How adversity makes beautiful wine
Here’s an interesting cocktail fact: grape vines used for the production of quality wine must be planted in infertile soils in order to generate high quality grapes. In fact, grapevines cultivated for wine use soils that are not fertile enough to sustain other agricultural crops. This concept may seem contradictory at first, but as you will see shortly, it makes perfect sense.
The most important factor in making great wine is the quality of fruit, and the only way to get quality fruit is to choose an optimal vineyard site for the grapes that you want to grow. Climate, position, and soil, (otherwise known as terroir) are the three factors in choosing this site. Each one of these is important on its own merit, but this post will focus on soil—really, really poor soil.
When say I say “poor soil,” I mean just awful soil. In some places, as in the Rhone Valley or some areas of Toscana, there is not even an ounce of dirt in sight, just rocks. It’s hard to believe that a pile of rocks can produce such amazing wine. However, rocky soils provide excellent drainage for the vines as well as capture heat during the day to warm the vines at night. Interestingly, to cultivate great grapes, it’s more important to regulate water supply than to have highly nutritive dirt. In short, bad dirt equals good wine.
Grapevines need to be stressed to produce quality fruit. The poor soil encourages the roots to dig deeper for water and other nutrients. As they dig, the roots begin to ramify, and the surface area of the roots that eventually comes into contact with the soil increases. In turn, more nutrients are delivered to the precious clusters of berries. Also, more roots equal better regulation of water supply, which is very important during the veraison, or the ripening stages of grape.
The fertile and rich soils that are used to grow commercial crops would spoil the grapes—much as spoiling a child makes for a bad-tempered kid, spoiling grapevines makes for ill-flavored fruit. Fertile soils make it too easy for vines to produce grapes, and the vines take advantage and produce like crazy. When this happens, the quality of fruit is sacrificed for quantity. It’s like a child never having to work a day in his or her life. The harder an entity has to work for something, the greater it will be rewarded in the end Grapes—and winegrowers—like it tough, and I have to love them for it These basic concepts are not universal, but they do provide a good background in understanding why growers make wine where they do, and how the soil influences the grapes. Consider it a grounding for your understanding of that delicious beverage we call wine. And feel free to show off by telling people not only does the name “Sassicaia” come from the word “stony,” but also that the wine grown in any other soil would hardly taste as sweet.