“Grape varieties are stateless. Soil and climate are the determining factors of quality and identity, along with human craft.”
Branas, J.: Le terre: inimitable Facteur de qualité
So, how much of a wine is shaped by human labor and how much by nature? The biological and viticultural cycle of the vine forms part of an ecosystem in which the soil, vines, environment, biodiversity, climate and human intervention complement one another. We—as human beings—and the vine are mutually dependent on each other, and the style and identity of a wine springs from this interaction and relationship. After all, a wine is born in the vineyard.
The human race has made mistakes when it comes to the Earth, which is probably why we are now embracing our past and the environment with renewed commitment. A newfound appreciation for indigenous or traditional varieties, a return to ancestral low-intervention viticultural and winemaking techniques, and the sensible legitimization of organic farming are what define the current direction in winegrowing. It is an identity-driven discourse rooted in research, experimentation and observation.
Using specific practices and techniques, human hands support the grapevine throughout its life cycle so that it can produce healthy, flavorful grapes. Those same hands then give it new life as a wine that expresses its landscape of origin.
Cultivating and obtaining a good crop implies respecting and listening to the land. A wise winegrower knows how to draw the best from the earth with the least possible intervention. Organic methods follow this principle and try to avoid the use of synthetic materials or chemical products at all cost. The idea of acting in harmony or accordance with nature and using natural resources without depleting them is the foundation of permaculture. It is a philosophy and movement built on the observation of how ecosystems work so as to adapt natural processes to a sustainable and collaborative social model.
Ideally vineyards grow in soil and climate conditions that are best suited to their varietal characteristics. Geology, soil type, drainage, vineyard orientation, elevation and climate conditions are essential factors in the life of the vine and vineyard. They shape the resulting grapes, along with the hand of the winegrower and the characteristics of the vintage.
The vineyard is a reflection of the winegrower in as much as he or she intervenes to produce the grapes that make it possible to obtain a certain type of wine. The winegrowers' work includes soil management and the protection of biodiversity; supporting the soil with organic matter (manure, compost, etc.) and planting cover crops that nourish and fertilize the earth. They ensure a well-distributed canopy to maintain a good level of quality and a suitable microclimate. In addition, they must keep vine vigor and cover crops balanced, as well as control weeds, which would otherwise enter into competition with the vines. The manual day-to-day work also involves observing the evolution of the yearly vegetative cycle (especially the rate of maturation) and carrying out viticultural tasks at the appropriate time. Furthermore, winegrowers maintain a balance between fruit and canopy by, for example, avoiding excessively wide planting schemes, especially in fertile areas.
Technique, science and the cumulative experience of interacting with the land on a daily basis come together to make winegrowers the vine's greatest ally. They develop an intuition of sorts that allows them to stay ahead of nature and make generous and appropriate decisions in the face of uncontrollable factors such as climate.
During the vegetative cycle, the winegrower has to implement preventive measures to avoid unnecessary treatments and/or interventions in the vineyard. In the fall, once the harvest is over and the grapes have gone to the winery, it is time for the vineyard to rest, for cleaning tasks and soil tilling so oxygen can penetrate the earth.
Pruning happens in winter, when the vines are dormant. This involves removing last year's canes, guiding the plant, and regulating fruit production. The long winter slumber ends with a shift in temperature, when the vines “bleed” sap from their pruning wounds.
In April, budbreak heralds the spring; the vines are pollinated and bloom. Later on, the winegrower removes the first springtime shoots and leaves in what is known as canopy management. This ensures that air moves through the canopy and sunlight reaches the grapes during the months of fruit maturation.
Well into the summer, the vines reach physiological ripeness. The grapes begin to mature, sugars concentrate and acidity diminishes. And when the winegrower decides to pick the grapes, it's harvest time. This is the culmination of an entire year's work. The winemaking stage begins, which involves decisive decisions that affect the work carried out during the course of the vegetative cycle. Harvesting by hand is the least disruptive to the entire ecosystem and makes it possible to carefully monitor, select and protect the integrity of the grapes so that they reach the winery in perfect condition. The process of metamorphosis continues as the fruit becomes wine.
The terroir and the events of an entire year join forces to bring about new life. Humanity and nature as one, embodied in wine.