February 6, 2016

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Another case for good site selection….

Vines are currently being pruned all over the country (and the world) at this time. Minnesota has been blessed with some (relatively) warm days this week, which have made for some pleasant pruning weather for those out in the vineyards. Compared to last week, with temperatures hitting -20 F (-29 C), this week’s temperatures in the 40’s F (5 C) feel quite warm. The snow is starting to melt, and the need for snowshoes in the vineyard has passed (for now).

However, it’s last week’s low temperatures that should be highlighted for the purpose of this article. It is these extreme temperatures that make it impossible for us to plant V. vinifera vines in Minnesota (without winter protection), as the buds would die at -3 F. That’s not to say that hybrid vines are immune to winter injury, though.

If you haven’t started pruning yet, now would be a good time to assess the winter bud injury in your vineyards so that you may compensate by leaving extra buds during pruning. If not, you may be in for a surprise come spring when you fail to see those lovely green leaves starting to emerge.

Some winter injury is normal, even in northern regions that have been growing grapes for years. However, if you’re seeing winter bud injury that is greater than 20% on a regular basis, you should reassess your site selection for your vineyard, or the varieties you chose to plant (not all “cold-hardy” varieties are equally hardy). You should also start to look at what you did in the summer months to start to prepare the vines for winter. Remember that after grapes reach veraison (color change), the vine is already starting to prepare for winter. Vine stress (such as delayed harvest), drought, and over-cropping can all reduce a vine’s potential cold-hardiness.

In the end, some sites just aren’t a good place for growing a vineyard. Scandinavians as well as the British learned this lesson a long time ago and have been successfully making fruit and honey wines for ages. Even in the northern areas of France hard cider is more prevalent than wine… and there is certainly nothing wrong with that!

Minnesota Vineyard – www.flickr.com/photos/monicaraemn

For further reading:

Zabadal, T., I Dami, M Goffinet, T. Martinson, and M. Chien. 2007. Winter Injury to Grapevines and Methods of Protection. Michigan State University, Extension Bulletin E2930.

Pool, R. M. 2000. Assessing and Responding to Winter Cold Injury to Grapevine Buds, web page, Cornell University.

Walter-Peterson, H. 2010. Bud Injury Testing, two-part video. Finger Lakes Grape Program’s YouTube channel.

Martinson, T., S. Hoying, H. Walter-Peterson and J. Creasap Gee. Bud Hardiness Page, Viticulture and Enology Outreach page, Cornell University.

Terroir and Minnesota

I recently spoke on the notion of terroir and how it relates to Minnesota during the annual Minnesota Grape Growers Association (MGGA) meeting this past weekend. It is one of my favorite subjects when talking about wine, as this concept is what first brought me into the wine world, and what ultimately brought me back to Minnesota and our developing wine industry. The concept of terroir means that wines from a particular region are unique, and incapable of being reproduced outside that area, even if the grape variety and winemaking techniques are duplicated. When defining terroir, most people talk about how the geography and the soil relate to the taste of an agricultural product – in our case, wine. There is good reason for this, as the word terroir has its roots in the french word terre, which means earth/soil. However, the word terroir is much more complex, as it involves an interactive ecosystem between the climate, soil, geography, as well as all the aspects of human intervention with this environment.
Domaine Romaneé-Conti Grand Cru

As wine is an historical beverage that dates back to at least 6000 B.C., its development over time has close ties with human history. We know that early-on in wine history people recognized that wine coming from different vineyard sites had different properties. The Romans would stamp clay amphorae with the wine’s region of origin, and Benedictine and Cistercian monks in the middle ages dedicated much of their time to determining the best vineyard sites to make their wine. Their boundaries still exist today in the Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy. A wine-grower in Burgundy will never say they make a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, but rather that they make a Burgundian wine from Pinot Noir. Though it seems like simple semantics, the difference between these two statements is actually quite substantial. To distinguish what makes them different gets to the very heart of trying to define the concept of terroir.

You see, a terroir is more than just a geographical place with geological and climatic influence. It also includes the types of vines that were planted, how they are planted, and every aspect of farming that goes into making the grapes as well as every aspect of vinification. The history of the place and even the way the wine fits into the local culture is important. When defining whether an agriculture product has terroir, the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (the branch of government that regulates the A.O.C. system of the Agriculture department in France) uses the following definition:

A delimited geographical area defined from a human community who built over the course of its history a set of distinctive cultural traits, knowledge, and practices based on a system of interactions between the natural environment and human factors. The craftsmanship in play reveals originality, gives a standard, and permits recognition of products or services originating in this space and thus for the people who live there.

Thus, terroir is as much about the culture and history of the people who live in a place as it is the factors of the natural environment. Which, raises the question of whether it is possible to have a true terroir in Minnesota. We have a burgeoning wine industry where, in 2007, two-thirds of the vineyards planted in the state were less than 4 years old. We have 10 major varieties that are being planted, and generally have no consistency in style for the wines made with these varieties. Most wineries source fruit from many different vineyard locations across the state, and often across the country to create blends that do little to show the typicality of a certain area. Although I realize that there are socio-economic factors driving this decision to buy out-of-state fruit, the very fact that wineries themselves aren’t embracing the notion of terroir means that we will never achieve it in our state.
One may ask why this matters – who really cares if our wines come from grapes grown in the state or not? As long as the wine is good, right? In the short run, making “branded” wines or vin d’effort (wines which owe all their characteristics to the effort of the winemaker rather than terroir), may prove successful for a variety of reasons. However, history has proven that the wine industry is boom and bust, and in the long run terroir wines end up surviving.

Take the example of the area around La Rochelle, France. During the middle ages, it had a booming wine industry. Located on the western coast of France, its harbor allowed for quick shipment of wine from France to Great Britain and Holland. Along with the nearby city of Bordeaux, it had access to a large consumer base, and a way to transport the wine to them. However, over time the economic significance of a port became less and less important. Environmental conditions (soil and climate) as well as the varieties chosen to cultivate in Bordeaux produced a wine of much higher quality. Thus, the wine industry in La Rochelle decreased with the decline of the port, while that of Bordeaux continued to flourish.

For one more example, I’ll point to the fact that the area around Paris had a booming wine industry in relatively recent times. In 1820, 4.8 million hectoliters of wine were being made from vineyards surrounding Paris. Compare that to the current production of 5.2 million hectoliters in Bordeaux, and one can see how significant this industry really was. Wineries around Paris had it easy: they had the largest consumer base in France right in their back yard. However, as soon as a railway was built linking Paris to Lyon and Marseille, it was possible to ship wine from the South of France to Paris. When phylloxera wiped out most of the vineyards in Europe, the vineyards around Paris were not replanted. Once again, vineyards planted where conditions favored high-quality wine production survived, while those that didn’t failed.
But what about regions where environment doesn’t favor the production of high-quality table wine? This is where the human factor comes in. I’ll point to the area of Champagne (just because it is the most well-known). It can be argued that the climate and soil of Champagne are not ideal for making wine. In fact, the vineyards of Champagne were at one time a garbage dump for much of Paris and Reims well into the 20th century. They were using the trash as compost. One can still walk the vineyards in Champagne and find bits of plastic and broken dishes in the soil. Its climate also makes it difficult to achieve optimum ripeness in grapes every year. Now, much has been written about the “invention” of Champagne, but the fact remains that the wine exists because the acidic, unripened fruit from these northerly vineyards makes hardly an ideal table wine. The cold winters made fermentation difficult, and re-fermentation in the bottle in springtime was normal in a time when sterile filtration and sulfur addition was non-existent. Eventually, small changes over time led to people purposefully allowing the wine to undergo a second fermentation in the bottle.  I realize this is a very simplistic discussion on the finer points of the history of this great wine, but the point is that this wine style developed because of decisions that a group of humans made based on their interactions with the surrounding environment. If it were only a single winery in Champagne that developed this style, I would argue that we wouldn’t associate the word “Champagne” with sparkling wine today. This emphasizes the importance of the human factor in the concept of terroir.
There are many examples throughout history that are all very interesting and intriguing, and I could go on (Hunter Valley Sémillon, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Vin Jaune, Saint-Bris…) but as this post is possibly too long to contain the attention of the vast number of people reading it, I will try to come to a conclusion. Does Minnesota have a terroir? Not yet, maybe we never will. It is something that develops over time. How long, you ask? That is the most difficult question to answer. As we have seen, terroir develops when a group of people in a given area collectively decide to make wine in a certain style, using certain varieties, and certain viticultural and enological practices. I think the key word there is collectively. This will be a huge obstacle to overcome in Minnesota, as our culture was founded on individualism. Unlike Kantian philosophy that shaped continental Europe, we went the way of John Stuart Mill. We value our individual freedom, and believe we don’t have to adhere to general rules and principles. This sense of individualism is what drives innovation in our country. It is what, to some degree, makes us exceptional. It is also the driving force behind the Minnesota wine industry at present. However, I believe in the long-run, it may hinder our success in becoming a unique region. One of the keys to growth in our industry will be to garner acceptance within our community, and eventually in the wider market.  This, I believe, is possible. Because Minnesotans are very proud of our state, acceptance within Minnesota is easy. We love all things Minnesota. However we need to raise consistency and quality of the wines we produce to be accepted into the larger wine community. I’m hoping this blog is the start of a dialogue between growers and winemakers in Minnesota, as well as with the researchers at the University, so we may collectively advance our industry forward.