Doing Right by the Kids: Why Suffering Grapevines Make Great Wine

When tasting at a winery, it is common to hear about how a wine has extra character because the vines were encouraged to struggle.  It’s one of those oft-repeated statements that doesn’t even attract scrutiny, but just receives nodding acceptance before you gulp down a small pour of another wine that tastes pretty similar to the last one.  But, like many things that have been rotely repeated, there is an interesting backstory.

Grapevines, when not trained and pruned, are a lot like the other vines, including the Virginia Creeper that adorns the brick walls at liberal arts college campuses.  All vines are part of the family Vitaceae and, when left to their own devices, these vines happily grow and climb.  They sprout leaves often, without overlapping, to maximize the surface area for photosynthesis.  This provides the plant with energy, which it uses to climb higher and make more leaves.  Vines also produce berries to attract hungry wildlife -- usually birds -- who, in turn, spread their seed through droppings to pass along the vine’s genes elsewhere.

When things are going well, vines are content to keep growing and make only a half-hearted effort at passing along their genetic code.  After all, how likely is it that the seed that a bird eats and subsequently relieves itself of will find a better situation than in fertile soil directly next to a brick wall?  Especially if the school administration that owns that wall happens to revel in the aesthetic of ivy-covered buildings!  So, the comfortable vine wastes little energy ripening its berries, instead allowing them to remain sour.  A desperate bird may eat them, but many of the berries simply fall off, allowing those seed to germinate in a place that the parent vine already knows is a successful environment.

However, when the vine is struggling to grow, either because of pests, diseases, or lack of water, nutrients or sun, the options are quite limited.  The vine can, and will, grow toward the sun and will search for something to climb.  But, if it is in a particularly inhospitable locale -- for instance, many wine regions -- it will choose a more prudent course for its future generations and try to entice a bird to bring its seeds to a better site.  With birds having numerous dining options available, this miserable vine will do its darndest to be one of the first choices, making its berries the plumpest, sweetest and juiciest.

When humans first discovered wine, with current estimates being about 7000 years ago, it was made from grapes that were grown wild, with many of the vines climbing the trunks of trees.  This wine was likely thin and harsh, but it’s hygienic qualities made it remarkable, people readily adopted it and worked to improve its taste. 

Several thousand years later, in 65 AD, Columella, a Roman writer, advocated for the use of stakes rather than trees to train vines, principally to reduce the number of injuries that occurred from tending to the grapes while climbing tree limbs.  This marked a significant step in the slow, iterative process of human alteration to the vine’s growing habitat to improve the quality of the berries every year since.  Now vines are manipulated with great sophistication; planted on sites where other vegetation couldn’t thrive, carefully trained to limit its vigor, pruned to maximize ripening, and sparingly given water and fertilizer.

In humans, the grapevine has found its complement.  The goal of seeds is to spread the vine as far and wide as possible.  Now the vines used in winemaking, originally native only to Europe and the Middle East, are found in substantial numbers throughout the world.  They were brought on the first expeditions to foreign lands and have been cultivated with care ever since.  The vine’s strategy of using energy to ripen grapes worked, perhaps not as initially intended, but it’s a beautiful partnership nonetheless.