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Watching a Wine Die on the Vine

Watching a Wine Die on the Vine

I am standing under the shade of an olive tree that still clings to its sweetly pungent, oozing fruit. Sweaty grape-pickers frantically race up and down the sloping hill before me. I am in the scorching heat of Emilia-RomagnaItaly’s famed “fertile crescent”—its food basket. But the land beneath the vines is compacted and dry. Dust devils swirl between the gnarled roots. I am in the way and feel helpless. There is much shouting, and a busy hum with an undertone of worry. The owner looks tense and agitated.

The grapes need harvesting. Subito. But he has a dilemma. If they cannot get the grapes in fast enough, by hand, before the vines shut down from the heat, or the grapes burn, they will have to machine-harvest. He is against this. It bruises the grapes, and in this heat, they would oxidise in a very short time. Plus, with all of the bits the machine collects in addition to the grapes, triage back in the winery would be that much more labour-intensive. Still, better to machine-harvest than to let them die on the vine. But his planting density in many of his older parcels won’t allow the space for a machine harvester - and even if he wanted one, there aren’t any more available, as his neighbours are all experiencing the same panic.

His calculations tell him that his yields are already down by 20 percent and it looks as though it is going to get worse. The heat means that his red varieties have matured at the same time, as opposed to in a staggered fashion, and he doesn't have the manpower to hand-harvest all the parcels. They can’t seem to get the picked grapes into the winery fast enough before they are affected by the heat. He knows that many of his larger neighbours have invested in huge refrigerated trucks they park at the end of the rows so that the harvested grapes stay cool. He does not have this luxury. There are all sorts of practices he has had to consider in the past few years of drought and heat. Last year he had to resort to lightly irrigating some of the more vulnerable parcels for the first time in the history of his family's 500 years of winemaking. His list of compromises is growing, and it does not sit easily with him.

I can see him weighing the pros and cons in his head, his struggle with the gamble he is being forced to take . . . the added expenses . . . the possibility of changing his wine’s identity forever. The taste of this wine that he has known since a boy hangs in the balance. I know that I am witnessing the involuntary abandonment of centuries of traditional and quality wine-making methods.

There are winemakers who hold on to “traditional” winemaking methods for too long and for the wrong reasons. Then, there are the sort of winemakers who buy every new machine and adopt every new method, devoting themselves to maximum output with maximum marketing, dressing their wineries up as chemistry labs, forgetting that they are farmers, really.

But this winemaker is one of those who sit in the middle, wisely judging where it is logical to adapt and how to judicially apply new or different methods. A winemaker who puts the wine quality first. This temperate, Mediterranean climate has afforded him this liberty. Now, with the increasing heat, every year, he is facing new problems and being forced to adopt methods that have already been embraced by the hotter New World wine regions from their inception, as their climates had not given them the choice. Now he fears that his wine, a wine that has been bred to speak of its unique terroir and to express its varietal character, will be suppressed, and forced to join the mass voice of the ubiquitous, international choir.

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