Winespeak: Viticulture

In the coming posts, the grape varieties we chose to plant will be described and it is simply invaluable to know the difference when discussing wines from all over the world.  Plus, you may be sampling at a winery or at home with friends and can “wow” people by knowing the origin and species of the grape!  As a vintner, it is important to describe these things, because as we were planting we already had to answer the questions of how come we weren’t growing any Riesling, Cabernet, or Moscato!

The picture below shows one of my favorite examples of a grape grown well in North America and a brief description (also from one of our favorite wineries):


Baco Noir: Baco is a black grape that produces a medium bodied red wine.  This varietal is a cross of Vitis vinifera (France) and Vitis riparia (North America).  An acidic red wine that can carry the fruit flavors and aroma well, and because of the tannins, has aging potential.  This grape can be grown successfully in Missouri and made into a delightful red wine.  It is my personal “gateway red”, that with just enough sweetness and fruit flavor helped me cross over to an appreciation of the dry side.  But alas- this description just opened up a Pandora’s Box of new terms…

Vitis: Sciency word, I know, but science can be romantic.  In Italian, vita means “life” and Vitus “life-giver”.  Vitis is the Genus, but it is important for our purposes to focus on species.  Viticulture is the science, production, and study of grapes.  IMG_2279

Vitis Vinifera: The European grapevine native to the Mediterranean and central Europe.  This is the most important species in the world because of many notable varietals and a couple thousand years’ worth of wine drinking fame.  Perhaps you have heard of some of these white varietals: Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat (Moscato), or Sauvignon (saw-veen-yon) Blanc.  These reds may also ring a bell: Pinot Noir (pee-no nwahr), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot (mer-low).  All of these juggernauts of the wine world are from the Vitis vinifera species and grown extensively in France, Italy, and more recently, California.  As wonderful as Missouri is in all other aspects of life, the bitterly harsh winters and hot/dry summers make it more than a little difficult to grow this species of grape.

This picture shows me doing my second favorite thing related to wine- talking about it (yes, the one picture of myself is of me holding a bottle instead of a shovel; I promise I helped plant).  At this moment, I was describing one of the revolutionary things that has happened to Riesling.  A common complaint through the years is how the wine can vary so drastically from bottle to bottle.  In response, the Internatinoal Riesling Foundation has implemented a scale to be used on the back of labels that descirbes the wine from “dry” to “medium dry”, to “medium sweet”, to “sweet”.  This scale is used worldwide and known as the Riesling Taste Profile.  I say revolutionary because the wine industry is perhaps more notoriuos than most as being terrified of change.  Take a look at the back of a Riesling bottle, it is actually quite helpful and a welcome development.

As a side note, and having already mentioned Pinot Noir and Baco Noir, I find the word “noir” interesting in itself.  In French, noir simply means “black”, but more compelling is the use in cinema.  During the 1940s and 1950s “film noir” referred to crime fiction.  In my mind, these were the crime movies set in the depression era with bootleggers, speakeasies, and beatcops with long coats and a full brimmed hats.  It is easy to remember Pinot and Baco as the being the dark red (nearly black, in the spirit of noir) full of mystery behind the label and grapes with a story to tell.  Pinot is also famous fo being incredibly finicky, difficult to grow.  Compelling stuff, just like those crime dramas of yore.

Thanks to the 2005 movie Sideways, it has newfound popularity in the US.  All this background and history also offers the opportunity for another triva question similar to the last one: What is the region in France (and name the wine is referred to on the bottle and restaurant menu) in which Pinot Noir is the primary ingredient?  Feel free to answer in the comments section and be mentioned in the next post!

Vitis aestivalis: The “summer grape” that is native to the US, and most importantly for us, is where Norton comes from.  Aestivalis is said to have “vinifera-like” qualities and a very drinkable North American grape (of course, I find most of them drinkable).

Vitis labrusca: Known as the Fox grapevine and native to the US and Canada. These varietals grow more successfully in the US because of natural cold hardiness and disease resistance. Notable varietals include Concord, Catawba, and Niagara. This is an important species as these grapes are used in most juices and jellies you find in stores.

Vitis riparia: The “river bank grape” native to the US that produces a dark fruit and used extensively as a hybrid with French varieties, just as aestivalis is.  Baco Noir is a successful and quite enjoyable hybrid of riparia and vinifera.

French-American Hybrids: The US species’ shown above are actively being researched and grown as hybrids with Vitis vinifera species to get the benefit of the French grape taste combined with the toughness and disease resistance of the hardy US grape.  We are hoping to master a few of these hybrids ourselves and showcase these qualities.

I thoroughly enjoyed losing myself a bit in the science of grapes and if you have any more questions on genus or species, please see my brother.  If you would like to REALLY get your studies heated up, look into a few of these page-turners:

The Science of Grapevines: Anatomy and Physiology by Markus Keller

Wine grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties by Jancis Robinson (top 1 or 2 most influential wine people in the world along with Robert Parker)

–    Yes, that title says 1,368 varieties.  Clearly, not all are famed wine grapes, but should still paint you a picture of the vastness of the varieties around the world.  Just imagine all the enjoyable research you could do to simply master 15-20!



7 thoughts on “Winespeak: Viticulture

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