of the bottle will be worth drinking, or that the producer possesses the kind of intuitive skill that leads to great wine. Indeed, shorn of the means to control outbreaks of many maladies in the vineyard, the wines may well be awful. In my experience it is very often the case that wines that are both high-production and certified organic are not good. The organic certification is merely a conscious marketing technique.
Unfortunately, the plot gets rather thicker at this point, for large numbers of small and artisan scale wine producers, the kind of people whose wines grace our list, are dedicated to one thing – to make wine which clearest have no interest in tags