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by Fred McMillin
for February 18, 2000


Winery of the Week

Viticulture
(Growing the Grapes)


Prologue

"Wine is sunlight, held together by water."

...Galileo, 1564-1642, Italian astronomer, born 436 years ago this week.


The Rest of the Story

Galileo had it right. Sunlight furnishes the energy whereby the vine converts carbon dioxide in the air to sugar in the grape. Upon fermentation, the resulting dry wine is about 85% water. We'll discuss all this in our spring courses at San Francisco State University, College of Extended Education.

Here are some of the questions we answer.


What is Viticulture?

Latin: VITIS means VINE; CULTURA refers to "caring." Thus, viticulture refers to caring for the vine. We want it to produce grapes for eating fresh, for eating after drying (raisins), or for making wine. Here we are concerned only with wine grapes.

What soil is best for growing high-quality wine grapes?
There isn't any "best." E.g., many of Burgundy's great grapes come from soil with much lime, while much of Bordeaux's soil has little lime. In general, soils of low fertility yield better wine grapes. It should not be so dense that roots can't penetrate it.

Winemaker Tex Sawyer

Winemaker Tex Sawyer.

What climate is best for wine grapes?
With rare exceptions, the world's quality vineyards lie between 35 and 50 degrees latitude in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. E.g., Europe's northernmost quality vineyards are in Germany near the 50th parallel. Farther north grapes don't ripen adequately. On the other hand, grapes grown too near the equator lack intense flavor.

Since ripe wine grapes must have over 20% sugar, how is the sugar produced?
Let's hear it for the LEAVES! with the aid of the sunshine that Galileo mentioned, the sugar is formed in the leaves, and then moves to the grapes. The raw materials used by the leaves are carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water from the soil, that passes up through the vine.

If leaves are so important, how are they treated in the vineyard?
Their treatment is called CANOPY MANAGEMENT. A canopy is an overhead cover that provides shade. Too much shade over the grapes and they don't ripen well. So various techniques are used to optimize sun exposure between leaves and grapes. Hence the name, "canopy management." Tex Sawyer (pictured), explains how they do it at our Winery of the Week, Pacific Echo.


Canopy Management at Pacific Echo

The winery (formerly called Scharffenberger Cellars) is located in the cool Anderson Valley of Mendocino County. Thus, they can't waste any sunshine. Tex says their goals are to train the vines to increase the exposure of the grapes to the sun, and also to open up the vines for better air flow through them. The crew goes through the entire vineyard several times during the growing season, clipping off excess leaves, directing the shoots to expose the grape clusters, etc. "It involves a lot of handwork, but is the only way to ensure that each vine will turn out its share of quality grapes."

It seems to work. Critical opinion of their array of sparkling wines... "Quality is very high and still improving"..."the sparklers have great character and individuality."
My panel particularly liked the 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs at about $25.
Contact—Office of Matthew Egan, (212) 888-7575, FAX (212) 888-7575


Postscript

If you are interested in my History of Wine course, or the Fundamentals course this sring, phone (415) 405-7700, FAX (415) 338-7290.

 
About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

 
 


This page created February 2000

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