Natural environments in cultural terms
By tying environmental characteristics such as slopes, soils or geology to the quality of wines, oversimplified explanations of successful wine regions underestimate the critical
During the 1967 field day at the Te Kauwhata Viticultural Research Station, Dr Jack Perle instructs winegrowers on yeast varieties. Dick Scott Collection, Auckland War Memorial Museum -Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-2008-4 role of people. With two French colleagues from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Dijon, I was driving to an interview on the Heretaunga Plains near Gimblett Road in Hawke’s Bay.
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Alongside me in the front seat was Jean-Baptiste Traversac, a graduate in biochemistry from Montpellier and in viticulture and oenology from Bordeaux, two of the eminent French tertiary institutions in wine studies. Suddenly, a question from Jean-Baptiste: ‘Warren, why are these vines on flat land?’ My response, struggling a bit with the French, was: ‘Why shouldn’t they be, Jean-Baptiste? They are receiving all of the solar energy they need to ripen their crop, the vines are in balance, the soils are free draining ’ Jean-Baptiste was insistent and the discussion became quite intense. After several minutes, in a brief lull in the debate, from the back seat Philippe Perrier-Cornet, an economist with a liberal bent, diffused the tension. ‘But Warren,’ he said, ‘you must remember that in France the vines are Catholic – they must suffer!’
The vehemence of my French friend in defending the association of vines and hills shows the extent to which such environmental determinism (in this case, sloping terrain on the location of vines) has penetrated the teaching of French viticulture and oenology. The vines are on the hills, the wine from them is of high quality, so the hills must be the cause. Such simple association of environment with quality denigrates the centuries of day-to-day observation, experimentation and effort that went into understanding how to realise the potential of these natural attributes. The Burgundian people may have been God’s people, some in the guise of monks of the Cistercian order, but the struggle and effort, the hard work and skill, was theirs. The slopes of Burgundy give some natural advantages, like better drainage and higher solar energy (when they face the right direction), and cool-air drainage that affords some protection against late-spring frosts. But in localities where soils are free draining anyway and additional energy is not necessary to ripen the variety, and spring frosts are not a problem, these conditions become irrelevant. When Philippe Perrier-Cornet says that the vine must suffer, he is expressing a cultural view as much as a scientific understanding.
The complexity of interactions in the physical environment is given added dimensions by the capacity of humans to modify these interactions to their own ends. The vignoble (vineyard) of Burgundy, for instance, is a managed not a natural landscape. Its hydrology has been transformed. The vineyards are a maze of ad hoc and planned drainage systems that have altered the original pattern. Stream banks are concreted and water flow managed. Disused quarries are evident from Chambertin to Meursault and beyond, with vines now nestled in their remade surfaces. Even the soil, the gift of God, is opened, re-engineered and rewrapped. It is increasingly common for vineyards to be reconstituted when they are being replanted. Huge earthmoving and
The grape varieties recommended at the 1967 field day bear almost no resemblance to the vinifera varieties grown in New Zealand today. Othello, Athens, and Keuka are no longer grown, while Pinotage, Gamay, and Palomino are rare. Dick Scott Collection, Auckland War Memorial Museum -Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-2008-4