By Dinah Leach
We’ve all seen pictures of a vineyard clinging to the steep side of mountain slope, perched above a slowly meandering river below. Just think of travel brochures for small boat cruises on the Rhine River. Why on earth would anyone choose to grow grapes in such an unlikely place? Wouldn’t it make more sense to grow grapevines on flat land? One would be able to use tractors and not risk life and limb to harvest the grapes. And surely, the land on a valley floor would be more fertile and produce more grapes…
Alas, it’s not that simple. Grapes used in winemaking are the supermodels of the fruit world. They exist on the skinniest of diets. Their counterparts, table grapes, like very fertile soils, lots of water and fertilizer. Lots of leaves, lots of grapes! It’s the lottery for table grapes! They swell up, get juicy and plump, and are one of the most delectable treats on a hot summer’s day. Grapes for winemaking need the exact opposite.
Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay perform the best in poorer soils. For wine grapes, rich soils with lots of nutrients and water encourage the vines to coast along from year to year, growing leaves and stems without fruit production. They’re like couch potatoes. On the other end of the spectrum, when the vine senses things are dire, such as a lack of nutrients and water, the plant focuses on reproduction, i.e. grapes, because otherwise, they will not survive in perpetuity. With such a threat, the grapevine is only concerned with producing grapes and getting them ripe. In nature, birds, bears and other animals will eat the ripe fruit and eventually “distribute” the seeds elsewhere, thus ensuring that the vine lives on.
For our vine growers, they harvest the grapes and tend to the vines, making sure that the next year’s grapes are provided for. Therefore, hillsides with lots of water run-off and shallower soils make sense. All of the rich soils are washed down to the valley floor below. Our poor supermodel vines struggle to make it through the season and focus on their children, the grapes.
Winegrowers have for centuries understood this phenomenon. A fantastic result of this situation is that farmers and winegrowers get along very well together! Farmers of most crops like fertile valley soils, while winemakers value shallow hillside soils with good drainage. Therefore, no problem! Here’s a toast to our supermodel grapes!!
Dinah Leach is the Wine Director and Sommelier for Angelina’s Ristorante of Bonita Springs. You may contact her with any wine questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.