The weather has been clement, holidays are over, and out in the vineyards, the steady snip-snip of electric pruning clippers fills the air, now emptied of migratory birds gone south. I will go home to a fine oaked Syrah tonight, ready after four years maturing and bottle-cellared. First, though, a walk through the vines. The hillside below me – above Sierre – is dotted with vineyard workers and the snip-snip can be traced to them.
Dormant only biologically
The vines, for their part, have hunkered down for their quiet time. It’s the season when the sap falls back below the surface of the hardened ground, to a safer and warmer, hidden existence. White snow, whiter frost cushion the soil above the roots. A long breath is held until spring when the magic begins again and soil nutrients push their way up to young flowers and then berries, and suddenly there is a wild cry of new aromas –
Don’t you believe it! Quiet and dormant and prepared to be ignored, oh no, these vines are not that, except in biological lingo.
This is the season when we can read vines and learn their histories and be reminded of our own, for this is one of the gifts vines give us. Look at those splendid old trunks, scores of years old some of them.
This one, which looks like a dancer spinning on a pole and leaping out into the world – it’s been fighting vignerons ever since adolescence, judging by all its old cuts, those short knobbly bits. It tries to grow taller each year and they, those human adults, interested only in restricting yield, want to keep it short. Were we once like that? Our scars are less visible, but they are there. You could argue that each clipping of our young and boundless energy, each channeling of passions into acceptable paths to make us productive members of society, leaves a cut, a scar.
Look! here we have lovers in an ancient embrace, apparently ignored in their youth despite their obvious passion, and left to almost, but not quite consummate – what? Remember the madness of those first loves, the intensity of limbs wrapped around limbs, and the sudden stopping before it was too late? But too late for what exactly? To consummate love? To make a commitment we weren’t prepared to honour? To disobey the rules of our elders?
Love among the vines
Vines are mostly self-pollinating. The flowers open in spring, the pollen falls and if a grain of pollen lands on the right part of a stigma, pollination might happen. Consummation isn’t really part of their story, and looking at the lovers-vine again, what’s most apparent is mad, undisciplined growth. Chaos even. That which happens when you don’t know enough to stop, to release the embrace, to let go. It’s not just lovers who have this problem; as parents, have we ever done that?
By January the leaves in the vineyard are gone, the green cover between the rows has paled and lost its height. We can see each vine for what it is, a citizen vine in a row of vines, rows upon rows in the vineyard, one vineyard shouldering another inside a vine parcel until we have a veritable village of grapes – each vine a tale of bursts of energy, quiet times, loves won and lost, so like our own urban and village lives.
Each citizen-vine here is a raconteur, telling us about season after season living with hopeful farmers who, each winter, feel their way along the old wood to new growth and decide where to cut, how to guide the vine along a good, productive path. Didn’t our parents do that?
Three spurs left per arm, and we’re probably seeing the work of a younger grower who is educated in the art of winemaking. A crazy handful of spurs and shoots – this might be the work of one of the aging weekend growers. Valais is filled with thousands of them, and as younger generations move off to cities for better paid work, more vines are neglected and grandparents worry about who will tend them.
Isn’t that what grandparents and parents have always done?
The wine: “Love never dies”, 2016, barrel-aged Syrah from Leuk-Stadt, winery Vin d’Oeuvre, producers Isabella & Stéphane Kellenberger, shown above. CHF45, Initially subtle nose of black fruit and pepper, spices, then ripe dark berries in mouth and spices woven through; a wine of depth, an exquisitely elegant wine. Perfect at age 4.
See Winespeak: vine body parts for an educational tour of the Kellenbergers’ vines at pruning time