Vines for Fine Wines of the World
All the fine wines of the world and most of the good ones are made from Vitis vinifera although others, such as Vitis rupestris and Vitis labrusca, especially the latter, are also sometimes used. It is the labrusca that has predominated in the eastern vineyards of the U.S., although wines made from it have a curious character, that some describe as ‘foxy’. There are a huge number of different types of vine (see grapes) and often the use of local as well as national names for them makes the subject a complex and often confusing one. The subdivisions of the main types of vine – Rheinriesling, Walsch-riesling, etc – similarly complicate the issue; and the use of a single name, such as Riesling, Muscat, or Pinot, on a wine label need not always indicate the style of wine in the bottle. This is simply because of the variety of the different types of vine all bearing the same family name.
Vines will grow where no other crop can, with the possible exception, in hot countries, of the olive. They can withstand great heat and cold, but in general do not thrive in climates that are either tropically warm or humidly cold, as they prefer a fairly dry atmosphere at least for part of the year. The finest wines of all tend to be made just at the extreme limits of where it is possible to grow certain vines and where the vine has literally to struggle to live, combating either bouts of violent heat or bitter cold. Rich soil seldom seems good for vines if they are to make fine table wines. Slopes are favourable to vine cultivation, as they enable water to drain away and afford a certain protection; in addition, the direction in which they face is of great importance, so that the vines get the sun at the most advantageous angle. The way in which vines are planted in rows or on terraces is not merely for ease of cultivation, but so that the plants get the right amount of both exposure and shelter. Generally, the vines grown halfway or two-thirds from the bottom of a slope will make finer wine than those at the top, which risk over-exposure to the elements, or those at the bottom, which may suffer from bad drainage or too rich soil. Something that often surprises visitors to vineyards is that, unlike gardeners, vinegrowers prefer the sort of stony, gravelly, schistous soil that holds and reflects heat upwards, ensures good drainage, and contributes to the water flowing through the vineyard by the various minerals it contains.
The vine requires tending all the year round, but the two most important times in its annual cycle are the flowering of the vine in the spring and the vintage in the autumn. Otherwise it is pruned, trained, sometimes trellised, weeded, sprayed against pests and disease and, when it grows too old to bear economically, it is pulled up, and the vineyard left to rest for a period. The life of a vine varies; before the Phylloxera and before the time when vast amounts of inexpensive wine were required, vines tended to be left for longer before the vineyard was replanted. Vines of 50 to 100 years old were usual in some vineyards, yielding little but contributing quality. They are rarities today. Usually a vine will bear grapes that can be made into wine when it is from 3 to 5 years old; but young vines do not always yield grapes of sufficient quality for them to contribute to the making of the finest wines. In many of the great vineyards, vines will not be used for the grand vin of the property until they are 7 to 12 years of age. Their life will then vary, but most vines yield until they are 25 to 35 years old.
According to the type of vine, the situation of the vineyard and the sort of wine it is wished to make, the vines are made to grow high or low; some in single plants, others trained so that they form types of hedges. The amount of wine that each section of a vineyard can yield is controlled, as is the method of cultivation (see Appellation d’Origine Contrdlee). In Germany, for example, it is estimated that each vinestock will yield 1.76 pts (1 litre) of wine as far as fine wines are concerned. In a vineyard making cheap wine the yield might be much higher; and so indeed might the yield in an exceptionally good vintage. It is considered that it ‘takes two years to make a vintage’, because the vine can benefit enormously by what has happened in the vineyard in the preceding year. That is why, in many classic vineyard areas, vintages of special interest often go in pairs: the second vintage is often finer than the first.