Category Archives: Soil conditions

Vines Must Struggle

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It’s often said that the best wines are made when the vines have to struggle. That may surprise you but, if you make life too easy for them, with rich soils, plenty of sunshine and warmth and liberal amounts of water, your grapes will ripen quickly, but not pick up much flavour. Or, the vine will make plenty of leaf growth, shading your grapes so they won’t ripen properly. Either way, the result will be nothing special.

But, plant your vineyard on poor, rocky soils, where the vines have to fight to get every little drain of moisture and the picture is very different, assuming, that is, that you are somewhere with enough sunshine and warmth to ripen the crop.

And, of all the fine vineyards of the world, one of the best examples of this kind of challenging terrain is found in eastern Sicily, on the slopes of the still active volcano, Mount Etna. Amazingly, despite the constant threat of volcanic eruptions, there are vineyards planted all over the mountain and the growers have to face the fact that, to make the wine they want, they need to accept also the danger.

Etna Rosso

It’s something I thought about when I opened a bottle of Tenuta Nicosia’s Fondo Filara Etna Rosso recently (Wine Society, £12.50). Grown in volcanic soil overlooking the sea, about 650 metres (2000 feet) up, it’s made from a blend of traditional local grape varieties, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. Delicious and elegant, it’s a red with lovely bitter cherry flavours together with hints of thyme and other fresh herbs. Although rich and satisfying, it’s not at all heavy and would make an excellent accompaniment to red meat, game or hard cheeses.

But, when you open a bottle, do think of the struggle the vines – and the growers – have been through before this wine gets to your glass.

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Look for the Gravel

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Gravel

Wines from the Graves area in the south of Bordeaux will be well-known to many wine lovers.  The area takes its name from the French word for gravel, which describes the soil conditions there – conditions that are shared with many of the most prestigious parts of Bordeaux’s Haut-Medoc (see picture above, thanks to Wine and Spirit Education Trust). 

So, why is the gravel so important?  Two reasons: firstly, it ensures that the ground is well-drained so that, although the vines can get enough water to help them grow (assuming it rains at the right time), their roots aren’t sitting in water which might rot them.  And secondly – and this is particularly important in wine regions with marginal climates such as Bordeaux – each tiny piece of gravel acts as a mini storage heater, absorbing the heat of the sun during the day and radiating it out at night.  This means that the vineyard retains heat – and the grapes continue to ripen – even after the sun has gone down.

But Graves isn’t the world’s only wine region where gravel plays its part: the same thing happens in the area known as the Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay.  This was an area created less than 150 years ago when a devastating flood caused the River Ngaruroro to change its course and left the deep gravel of the former river bed exposed.  Despite the parallels with Bordeaux (including the relatively cool climate), it took more than 100 years before the vine growing potential of the area was recognised.  But, since 1990, the Gimblett Gravels have been an important source of – mainly red – wines.  And, not surprisingly, the majority of the grapes planted there are Bordeaux varieties.

Craggy RangeWe opened an exceptional example recently: Craggy Range’s Te Kahu (Majestic, £15.99) is mainly Merlot with some Malbec (yes, that is a Bordeaux variety, even though Argentina is now claiming it as its own!), Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch of Cabernet Franc also in the blend.  Delightfully smooth and fresh with lovely black fruits and just a subtle hint of spice, this is really delicious and a real bargain compared to many Bordeaux reds of this quality.

So, next time you’re in a vineyard, whether in Bordeaux, New Zealand or somewhere else, look down and, if there’s gravel beneath your feet, it is likely that the wine will be something special.