Great wine, interesting, complex wine, comes from places on the edge, places that barely grow grapes at all. The roots of the vine dig deep, through soils and sub-soils and pick-up nuances and a variety of minerality.Despite what immigrants from Italy, Portugal and Greece would have us believe, not every single person in the old country made wine themselves. Back in the day, usually one family in the village made wine. They gave some wine to the local church for sacrament and sold what was left to their neighbours. The quality of the wine did not matter much. The church did not care about taste and their fellow villagers simply needed calories and a hygienic beverage.
Generally the family that grew grapes and made wine owned the poorest, least productive land – the thin rocky soil at the top of the hills. The rich fertile soil in the valley floor was too important to waste on grape growing. The good land was used for growing grain, orchards or pasture for livestock.
Something strange happened. The poor soil in the poor locations produced the tastiest grapes. And the tastiest grapes made the tastiest wines. If someone tried to grow grapes on quality farmland they found the grapes to be thin and watery and the wine to be uninteresting.
Why? Why does good wine come from bad places? Many theories have been offered for this paradox: Difficulty builds character, they say. Stress the vine and it will reward the master. All the explanations looked at the vine as if it were a person, a child who needed discipline.
Let’s examine the paradox, not from a human standpoint, but from the vine’s point of view.
Imagine two vines. One vine is planted in the perfect location – rich, fertile soil, lots of sun in the summer for photosynthesis, just the right amount of rain, cold (but not too cold) winter, so the vine can rest.
The privileged vine thinks, “This is a very nice place. I can grow here as much as I want.” And the vine wants to grow. It sends out tendrils and shoots, leaves and branches. Vines are designed to grow upwards to catch the sun and if there is a tree or a wall, it will grow up those. If there are no trees or walls to grow up, then the happy, satisfied vine will grow out. In fact, one privileged vine can eventually cover a half an acre. Lots of leaves, lots of growth, roots don’t have to go very deep for food or water.
Now let’s consider another vine, a less privileged vine that is stuck in some rocky, miserable location with barely enough rain, sun or nutrients. Just barely enough for the vine to survive. Maybe.
This poor vine thinks, ”This place sucks. If I had legs I’d move. But I don’t have legs. What can I do?” The poor vine does not put its energy into leaves, shoots or growing. It puts its energy into its roots to dig deep and deeper scratching for nutrients and water. It puts its energy into its few berries. In biochemistry this is called ‘protein transport.’ Photosynthesis creates sucrose. Vine hormones direct the sucrose to be converted to sugars in the berries rather than stored as starches in wood and shoot growth. Unlike other plants the grape berry accumulates sugars at the same time as the berry accumulates water. The vine has another trick in its struggle to survive – it increases sugars in the berries at a greater concentration than water. The vine makes the berry sweeter and sweeter.
The poor vine puts everything it has into those berries to make the most sweet, tasty, desirable berries possible. Why? To attract birds. Once the berries are at their sweetest and tastiest, birds arrive and take the berries. They fly off, eat the berries, and then they poop out the seed. The birds poop the seeds somewhere else, hopefully a better place, the seeds wrapped inside a nice piece of poop-fertilizer.
If humans harvest the grapes, instead of birds, it doesn’t change the hormone calculation. As long as the vine has enough to survive it will work for the next generation by creating fantastic berries to house its seeds. If the delicious berries keep the humans happy, the humans will keep the current generation (the vine) alive.
The wine-growing family learns what grapes and wine styles goes best with the village foods. The vine learns how to produce fruit that meets the style. The villagers get a sanitary beverage that contains calories for their back-breaking labor and matches their local diet.
And that is why good wine comes from bad places. Smart vine. Lucky villagers.
What does this mean for us? Great wine, interesting, complex wine, comes from places on the edge, places that barely grow grapes at all. The roots of the vine dig deep, through soils and sub-soils and pick-up nuances and a variety of minerality. Just enough moisture means the berry is not too fat and the resulting wine is intense and concentrated, not watery and dilute.
Seek wines from locations on the edge. Get off the beaten path. Your palate will be rewarded!