We have gone to almost no end promoting the growth of a peculiar fruit-bearing weed, and today Vitis vinifera reigns across most of the Earth’s latitudes and all longitudes. This plant has enriched and corrupted lives, made some people wealthy and others lazy. It has challenged the boundaries of science with its often demanding temperaments and susceptibility to pests, yet today it reigns among the most abundant species on Earth&mdashand still we coddle it toward global domination.
But why wouldn’t we? After all, no other plant or animal does what the grape does so well; that is, ferment into that well-balanced, long-lasting, intoxicating beverage that we call wine.
Grape cultivation appears to have begun 7,000 years ago in Georgia and Armenia, where stationary societies began raising grapevines for the high-calorie fruit they bore. Given the grape’s facility for going sour, it could only follow that bunches of fruit or bladders full of juice fermented frequently and consequently made the odd Neolithic schoolboy stoned at breakfast. Pottery remains bearing traces of tartaric acid and calcium tartrate&mdashstrong evidence of wine for the chemist&mdashdesignates this region, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, as the likeliest cradle of viticulture.
Upon reaching the New World in the 16th century, the Spanish and English conquerors and colonists both attempted to make wine from native North American grapes, likely of the species Vitis americana and Vitis rotundifolia. The product, however, generally tasted bad, and while New Englanders took to drinking ale and wine imports, the Spaniards called home for the coming galleons to bring cuttings of their own national vines; within just years of conquering the New World, the Spanish colonists had established vineyards. The oldest working winery in the New World, in fact, resides near Monterrey, Mexico. Called Casa Madero, it was founded in 1597.
The heart of Mexico’s wine country, however, resides in Baja California. The peninsula was first planted with grapes by the Spanish padres in 1701 at Loreto Mission, on the inside coast halfway down the subtropical peninsula. The region of any commercial significance, though, is the Santo Tomas Valley near Ensenada, which today crawls with about 9,000 acres of vines. Though pocket change to California’s 800,000 acres, the wineries of the Santo Tomas Valley produce 25 million bottles per year and 92 percent of all domestic Mexican wines.
The big grape in the days of the Spaniards was the Mission, which enologists today consider an inferior breed. It produces a pale weak red wine of low acids and many character flaws, and it eventually was all but replaced by far nobler varietals. However, a descendent called the Criolla grape has survived in quite some acreage and now dwells prominently in South America. Some California estates, like Wellington Vineyards in Glen Ellen, grow a few Criolla vines. The Wellington family uses their Criolla grapes as a constituent of their tawny port.
“We make the Criolla port because we have Criolla vines,” shrugs Peter Wellington, owner and winemaker of the winery. “When you have lemons you make lemonade.”
New World, This World
Like Baja and upper California, Texas owes much of its winemaking heritage to the Spaniards, who planted vines here in the 1500s. The industry took a little while to accelerate, however, and it stagnated until about 1970. Today Texas grows 3,500 acres of grapes in its High Plains region, located on the Panhandle at elevations of up to 4,000 feet, making Texas the fifth largest wine producer of the 50 states. While the grape acreage remains stable, the number of wineries tripled during 2000-2005 from 40 to 120. According to Wes Marshall, author of The Wine Roads of Texas, Texas wines have improved dramatically as this influx of winemakers has begun meddling with the available grapes. The Becker Vineyards 2004 Cabernet-Syrah is a huge, woody, delicious blend and one of the better red wines this writer has ever tasted. Many other common varietals grow well, too.
“We have the potential of becoming known for our Viognier as Oregon is known for its Pinot Noir,” Marshall says, “but we’re facing right now the same stigma that California faced in the 1960s: basically, that we can’t make good wine.”
Meanwhile, the great-granddaddies of the wine world have their own problems. Portugal has produced wine for 800 years and now pushes outward into the world’s oceans of wine consumers, but not everyone is taking the bait.
“People have trouble shopping outside of their comfort zone,” says Karen Burkhart, president of Latitude Wines, an importer in Danville. “People buy what they know, unfortunately. They want to buy New World, and if anything, they’ll usually buy French.”
Portugal grows over 200 varietals of grapes, more than nearly any other nation, and its wines are spawned by 500,000 acres of vineyards over its 35,655 square miles, a density of vine-to-acre three times that of California’s. Three-fourths of Portugal’s wine is still consumed domestically, and on average each of the nearly 11 million inhabitants of the country drinks 15 gallons, 58 liters, or 75 bottles of wine per year&mdashover a glass of wine every day.
Though associated mostly with the usual Mediterranean-climate hotbeds like France, Chile, Italy and California, grapevines have more recently taken root in some of the most unlikely and intriguing places. In the last decade, a strong wine industry has sprouted in a land where the grapevines never go dormant, the vines can’t tell winter from summer, they don’t shed their leaves and they produce two crops of fruit per year.
A winemaker’s dream? Perhaps, but in India, one of the youngest nations in the world of viticulture, it’s still a bit early to tell.
“For me it’s been fun so far, a great adventure to hone and create a new style of wine for India,” says Kerry Damskey, a consulting Geyserville winemaker who has advised winemakers at Sula Vineyards northeast of Bombay, in the Nashik region, since the mid-1990s.
Table grape varietals have been cultivated for nearly 50 years in parts of India, including Nashik, and thus there is a familiarity among some farmers with Vitis vinifera, but for thousands of years the challenges of growing quality fruit has deterred winemaking in this land of heat, humidity and monsoons. Nashik lies at about 20 degrees latitude north&mdashthree degrees inside of the tropics&mdashand at 2,000 feet of elevation. The weather is mild enough year-round that the vines do not shut down of their own accord and will generate two crops of grapes in 12 months if given the chance. This would only mean two inferior vintages, however, and Indian winemakers must prune back the vines to force dormancy upon the plants. They do so in April and May, sending the vines into hibernation for the wet, hot Indian summer, when grapes can easily mold.
The winter, although a bit short of daylight, is dry and mild and provides conditions more hospitable to the developing berries, and as California’s grapevines are blossoming and sprouting leaves, Damskey finds himself in India each year overseeing the Nashik Valley grape harvest.
When Damskey first brought vine cuttings to India in the mid-1990s, there were, he estimates, 20 acres of wine-land in the nation and two or three wineries. Now there are 40 vineyards and 3,000 acres of wine grapes, making it about the fastest-growing winemaking region on Earth. The quintessential varietals of the country, says Damskey, are Syrah, which Indians call Shiraz, and Sauvignon Blanc. A recent sampling of several bottles found some good stuff. Available locally, the 2006 Sula Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc has a very unique jalapeño lacing over a crispy mineral flavor, and Sula’s 2006 Shiraz tastes heavily of smoke, bacon, raspberry vinaigrette and truffles.
While the Indians crush grapes in February and wipe sweat from their brows, the Chinese up at 40 degrees north latitude in the province of Hebei busy themselves in flattening their pruned vines to the ground and burying them under 15 inches of soil to protect against the winter cold, which can drop to negative 10 degrees Fahrenheit. In spring, the vines are uncovered and roused from sleep, and the wines they produce are promising, if you go by sales alone.
The Hebei wine industry dates back to 1910, when thirsty French missionaries planted such varietals as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Merlot and a few others that struck them most poignantly in their hearts. The Communist government ripped out most of the vines in the 1950s, but grape advocates replanted after the 1987 revolution. Today, Beijing Dragon Seal Wine Company Ltd. of Beijing is among the largest and most reputable of wineries in China. Its grapes are grown organically in private vineyards surrounding the winery, and Frenchman Jérôme Sabaté oversees the making of the wine, so the business is in good hands. The company produces 3.5 million bottles per year from 600 acres of vines, some of which crawl along the base of the Great Wall.
Australia is bent on wine. The average citizen of the country, in fact, drinks more than twice the amount of wine as an American does. In a nation of 20-plus million people, however, domestic consumption comes nowhere near meeting the huge production, which totals approximately 10 percent of the world’s wine output. In fact, to encourage per capita wine guzzling, the government is currently promoting wine as a healthy lifestyle choice with the hope of boosting each citizen’s drinking rate from 20 to 24 liters per year.
New Zealand, too, once famed for its sheep and grassy green hillsides, is now growing over with vines. Dean Stichbury, whose family owns Jackson Estate, a winery in Renwick, Marlborough, recalls his childhood in the South Island countryside, where the Stichburys once cultivated several hectares of cropland and raised all the constituents of a proper farm.
“We had goats, sheep, corn, wheat and fruit trees, but then in the 1980s, people started realizing that all the money was in grapes,” Stichbury says. His neighbors still keep an isolated orange grove, but it’s surrounded by a sea of grapevines. “That’s the last of the Old World. It’s all like Napa now.”
Garden of England
Great Britain’s grape production has remained close to negligible since the end of the so-called Medieval Warm Period during the mid-ninth to mid-13th centuries. A few stubborn souls do grow grapes in southern England, however. Laurence Williams, maestro and master and maker of everything at Harbourne Vineyard in Kent County, England, has grown grapes and made wine for 28 years. The region, known as the “Garden of England,” sits at 51 degrees north latitude, right on par with the northern end of Vancouver Island, yet the warm Gulf Stream and the general maritime influence prevents frost most winters. Summers are mild though, and the grapes ripen slowly and harvest takes place in November.
“And we’re lucky if fermentation is complete by December,” says Williams.
On his three acres, the Englishman grows Müller Thurgau, Regner, Ortega, Seyval Blanc, Schönburger and Blauer Portugieser. Hmmm. Never heard of them, but Williams assures that they’re good&mdashzesty, grapey and delicate, often no more than 11 percent ABV, though high in acid and well suited for prolonged aging.
The English industry has been developing since the 1970s as countrymen develop tastes for beverages beyond ale, but the size of the industry remains a drop in the world’s barrel.
Beyond 50 degrees latitude, or 3,450 miles north or south of the equator, grapes rarely thrive. Winters are too cold and long and summers too cold and short&mdashbut this climatic limitation has nurtured the development of ancient fruit and vegetable wine traditions in many poleward societies, particularly Great Britain and the islands to the north. In these lands, most wines are homemade, but commercial markets exist. Orkney Wine Company, at 59 degrees latitude north, level with Kodiak Island, produces a line of 14 berry, flower and vegetable wines. Founded by Emile and Marjolein van Schayk, originally of Holland, the winery features rosehip wine, blueberry wine, a honey wine and various other blends. The wines are made mostly from local produce and they are fermented naturally, with no preservatives and only granulated turbinado sugar to feed the yeast, which produces as much as 17 or 18 percent alcohol by volume, as in the case of the Strubarb, or strawberry-rhubarb, wine. Only the 18 Carat&mdashnaturally enough a carrot wine&mdashis fortified, with single-malt whiskey.
Emile learned the art of “country wines” 12 years ago in southwest Scotland from a retired shepherdess, and he has since developed dozens of recipes, which he brings to life in 1000-liter tanks. Several customer favorites demand constant production, especially the Black Portent, a black currant “port,” and Emile faces limitations in trying out several recipes he has developed, including potato and nettle wines. Business is accelerating, and Emile operates a tasting room in the front of the winery. Guests do not have to pay for their sips.
“Of course it’s free!” he exclaims. “You can’t charge for tasting, can you?!”
Folks in the Earth’s warmer latitudes also have their own traditions of fermenting things. A popular drink in Central American nations as well as India is cashew wine, produced by home winemakers and to a smaller degree by commercial operations. Native to Brazil, the cashew nut with which we are familiar is actually just a small component of an apple-sized fruit, fleshy, soft and very juicy. The fruits ripen in the spring and once stripped of their kidney-shaped seeds that protrude from the lower end of the fruit, the cashew apples may be eaten fresh, as jam or as juice&mdashand if there’s one thing we all know, it’s that things that make juice also make wine.
Romel Perdomo, CEO of Travellers Liquors, Ltd., in Belize, oversees the production of about 25,000 bottles of cashew wine annually. According to Perdomo, country locals consume the bulk of the output, readily available in local markets, though tourists are catching on, and Perdomo is negotiating with trade authorities in an effort to export this wine to the wider world. The wine consists almost purely of cashew juice, with just a sprinkling of sugar added to reach the desired potential alcohol content. The wine is aged in food-grade plastic, and the longer the better. Oak, however, disrupts the unique flavor, which provides pungent elements of whiskey, earth and grapefruit juice.
Other oddity fruits serve as a source of alcohol as well, and, right here at home, Adams Point Winery in Berkeley demonstrates this with a line of award winning tropical fruit wines. “When I was still doing homemade wine three years ago, I decided that when I went commercial I would just do the tropical fruits because the world just doesn’t need another Merlot right now,” says Bill Galarneau, owner and winemaker of the company. “People wouldn’t come knocking down my door if I was just making grape wine.”
Galarneau makes 60-gallon, or one-barrel batches, of mango, papaya and persimmon wine. Yes, persimmons aren’t tropical. So sue him. Galarneau hosts tastings at his facility on the second Saturday of every month and by appointment, and currently he sells only through the winery. Galarneau once considered opening a tasting room in the wine country, then thought better of the plan.
“I don’t think the Chamber of Commerce in St. Helena would appreciate it one bit if someone came into town and said they wanted to start pouring fruit wines,” he laughs.
“I think I’ll stay in Berkeley.”