Vineyards and Wine Growing

Portugal - Michel #4162 (2014)
Portugal – Michel #4162 (2014)

A vineyard is a plantation of grape-bearing vines, grown mainly for winemaking, but also raisins, table grapes and non-alcoholic grape juice. The science, practice and study of vineyard production is known as viticulture. A vineyard is often characterized by its terroir, a French term loosely translating as “a sense of place” that refers to the specific geographical and geological characteristics of grapevine plantations, which may be imparted in the wine.

The earliest evidence of wine production dates from between 6000 and 5000 BC. Wine making technology improved considerably with the ancient Greeks but it wasn’t until the end of the Roman Empire that cultivation techniques as we know them were common throughout Europe.

Satyrs in vineyard. Attic red-figure volute-krater, ca. 490 BC, State Collections of Antiques in Munich. Photo taken on February 10, 2007.
Satyrs in vineyard. Attic red-figure volute-krater, ca. 490 BC, State Collections of Antiques in Munich. Photo taken on February 10, 2007.

In medieval Europe, the Church was a staunch supporter of wine, which was necessary for the celebration of the Mass. During the lengthy instability of the Middle Ages, the monasteries maintained and developed viticultural practices, having the resources, security, stability and interest in improving the quality of their vines. They owned and tended the best vineyards in Europe and vinum theologium was considered superior to all others.

European vineyards were planted with a wide variety of the Vitis vinifera grape. However, in the late 19th century, the entire species was nearly destroyed by the plant louse phylloxera accidentally introduced to Europe from North America. Native American grapevines include varieties such as Vitis labrusca, which is resistant to the bug. Vitis vinifera varieties were saved by being grafted onto the rootstock of Native American varieties, although there is still no remedy for phylloxera, which remains a danger to any vineyard not planted with grafted rootstock.

The extensive vineyards of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, southern France. Photo take by Mick Stephenson on March 13, 2007.
The extensive vineyards of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, southern France. Photo take by Mick Stephenson on March 13, 2007.

The quest for vineyard efficiency has produced a bewildering range of systems and techniques in recent years. Due to the often much more fertile New World growing conditions, attention has focused heavily on managing the vine’s more vigorous growth. Innovation in palissage (training of the vine, usually along a trellis, and often referred to as “canopy management”) and pruning and thinning methods (which aim to optimize the Leaf Area/Fruit (LA/F) ratio relative to a vineyard’s microclimate) have largely replaced more general, traditional concepts like “yield per unit area” in favor of “maximizing yield of desired quality”. Many of these new techniques have since been adopted in place of traditional practice in the more progressive of the so-called “Old World” vineyards.

Other recent practices include spraying water on vines to protect them from sub-zero temperatures (aspersion), new grafting techniques, soil slotting, and mechanical harvesting. Such techniques have made possible the development of wine industries in New World countries such as Canada. Today there is increasing interest in developing organic, ecologically sensitive and sustainable vineyards. Biodynamics has become increasingly popular in viticulture. The use of drip irrigation in recent years has expanded vineyards into areas which were previously unplantable.

Napa Valley vineyard on the side of a road. Photo taken by Fred Hsu on April 8, 2018.
Napa Valley vineyard on the side of a road. Photo taken by Fred Hsu on April 8, 2018.

For well over half a century, Cornell University, the University of California, Davis, and California State University, Fresno, among others, have been conducting scientific experiments to improve viticulture and educating practitioners. The research includes developing improved grape varieties and investigating pest control. The International Grape Genome Program is a multi-national effort to discover a genetic means to improving quality, increasing yield and providing a “natural” resistance to pests.

The implementation of mechanical harvesting is often stimulated by changes in labor laws, labor shortages, and bureaucratic complications. It can be expensive to hire labor for short periods of time, which does not square well with the need to reduce production costs and harvest quickly, often at night. However, very small vineyards, incompatible widths between rows of grape vines and steep terrain hinder the employment of machine harvesting even more than the resistance of traditional views which reject such harvesting.

Numbers of New World vineyard plantings have been increasing almost as fast as European vineyards are being uprooted. Between 1990 and 2003, the number of U.S. vineyards increased from 292,000 to 954,000 acres (1,180 to 3,860 km²), while Australian vineyard numbers more than doubled from 146,000 to 356,000 acres (590 to 1,440 km²) and Chilean vineyards grew from 161,500 to 415,000 (654 to 1,679 km²).The size of individual vineyards in the New World is significant. Europe’s 1.6 million vineyards are an average of 49 acres (0.2 km²) each, while the average Australian vineyard is 120 acres (0.5 km²), providing considerable economies of scale. Exports to Europe from New World growers increased by 54% in the six years up to 2006.

Malvasia grape vines growing in topsoil, covered in lapilli, La Geria, Lanzarote, Canary Islands. The low, curved walls protect the vines from the constant, drying wind. Photo taken in July 2006.
Malvasia grape vines growing in topsoil, covered in lapilli, La Geria, Lanzarote, Canary Islands. The low, curved walls protect the vines from the constant, drying wind. Photo taken in July 2006.

There have also been significant changes in the kinds of grapes that are grown. For example, in Chile, large areas of low-quality grapes have been replaced with such grapes as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. In Argentina, due to an economic down-turn, acreage of Malbec was significantly reduced in the 1980s, but in the 1990s, during the quality revolution incited by Malbec Pioneer Nicolás Catena Zapata, growers started planting more Malbec, most notably in higher altitudes where cooler temperatures and more intense sunlight yields more concentrated yet smoother and more complex malbecs. Grape changes are often in response to changing consumer demand but sometimes result from vine pull schemes designed to promote vineyard change. Alternatively, the development of “T” budding now permits the grafting of a different grape variety onto existing rootstock in the vineyard, making it possible to switch varieties within a two-year period.

Local legislation often dictates which varieties are selected, how they are grown, whether vineyards can be irrigated and exactly when grapes can be harvested, all of which in serves to reinforce tradition. Changes in the law can also change which grapes are planted. For example, during Prohibition in the U.S. (1920–1933), vineyards in California expanded sevenfold to meet the increasing demand for home-brewing. However, they were largely planted in varieties with tough skins that could be transported across the country to home wine-makers and the resulting wine was of a low quality.

A vineyard in Napa Valley, California. Photo taken by Brocken Inaglory on November 1, 2009.
A vineyard in Napa Valley, California. Photo taken by Brocken Inaglory on November 1, 2009.

According to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, in April 2015, China (799,000 hectares or 1,970,000 acres) overtook France (792,000 hectares or 1,960,000 acres) in terms of land devoted to vineyards, in second place behind Spain (1,000,200 hectares or 2,472,000 acres), the world’s largest producer.

Terroir refers to the combination of natural factors associated with any particular vineyard. These factors include things such as soil, underlying rock, altitude, slope of hill or terrain, orientation toward the sun, and microclimate (typical rain, winds, humidity, temperature variations, etc.) No two vineyards have exactly the same terroir, although any difference in the resulting wine may be virtually undetectable.

Vineyards in the Douro Valley of Portugal
Vineyards in the Douro Valley of Portugal

Vineyards are often on located on hillsides and planted in soil that is of only marginal value to other plants. A common saying is that “the worse the soil, the better the wine.” Planting on hillsides, especially those facing north (in the southern hemisphere) or south (in the northern hemisphere), is most often in an attempt to maximize the amount of sunlight that falls on the vineyard. For this reason, some of the best wines come from vineyards planted on quite steep hills, conditions which would make most other agricultural products uneconomic. The stereotypical vineyard site for wine grapes (in the Northern hemisphere) is a hillside in a dry climate with a southern exposure, good drainage to reduce unnecessary water uptake, and balanced pruning to force the vine to put more of its energy into the fruit, rather than foliage.

The terroir philosophy is predominately French in origin, the flavor and character of the place defining the individuality and the special attributes of wines and combined with hundreds of years of the finest wine making traditions, terroir gives wines their distinctive taste and signature.

A vignette is a 500-square-meter vineyard which is part of a larger consolidated vineyard. Investors purchase a piece of land within a vineyard, and outsource the grape maintenance and production operations to an outside grape grower or wine producers. Because they are contracting under a co-operative structure, they benefit from economies of scale and hence cheaper labor and operational costs.

Wine regions in Portugal
Wine regions in Portugal

On July 22, 2016, CTT Correios de Portugal SA released a set of four stamps and a souvenir sheet calling attention to “Old Vineyards of Portugal (Michel #4160-4164). Designed by AF Atelier and illustrated by Anabela Trinidade, these were printed by Belgian Post using offset lithography and are comb-perforated 13. The 0.75-euro stamp in the set portrays grapes being picked in a vineyard and had a printing of 135,000 (Michel #4162).

Port wines originate on the banks of the Douro. This is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, whose prestige has been recognized since 1756. The Douro vinhateiro (winegrowing), is an area of the Douro Valley in Portugal long devoted to vineyards, has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.Traditionally, the wine was taken downriver in flat-bottom boats called rabelos, to be stored in barrels in cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river from Porto. In the 1960s and 1970s, dams with locks were built along the river, allowing river traffic from the upper regions in Spain and along the border. Nowadays, Port wine is transported to Vila Nova de Gaia in tanker trucks.

The River Dão rises between the mountains in the interior, and forms a narrow valley where vines have been cultivated since the 12th century. The main grape is Touriga Nacional and Dão is considered one of the wine regions with greater appeal since its wines are soft and elegant.

Aerial view of vineyards in Markgräflerland, Baden, Germany. Photo taken on October 21, 2012.
Aerial view of vineyards in Markgräflerland, Baden, Germany. Photo taken on October 21, 2012.

An “old vineyard” in Portugal might be over a hundred years old in the Douro or Dão regions, while it might be only fifty or sixty years old in the Alentejo. Often there is a specific cut-off point in time, namely the phylloxera pest, which reached Portugal at the end of the 19th century, and decimated vineyards all over Europe. There may be vineyards that are older than this here or there, but they are very rare indeed.

Old vineyards have their very own philosophy and often harbor a mixture of varieties that are individually cultivated and highly adapted to the land, the local traditions and the place itself. The roots of the vines go deep in their search for nutrients, meaning that these vineyards are able to resist variable climate conditions better from one year to the next. The owner of an old vineyard considers himself to be a curator of the vines, rather than simply the heir to them; he has received this legacy, and now he has the task of passing it on. In this relationship there is a certain symbiosis and a mutual respect that defy description and shrug off the passage of time altogether. The result is a small harvest of grapes with a concentrated taste, depth and balance. With responsible winemaking, the resultant glass of wine might even be said to be soulful. Wines from old vineyards are impressive for their texture, restraint, complexity and stateliness.

Douro Valley, Portugal
Douro Valley, Portugal

Old vineyards are, in a sense, endangered. If an old vine withers away, it is essentially impossible to replace. To do so would require various different factors to come together in a frankly miraculous way, and even then it would be many years before it could be fully restored. No one would be able to see this through and also live long enough to savor the fruits of his toil. Instead, it is vital that old vines be preserved, and there are several ways of ensuring that this happens, among them maintenance, care, study, replication, duplication, the creation of reserves, funding and other forms of support.

Fortunately, the value of the old vines is not in any jeopardy, and they have an increasing number of patrons. As word spreads about the fantastic wines that they produce, the appreciation for them is growing. For wine-lovers, taking the trouble to visit an old vineyard and really immersing oneself in the atmosphere of the area is a great pleasure, a journey of discovery and a pure thrill. Old vines invariably attract people who are passionate about wine, and the vineyards are surrounded by historical sites, trees, breathtaking landscapes, clouds scudding across vast skies, old buildings, stone walls, stories, legends and tables laden with plates, glasses, roasting dishes and platters. This is a way of life that revolves around celebrating the land, the dinner table, and a sense of fellowship and shared experience. The allure of old vineyards also comes from discovering a land that, however ancient, is looking into the future with hope.

Flag of Portugal
Flag of Portugal
[url=https://flic.kr/p/LTuNt4][img]https://farm2.staticflickr.com/1846/29462458537_7f88b3cecb_o.png[/img][/url][url=https://flic.kr/p/LTuNt4]1280px-Coat_of_arms_of_Portugal.svg[/url] by [url=https://www.flickr.com/photos/am-jochim/]Mark Jochim[/url], on Flickr
Coat of arms of Portugal

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