Note: I asked Alexandre if I could translate and publish an English version of this because I felt the article makes a very important point, one not often heard. As a wine writer who is on the fringes of the wine industry – I don’t sell wine, I don’t promote wineries for money – I’m bothered by the marketing clichés. “Tradition” is the latest buzz word of several that are handed to consumers as if they were gospel truth. It takes a good wine journalist like AT to redress the balance.
by Alexandre Truffer (original, in French, on romanduvin.com)
translated by Ellen Wallace (republished in English with permission from Alexandre Truffer)
During the past 10 years, as I crisscrossed vineyards in Switzerland and elsewhere, I was often under the impression I was taking part in a general competition for “who’s been doing it for the longest time?” I’m obviously talking about tradition. “Two millennia without interruption”, a Western European vigneron tells you proudly, while in Crete a producer leads you to the ruins of the Vathypetro grape press, which dates back 3,600 years. And confronted with the claims of the Golan Heights or Bekaa Valley, which boast of their biblical-era origins, Georgians bring out their kvevris, which are 8,000 years old.
At this point in the conversation, a representative of New World wines steps up and reminds everyone that the weak point in these boasts is the centuries-old claims that these all have something to do with domestic vines, a plant that had disappeared from the European, African and Asian continents by the end of the 19th century. This business gets even tougher when all of these speakers explains to you, in asides, that they are at the top end of a revolution in quality that has characterized the region for a number of years. In other words, to say you’re part of a millennia-old tradition, it seems that you have to do the opposite of what your father and grandfather did.
The village of Saint- Emilion (Photo: copyright 2016 Alexandre Truffer)
At your service: the chimera
Behind every wine, there is a vine, and behind every vine, there is a chimera. In this case, we are talking about a genetic term that designates an organism of two or more cellular populations that are genetically distinct; this is the case of the contemporary [European] vine, which is the result of the graft of a phylloxera-resistant American vine and a European grape variety with interesting organoleptic qualities.
The history of all this starts back in the 16th century when colonies on the east coast of North America began to make wine. The new continent [for Europeans] had indigenous vines, but these provided wines of dubious quality. The settlers thus decided to plant grape varieties brought over from Europe, which tended to die after just a few harvests. Their early mortality was due to a small parasite, phylloxera.
Over time, Europe-to-America crossings by ship became shorter. By the early 1860s the crossing had become quick enough to allow this Hemiptera to survive the sea voyage to Europe. In 1863, it destroyed the vines in Roquelaure, in the Gard region of France. By the end of the first world war it had reached Manchuria, South Africa and North Africa, ravaging all the vineyards that came in its path. A note here: this was not a matter of partially destroying vine parcels, as has been the case recently with Suzukii, or the grapevine trunk disease Esca, or mildew or odium attacks. This was the total destruction of the vine parcels affected. Today, just a few vine parcels cultivate the traditional Vitis vinifera rather than the chimera: in Chile (protected by its distance and the Atacama desert as well as the Andes) or in relatively inaccessible areas, for example Visperterminen in Valais in Switzerland, or in very sandy areas because the sand prevents the insect from tunnelling between plants.
Vineyards in Chile (Photo: copyright 2016 Alexandre Truffer)
Problems created by the free movement of vines
Phylloxera is not the only vine pest that hopped onto boats headed for Europe. The fungi behind powdery mildew (1845), downy mildew (1878) and black rot (1885) made the same voyage. The arrival of these cryptogamic diseases in vineyards of course forced growers to adapt by spraying fungicides on their vines. The Revue Agricole of June 1897 notes that: “for vines that are very susceptible to powdery mildew […] a first treatment before deleafing is obligatory. Then […], one or more applications of sulphur at the appropriate time, depending on how the disease progresses.” The journalist from this Vaud bi-weekly would no doubt have been surprised to learn that a little over a century later, the number of treatments has risen sharply. A 2010 study by the French Ministry of Agriculture showed that each vine parcel had had on average 16 phytosanitary treatments, of which 12 were fungicides, 2 insecticides and 2 herbicides. The document takes stock of significant variations, with the regional average in Champagne 20, falling to 11 in Provence. And the trend towards organic and biodynamic growing is not going to stop this tendency to increase the number of treatments. Authorized products for organic vineyards are generally contact substances. They don’t penetrate the plant; they wash away with rain and repeat treatments are therefore necessary when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Sing a song of grape varieties
We might imagine that tradition – defined as a set of customs and methods handed from one generation to the next – surely takes into account changes caused by unforeseen and difficult events, such as the unexpected arrival of invasive species. Nevertheless, most changes in the vineyard are made by growers for economic or practical reasons. Cultivation using trees to train vines (called hutins or hutains in French) was used in Antiquity. The practice is useful where there is mixed farming if the trees are fruit trees; given that vines grow upwards, it creates the option to let small animals use the land as pasture without worries that they will attack young vines. In Lavaux, for example, bills of sale from the 14th century mention “vines with trees located inside the vineyard”. However, starting in 1560, stakes made from dried timber were used to train vines. Trees disappeared from the landscape while vines became a single crop with greater planting density. The size of harvests increased.
We’re sometimes told that the selection of grape varieties and plants bought from nurseries is part of the fallout from phylloxera. But in fact the production of young plants prepared for growers to put in the ground dates back much further. Advertisements from the early 19th century in the Gazettes from Lausanne and Geneva listed “fine rootstock from the following grape varieties: fendant vert de Lavaux, fendant roux, fendant gris, rouge de la Dôle, rouge Cortaillod, Salvagnin, rouge d’Orléans, semi-early Meunier rouge, earliest Moreillon rouge, Ruchelin blanc, Tokai, Malvoisie, Madère, Chasselas rose, of said Fontainebleau, of said musqué, Muscat rouge and blanc, plant du Rhin, raisin tricolore and rouge en naissant, Teinturier …”
This ad from 1830 shows that the vineyards in Vaud held more than Chasselas. Every region in Switzerland went through the same kind of changes. Merlot, the main grape in Ticino today, accounting for 85% of vineyards, was introduced into the canton only in 1906. The same observation can be made for the vineyard surface area: in 1901 Switzerland had 30,112 hectares of vines. In order of size by canton: Vaud (6,618 hectares), Ticino (6,562), Zurich (4,769), Valais (2,605), Aargau (2,080 hectares), Geneva (1,813) and Neuchatel (1,177 hectares). In 2015 the country had 14,792 hectares of vines, and the balance had changed considerably: Valais 4,906, Vaud 3,771, Geneva 1,410, Ticino 1,097. Zurich and Aargau had only 606 and 384 hectares, respectively.
Graubünden (Photo copyright 2016, Alexandre Truffer)
Investing to maintain
Vineyards may be less static than we like to think, but cellar work is also continually changing. Some of those who push “natural” wines like to spread, somewhat lightly, the idea that additives have been used in wines only in the past half-century. They like to let people believe that previously, wine virtually made itself, slowly and with almost no human intervention.
That’s simply wrong. Wines labeled “natural” are in fact a product of the 21st century, requiring equipment and very sophisticated knowledge, as well as absolute mastery of the cold chain. Adding substances to wine to stabilize it, with greater or lesser efficiency, and more or less toxicity, undoubtedly dates back to the earliest winemakers.
In fact, the bulk of the literature dealing with vinification is made up of recipes for keeping wine healthy. Absinthe, fenugreek, pitch, salty water, iris roots and lead are some of the hundred-odd ingredients listed by authors of Latin texts on “repairing” wine. As Columelle states, “the best quality wine is that which will keep a long time without the addition of condiments, and which requires no mixtures that will alter its natural flavour.”
Over time, additives evolved, but the creativity of alchemists knew no bounds. Thus the “oenology author” L.-F. Dubief in 1834 wrote a Manuel that explained how to make an imitation Burgundy, Bordeaux or Roussillon wine starting with any grape must on hand. In reality, the modern definition of wine as a “product made only from the alcoholic fermentation of grapes or the must of grapes” dates to the French Griffe law of 1889. It was adopted to stamp out social unrest caused by competition from artificial wines (a mix of dried grapes imported from the east, alcohol, water, sugar). An ad in Valais in 1900 leaves the impression that fake wines did not disappear that quickly – Albert Margot was selling supplies so you could make your own raisin wine, for 16 francs for 200 litres. He stated that 600,000 litres of this beverage were drunk in 1909.
In short, we can say the same thing about every aspect of the work in the vineyard or the cellar, where we see that this does not consist of repeating millennium-old gestures. Rather, the work is a matter of constantly seeking solutions that work for the challenges brought on by the whims or changes of nature, the economy and humanity.
Tradition, key dates
- 40 days after the Flood: Noah gets drunk and exiles the son who saw him naked
- 6000 BC: first traces of winemaking, in Georgia
- 1750 BC: vineyard fraud is punishable by death under the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi
- 1580 BC: grape press built in Vathypetro, Crete
- 600 BC: the Greeks found Massilia
- 117 AD: maximum expansion by the Roman Empire, where vines are planted by veterans
- 1494: conquistadors plant vines in Hispaniola
- 1550: Jesuits plant vines in the Japan Archipelago
- 1659: colonists plant vines in the Cape region
- 1788: vines from the Cape are imported into the Australian continent
- 1819: a French missionary plants the first vines in New Zealand
- 1863: phylloxera arrives in Europe
- 1889: the Griffe law stipulates that wine is “made only from the alcoholic fermentation, total or partial, of fresh grapes, crushed or not, or from the must of grapes”
- 1935: six hybrid grape varieties banned in France
This article first appeared in the October/November 2016 edition of Vinum.
About the author: Alexandre Truffer is a freelance journalist who published the wine site RomanDuVin.ch. He writes regular for Le Guillon, the Vaud wine magazine, Terre & Nature, and Vinum, the European wine magazine.