In In the Vineyard

I think there has always been a conflict between winemakers and grape growers, even when they are one and the same person.   There are always the nagging questions: If I grow my grapes carefully so that I have a healthy vineyard, will the grapes make good wine?   Are good viticultural practices in conflict with good winemaking?  What effect does vineyard location have?  Can I optimize quality or is the upper limit of vineyard performance preordained by where I grow the grapes?   The following two books each take a different approach to answering those questions.   Each of them was awarded the prestigious O.I.V. award for the best viticulture book, in the year following publication.  Each of them has a timeless quality that makes them worth adding to your book shelf even though they were published 15 to 20 years ago.

The first published was Viticulture and Environment, by John Gladstones, 1992, Winetitles Press, Australia. 310 pp. Paperback.   ISBN # 1 875130 12 8.

Gladstones is an agronomist who taught horticulture for many years at the University of Western Australia.   Throughout his career he witnessed the establishment and growth of the grape and wine industry in the moderate to cool climate of the southern west coast of Western Australia.   Grapes and wine were a passionate hobby with him, and the sum of his meticulous studies was digested into this comprehensive book. The result is a very readable survey of the factors affecting every major viticultural region in the world.   Within the limits of published data, Gladstones has listed the geological, cultural, and climatic data of each region and related it to wine styles and quality.  The book is divided into 24 chapters and three appendices.   The chapters contain scores of tables and diagrams, yet the accompanying discussions explain to the reader the significance of the data rather than simply presenting it as a list of numbers for the reader to wade through and draw his own conclusions.   The first five chapters alone are worth the price of the book.   They outline all of the factors which affect grape development, and relate berry composition to wine quality.   The next 19 chapters present detailed information about many of the world’s viticultural regions.   Two thumbs up!

The second book has a one word title “Terroir”.   There is no exact equivalent word in English, except perhaps the modern word ecosystem.   Terroir is the French word to describe all of the factors that affect a vine’s growth, and in recent years has become more commonly adopted into English.   This author is also a passionate wine hobbyist, or at least he started out that way.   James Wilson is a geologist, and former Vice President for Exploration and Production for Shell Oil.   His love of wine led him to investigate the detailed terroirs for the wine regions of France.   After all, French wines have set the standard for fine wines for centuries; what better place to start an investigation?    Wilson’s first fifty pages summarize the geological and climatological history, and then the winemaking history of France; essentially an overview of the terroirs of France.  The next eleven chapters describe in detail the terroir of each viticultural region of France.

In spite of the detail, the chapters are very readable.   The geological description for each region is assisted with diagrams and photos.  The explanations bring to life what could be a dull description of a lot of rocks and mud with unfamiliar technical names.   For those of us who wonder about the difference between schist and scree, there’s a good glossary.   Fortunately the author has translated much of the most technical material into terms that the average reader can understand, although a knowledge of French will certainly assist the reader to pronounce and remember the many place names and geological formations.  I found it especially interesting that the author was able to use geological history to create hypotheses which explain why some vineyards have developed a high reputation whereas others nearby have not.

This is a book that can be picked up and read chapter by chapter without losing the thread of the story.   Two more thumbs!

James E. Wilson, 1998.   Terroir.    The role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines.  The University of California Press.  336 pp.  Hardcover.  ISBN 1 891267 22 1

This article was first published in British Columbia Fruit Grower

Gary Strachan is an expert consultant and planner for the grape and wine industry. He can be reached and is also listed on LinkedIn.

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