I’m writing this post from London, experiencing its first proper spate of summery weather in quite a while. It’s rather refreshing to wear shorts to the office (rather than Wellington boots) and, as I watch the sun cast its bright light over the leaves outside my window, it leads me to think of the sun and how important it is to the winemaker, in so many ways.
Like all plants, the grapevine responds to sunlight. It is an essential part of the growing process: without it, there is no vine, and no wine. At one end of the spectrum, a lack of sunshine leads to unripe fruit, from which only lean and mean wines can be made; at the other extreme, global warming (and increased sunshine hours, and temperatures) are wreaking havoc in many parts of the winemaking world, especially in the hottest parts of South Australia which are now so arid as to be on the verge of unsuitability for grape growing altogether.
Over-exposure to sunlight causes the grapes to ripen at high speed, with spiralling levels of sugar overpowering the inherent subtleties of the grape that can only develop gently, over time. Over-alcoholic wines, made from over-ripe fruit, are nothing short of downright unpleasant; it’s no coincidence that Australia’s historic wine industry was founded on fortified wines – a style where over-ripe fruit is a benefit rather than a problem.
Today, pioneering (some might say heroic!) viticultural efforts are being made in countries such as India, where intrepid winemakers are determined to satisfy increasing demand for wine by planting vines in areas that, hitherto, were considered unimaginably hot (last year, global wine consumption exceeded total global wine production for the first time). In the very warm wine regions of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, it is so baking that grapevines can produce a crop twice a year. Vines are trained on bamboo pergolas and the rows spaced wide to allow the movement of air – essential in hot climates where high humidity can lead to a prevalence of harmful fungal vine diseases.
In Italy, the winemakers of the Veneto achieve legendary fame with their Amarone wines, made via the appassimento method, where grapes are dried out on straw mats in the sunshine to concentrate the sugars, and then pressed – the resultant juice is extracted in minute quantities, but the wine itself is remarkably dense, concentrated and high in alcohol.
But of course, it’s the change in mood that the sight of the sun blazing high in the sky instills in us, the wine loving public, that’s the clincher. A glass of well-chilled Marlborough Sauvignon doesn’t quite have the same appeal on a grey, rainy day; neither does a lovely Beaujolais, pulled freshly from the ice bucket, or a scintillating Languedoc Rosé, kissed with sweet strawberry and raspberry-esque sweetness. Luckily for us all, the forecast for the next few days is looking pretty promising, so let’s all raise a glass to the British summer (here it is, at last!) whilst treating the sun with respect… something our winemaking colleagues have to do on a daily basis. Cheers to them, and to you!