The imagery of the grapevine, the grape, and the elixir made of its juices permeates so many Old World cultures. Wine is not just an enjoyable alcoholic beverage, it is a fundamental element of so many societies and their religious and ideological constructs. Wine, the product of the fermented juices of grapes is an integral part of many rituals, both ancient and new. Like most fermented comestibles, wine was most likely a happy accident, resulting from drinking the juice of overripe berries. From this the cultivation of the vine became an art form involving passion and intention, and a religious devotion, the essence of which infiltrate and is preserved in the wine. At room temperature the wine is naked, its flaws and virtues visible for all to see and taste. The enjoyment of wine has become more and more refined over the centuries, as the cultivation of the vine has created an estimated 10,000 varieties of one species Vitis vinifera (McGovern, 2003), each with its own unique qualities, as well as ecological requirements. Wine is an important social adhesive; it brings people together, and provides a certain richness to life to which it embodies the texture, the aroma, and the mouthfeel. A convenient, accidental invention of our doing, wine is an elixir with charms subtle enough to seduce the senses, and powers strong enough to arouse the soul.
The Ecology and Life Cycle of Vitis vinifera
The grapevine, when left to grow wild, behaves much like an ivy: it climbs and it creeps. However, when left to grow this way, berry production is not to human desire. So in an agricultural setting, grapevine growth is manipulated in a way that provides optimal berry cluster production. A grape cluster is technically a complex flower consisting of a peduncle, pedicels, a rachis, and berries that originate from individual flowers. Each berry consists of skin, pulp (the flesh), and seeds (Stafne, 2012). Water loss is prevented by a waxy layer on the skin called bloom, the amount of which varies among grape varieties. Like any other woody plant, the grapevine transports nutrients through a vascular system consisting of xylem and phloem. The xylem transports water, minerals, sugars, and other nutrients from the root system, while the phloem is responsible for transporting carbohydrates from the leaf canopy to the vine and to the berries.
Grapevines are deciduous, woody perennials, and their annual growth cycle is similar to that of other woody perennials. There are five main phases in annual grapevine growth: (1) dormancy, (2) bud break, (3) bloom and fruit set, (4) véraison and fruit maturation, and (5) post-harvest (Nail, 2012). From leaf fall, through the winter, until the first breaking bud, the grapevine lies in a dormant state, with some root growth possible, depending on the temperature of the soil, as well as temperature fluctuations. In northern latitudes, where winters are harsher, grape varieties are hybridized for particular hardiness during this period. As spring approaches and temperatures rise, stored starches are converted into sugars, and the vine’s “blood” (sap) begins to flow again, new buds swell and break, and new shoots grow, along with fruit clusters (inflorescences). Following a few weeks time, the flowers on the clusters begin to open. The duration of the flowering period depends on the climate, and can be anywhere from a day in warm dry conditions, to a month where it is cool and wet (Nail, 2012). After pollination takes place, cell division in the berries occurs very rapidly until the berries are fully formed and cell division ceases, after which point cell expansion is responsible for further berry growth. Commercial cultivars are primarily self-pollinating, and thus do not require another pollinizer cultivar. Véraison is the transition period between berry growth and berry ripening. This is when sugar accumulation occurs, and the berry begins to soften, and the pigment of the skin begins to darken. This is one of the most important developments in the grapevine’s annual cycle that will determine the future flavor profile of the wine. Meanwhile, the vine’s green shoots mature and become woody (lignification). Véraison ends with a fully mature grape cluster, at which point the fruit is harvested. Following harvest, leaves will continue to photosynthesize, accumulating carbohydrates for future growth, until they fall off or it becomes too cold. Sugars are converted to starches that are stored in the roots, helping what is left of the vine to acclimate to the cold, and survive through the winter.
There are three stages of berry formation (Stafne, 2012). Stage I lasts for about 60 days, and begins at bloom, when rapid cell division occurs. During this period of expansion, tartaric acid, which provides acidity important for winemaking, accumulates in the skin, while malic acid accumulates in the flesh of the fruit, also important in the winemaking process. Tannins that are often talked about in wine tastings come from the seeds and skin. Tannins are important for quality characteristics such as mouthfeel and stability, provided by their astringent nature. Stage II begins when cell division ceases. This so-called lag phase is a pause in berry growth, and lasts for five to ten days, during which time seed embryos grow rapidly. After this lag, cell expansion begins, leading to véraison and berry maturation. Stage III is distinguished by the softening and coloring of the berry. This is when sugars (glucose and fructose from sucrose) accumulate and malic acid diminishes, along with seed tannins. Climate, of course, is a major influential factor in this stage. Warm region grapes will tend to be less acidic and have more sugar, while grapes in cooler climates will retain more of their malic acid whilst not developing as much sugar (Stafne, 2012). The concentrations of these compounds during Stage III depends on factors such as how long berries are left on the vine (hang time), crop load, water, canopy size and density, sun exposure, and temperature. There is much variability in berry ripening within a vineyard, not to mention within a vine, between vines within a cultivar, and even between grape clusters, sometimes even between berries. Of course, it is the responsibility of the grower to create the conditions for a crop as uniformly ripened as possible.
Most fundamental to grapevine ecology is the soil in which the vine grows. Grapevines grow on many different types of soil around the world (White, 2009), but each variety of grape has specific soil requirements. The interaction between climate and soil profile poses interesting management challenges for the grower. Factors to consider in a soil profile include drainage, texture, depth, and the very composition of minerals and essential nutrients in the soil required for grapevines. What the grower must further consider are the varieties of grapes suitable to be planted on the specific site. Another important factor is the parent rock underneath the soil. Limestone, basalt, schist, and clay all have different characteristics that will influence the way the grapevine will grow above them. Root development may be inhibited or encouraged based on the parent rock’s ability to retain or drain water. For instance, soil formed on the metamorphic rock schists of Coteaux du Languedoc are shallow, stony, and excessively drained (White, 2009), and force the vine’s root system to penetrate deeply in search of water, if not properly irrigated. Many of the soil constraints can be avoided, however, through deep ripping before the planting of the vineyard, especially in the case of very shallow soils. Many vineyards are found on deep, well-drained, but not very fertile soils, and thus require intensive nutrient input.
The soil context that the grapevine grows in is reflected in the qualities of the wine produced. This is commonly referred to as terroir, but is not commonly understood. The activities to ensure the health of the vine’s underground parts are just as important as those that focus on that which grows above the ground. This is where irrigation strategies are most important. The importance is not only that the vine simply grows, for a non-irrigated vine’s roots will continue to grow deeper in search of water, but using the manner in which the vine grows as an indicator of its health (White, 2009). A barrier to root penetration will cause the vine’s roots to extend laterally. Factors effecting the vine’s root development will influence its overall vigor as well as the yield and quality of the fruit (White, 2009).
The concept of terroir is commonly referred to in the world of winemaking. It is a term rooted in the viticultural traditions of the Old World, namely France, and is used to define the distinct characteristics of wines made from grapes grown in different soils, even in the same area. Indeed, anyone can taste and smell the difference between a California and an Oregon Pinot Noir, but these distinctions are more easily attributed to the marked difference in climate, and have been scientifically explained, as previously discussed. The scientific basis for explaining a specific soil’s influence on the quality of a wine, however, is difficult to establish, primarily because the isolation of a single factor among the myriad involved in the terroir is next to impossible (White, 2009). This had led some to believe that the concept of terroir is simply a social construction, dismissing the influence of site influence on wine quality. Yet recent science has done much to empirically explain the processes involved in the biology of the grapevine and its ecology, making the connection between the vine’s geological and geographical place and the qualities of the wine undeniable.
The Origins of the Vine
Today the significance of the grapevine is deeply embedded into the cultures of the Mediterranean and southwest Asia. Wine is undoubtedly the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage throughout this region, and the trade of it one of the largest economies. The historical record of the grapevine has been long researched, as Herodotus was writing about wine as early as the fifth century B.C., but the archeological evidence for the origins of grape domestication has not emerged until only the last half century. The cultivation of grapevines originated in the mountainous region between the Black Sea and the Caspian sea, around the borders of what is now Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey (sometimes referred to as Transcaucasia) (Unwin, 1991). This is the region to which Vitis silvestris, the wild ancestor of Vitis vinifera, is native. It is reasonable to assume, as with other fermented products, that wine was a happy accident, discovered by someone who drank the fermented juices of wild grapes that had been collected and stored. Either the grapes had been quite ripe upon collection, or they had been sitting in a pottery vessel long enough to have fermented. At the end of the Tertiary era, species of the genus Vitis were found all over the planet. But later, as a result of cold and warm periods during the Quaternary, its distribution became restricted to a narrower latitudinal band, lying within about 30º and 50º North (Unwin, 1991). Around the same time that environmental conditions in this region became favorable for the intensification of other agricultural crops such as wheat and barley, it is thought that the vine was also more extensively cultivated for the making of wine, and from whence it must have spread. This period, known as the Neolithic (c. 8500 to 4000 B.C.), provided the necessary preconditions for the innovation of viniculture (McGovern, 2003), and the higher altitudes of the mountainous region would have provided cooler winters most ideal for the cultivation of the vine (Unwin, 1991). The earliest archeological evidence for the presence of wine comes from the chemical analysis of a yellowish residue on the inside of a pottery jar at the site of Hajji Firuz Tepe in the northern Zagros mountains of Iran (McGovern, 1997). The jar, found in the kitchen of a Neolithic mud brick building has been dated to 5400-5000 B.C. Judging from the long, narrow-necked form of the jar, and the concentration of residue on the lower half, the vessel certainly contained liquid. Infrared, liquid chromatographic, and wet chemical analyses have uncovered the presence of tartaric acid as well as calcium tartrate, substances that occur in large amounts in nature only in grapes (McGovern, 1997). Further chemical analysis shows the presence of terebinth tree resin, making absolute certain that the jar originally contained wine. Tree resins were commonly used medicinally, mostly as an antiseptic, especially in Roman times. It is known that tree resin was later used in the production of wine to keep acetobacteria from turning it into vinegar. It is therefore doubtful that the mixture of grape product and terebinth tree resin at Hajji Firuz Tepe was at all accidental.
Considering that there are numerous species of the genus Vitis distributed in a 30º-50ºN band stretching around the planet, there is mystery as to why none of the other Vitis species were used in the production of wine (at least, there is no archeological or historical evidence to suggest as much). Even though there are arguments for the independent domestication of the vine, such as in southeast Spain (Unwin, 1991), the archeological and historical evidence that the earliest wine was made in the northern upland parts of the Near East must be accounted for (McGovern, 2003). This indicates that the production of wine and the cultivation of the vine was not merely a result of the geographical distribution of the grape genus (Unwin, 1991). Social and ideological structures that developed in Transcaucasia, instead, must have been responsible for the spread of viniculture throughout the region and beyond. The kind of symbolism important for religion was important in the spread of viniculture and wine making, and this practice was part of the development of a particular ideological conscience that would later become part of the cult of Dionysus. While it is certainly possible that vines were cultivated elsewhere in the Mediterranean basin for wine production, it is in the Transcaucasia region that wine and the vine came to possess such potent symbolic significance (Unwin, 1991). The broader sort of agricultural fertility myth that has been associated with other Pagan belief systems (for example the Wiccan myth of John Barleycorn) can easily be applied to the life cycle of the grapevine. The symbolism surrounding the death and rebirth of the vine itself, the wine as the essence of the vine that survives and carries over through the seasons, the wine’s ability to intoxicate people, providing them a means of communion with the deities, as well as its consequent role as a catalyst for sexual intercourse, and therefore fertility, are all very potent symbols (Unwin, 1991). The cult of Dionysus, rapidly developing around the eighth century B.C., followed wherever the Greeks ventured, spreading the vine all the way. Greek coins have been found as far as the Douro Valley, in northern Portugal, along with Greek-planted low grapevines that are not characteristic of the climbing vines typically planted in the region today (Stanislawski, 1970). The Dionysus cult was very influential in northern Portugal, resulting in an intense enthusiasm for wine, even before the region produced wine in abundance.
The Transformative Landscape of the Vine in Northern Portugal
In no wine producing region in the world have the people so dramatically, and with such effort, transformed the landscape for the specific purpose of growing grapes than in Portugal. Grapevines were introduced into the western Iberian peninsula even before the Greeks, and there was an thriving Roman wine industry in Portugal, involving methods of intense experimentation that are still implemented today. Muslim interdiction against wine making, although somewhat successful in the south where Arab influence was stronger (also as a result of the shear devastation of all agriculture caused by constant warfare), did not prevent many vineyards in the north from continuing wine making. Before the Age of Discoveries, Portugal was not at all active in trade, and agriculture was completely basic to its economy, but a number of historical documents from the Medieval period refer to the great importance of viticulture and wine making (Stanislawski, 1970). By the end of the Reconquest in the mid-thirteenth century, the Portuguese kings encouraged the establishment of more vineyards as a source of funds in order to resettle lands previously taken by the Moors. For a fundamentally agricultural economy, this proved highly successful, and provided security to a great number of Portuguese people. Fruit trees such as olives take a long time to become effective producers, and grains are not dependable because fields can be pillaged or devastated farmers will eat the product, but there is always a market for wine, and vineyards can readily be taxed by the control of trade channels (Stanislawski, 1970). The importance of this kind of agriculture to royal purposes was made clear by the instructions of the kings to keep planting vineyards. By the fourteenth century, while Spain was still struggling to free their land from Muslim control, Portugal under King Ferdinand was exporting large amounts of wine, bringing important foreign exchange into his treasury. Wine production became so important in the fourteenth century that life in entire settlements, such as Vila Nova de Gaia in the north, became devoted to the manufacture of barrels and barrel hoops. Other settlements in the Minho province, which is made entirely of grey granite, became completely devoted to chiseled seamless fifteen meter granite posts for the support of vines, or the construction of terraces to maximize land area for the vines, in this steep, rugged region. (Stanislawski, 1970). These narrow terraced rows of vines were traditionally separated by countless unmortared granite stone walls, that had to be repaired every winter and spring as a result of erosion (Unwin, 1991). And out of grey granite the Minhotos have entirely transformed a steep, rugged, and rocky region into a vast landscape of rippling green slopes.
Foreign exchange had increased substantially in the fourteenth century, and Portuguese wines had become important in the English market, marking the beginning of a strong and lasting economic relationship (Stanislawski, 1970). The Portuguese kings had become thoroughly invested in the exportation of wine, and ensured the highest quality at considerable costs. However, an economic imbalance would come as a result of the neglect of fundamental food crops. Because wine was a readily taxable product, and grapevines a highly productive cash crop, vineyards were encouraged to continue producing at the cost of other food crops necessary for the wellbeing of the population. This imbalance was later remedied to some extent when King João of Aviz (reigned 1385-1433) granted extensive grain and cattle lands in the south to noblemen. However, the relationship between the landowners, not farmers and ranchers by birth, and the peasants was strained, and remains so today. Disruptive intervention in the north, that had largely perfected grapevine agriculture, created a stressed relationship between peasants and nobility, too. For instance, a common practice in the north was allowing vines to grow up into trees so that the fruit would not absorb too much heat reflected from the ground, and gain shade from the tree’s canopy (White, 2009). But a fourteenth century document records complaints from the inhabitants of the lower Douro River region against landowners that would send their carpenters to cut down trees regardless of whether or not they supported vines (Stanislawski, 1970). One perspective follows that Portugal’s huge success, if not brief monopoly, in wine exportation in the fourteenth century allowed it to be the frontrunner in the Age of Discoveries. Another perspective follows conversely that the intense exploitation of its northern and southern peasants created an economic imbalance that would cause future instability for Portugal as a European nation.
Pinot Noir Heaven: Wine in the Willamette Valley
It is not widely know that grapes were among the crops brought by some of the earliest Euro-American settlers in the Willamette Valley, in the middle of the nineteenth century. The 1860 census reported 2600 gallons of wine produced in the state of Oregon. Indeed, there may have been a booming early market, but with Prohibition, all of the state’s vines were pulled out, and hardly any were replanted after Prohibition had ended (Clark, 1989). Oregon wine making did not start in a serious way until about sixty years ago, and had no international recognition until only the past few decades. As of 2010, Oregon has planted 19,400 acres of vineyards, and is home to 387 winerie among 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVA) (Mertz et al., 2010). Oregon was officially put on the wine-producing map in 1980 when Eyrie Vineyards 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir placed second only to Robert Drouhin’s twenty-one-year-old Chambolle-Musigny, one of the greatest Burgundy wines ever made.
It may come as no surprise, then, that Oregon and Burgundy, France share very similar climates (Mastin, 1983). Oregon and the Bordeaux region share just about the same latitude, at 45º to 46º North (Clark, 1989). However, latitude does not mean everything. When comparing climate, the vineyardist or winemaker must look at degree-days, which measure the total heat over a growing season. The Willamette Valley measures between 1600 and 2300 degrees (Clark, 1989), which is a relatively wide range, indicating the variability in climate from year to year. The Willamette average is 2100 degrees, slightly cooler than that of Burgundy’s, at 2400 degrees. The Willamette Valley, located west of the Cascade Mountains would have a maritime climate if it weren’t for the Coast Range that blocks the cool ocean air, and allows for more warmth in the valley. Oregon receives a relatively high amount of precipitation, but it occurs almost entirely during the winter and during the growing season. The valley’s grape growing season does have seasonal constraints, however. Some years the rains arrive in the autumn and stay for weeks. If the rains do not let up in time for the grapes to finish ripening, the crop can be devastated by rot, and those grapes that escape the rot will become swollen with water, diluting their flavor (Clark, 1989). Growers must manage their vineyards with care, making sure the crop ripens at the right time. Most Oregon growers actively thin the vine’s fruit, as larger crops ripen more slowly. This also allows more sunlight into the vines and allows grapes to dry more quickly in the event of rain. But some growers are experimenting with planting their vines more closely together, reducing the number of grapes in each vine, but allowing them to ripen more quickly, and avoid the potentially devastating effects of early rains.
There has always been a sort of frontiersman attitude associated with the Pacific Northwest, an attitude that has very much been adopted by Oregon winemakers. There is not a rich body of traditional knowledge shared among the people of the region in regards to the land, that the French, Italians, and Portuguese have, people that have practiced agriculture for millennia. Agriculture was not practiced by the indigenous people of the region, and there are hardly any of them left to share what knowledge they possess. So much of Oregon wine making has been a result of intense experimentation. We know now that no one vine will grow the same on two different soils, so why pretend that a Pinot Noir needs to have certain qualities? The classification of wine qualities is largely Euro-centric. There is debate in the Oregon wine world regarding what the “typical” Oregon Pinot Noir should look like (Danehower, 2006). David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards has expressed disappointment in the emerging “international-style” Pinot. He thinks this style is heavily oaked, high in alcohol, with lots of residual sugar, which can be attributed to the use of overripe grapes. Lett’s style of Pinot involves minimal oak, native fermentation, and hand picking for maximum flavor ripeness. Whether or not one believes there is a “proper” Willamette Valley Pinot, ratings suggest that heavier, woodier, more fruit-forward styles sell better, and for higher prices. But the purists believe that the wine should be an homage to the broad terroir of the valley. This is a debate that unique to the region, as Oregon wine making is still relatively young. Specific flavor profiles are not yet associated with specific grape varietals in specific appellations like they are in the Old World. Further debate has focused around “chaptalization” of some cool climate Pinot Noirs (Clark, 1989). Typically, Pinot Noir grown in the warmer California becomes overripe, resulting in a wine with pruney or raisiny characteristics due to high residual sugar, which is not ideal. Pinot Noir grapes in Oregon ripen more slowly and are harvested later, resulting in lower residual sugar and higher acidity, essential for bringing out the fruit qualities. Chaptalization involves the addition of sugar to the juice prior to fermentation in the occasion that the fruit simply cannot ripen enough in time. This method is commonly practiced in Burgundy, meant to boost the body and alcohol content, and has shown no adverse effect on flavor.
Of course, Oregon would not have experienced such success in its wine industry if there had not been as many consumers of the local product. Out of the seemingly obscure roots for wine making has sprung an entire Northwestern culture of wine and appreciation for local cuisine. Events such as the International Pinot Noir Conference (Oregon Wine Board, 2011) in McMinnville, Oregon have been important in putting the region on the wine making map, and creating a positive reputation. A new cultural identity is emerging in the fertile soils of the Willamette Valley, its roots purely Oregonian.
Perhaps we legitimize our ancient obsession with wine, its incorporation into religious ideologies, and the subsidization of its production by kings and governments, because we like to get drunk, and we need an excuse to ensure that alcohol is readily available. But it is easy to make alcohol out of practically anything. Animals prefer fruit and berries that are as ripe as possible, and have been known to become inebriated after gorging on fermented fruit (McGovern, 2003). Why has the fermented juice of a plant that grows wild in many parts of the world been so deeply incorporated into the religious ideologies and economies of only one area? Perhaps it is merely chance that the cultures of Transcaucasia chose the grapevine to exult, and then, exploit, just as the Mayans had done with maize. There is still much mystery surrounding the ideologies that emerged as a result of grapevine cultivation. But the vine has climbed and taken root in the hearts and minds of humans; it has been responsible for the dramatic transformation of vast agricultural landscapes and entire societies, and is continuing to be the harbinger of cultural and ecological change today.
Oregon’s growing viticulture industry. (2011, October 16). Retrieved from http://wine.oregonstate.edu/growing_industry
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Clark, C. (1989). American wines of the northwest. (1 ed.). New York: William Morrow & Co., Inc.
Oregon Wine Board (OWB). (2011). Exploring wine regions in oregon. Retrieved from http://oregonwine.org/Explore_Wine_Regions/Willamette_Valley/Willamette_Valley/
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Danehower, C. (2006, November 1). Oregon wines: Exploring terroir of the land and mind. Retrieved from http://wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-review/258/Oregon-Wine- Review.html
Stanislawski, D. (1970). Landscapes of Bacchus: The vine in Portugal. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Unwin, P. T. H. (1991). Wine and the vine: An historical geography of viticulture and the wine trade. London: Routledge.
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McGovern, P. E. (2003). Stone age wine. In Ancient Wine Princeton: University of Princeton Press.
Nail, W. (2011, November 28). Annual cycle of the grapevine. Retrieved from <http://www.extension.org/pages/31521/annual-cycle-of-the-grapevine>
Stafne, E. (2011, December 2). Stages of grape berry development . Retrieved from <http://www.extension.org/pages/31096/stages-of-grape-berry-development >
White, Robert (2009). Understanding Vineyard Soils. OUP Oxford. Retrieved April 14, 2012, from Ebook Library.