Student and sommelier Jeremy Shanker schools us on the difference between grape-growing and our urban crops.
In order to become certified as a sommelier, I had to learn a great deal about viticulture – the science of grape-growing. So far, this class has showed me how different growing grapes is from the cultivation of almost any other plant.
To start, in order to develop healthy plants, you generally need fertile soil that does not drain quickly. This promotes vigorous behavior so that a particular healthy plant will produce larger and greater amounts of their fruit. Generally speaking, you want a soil high in micronutrients and one that isn’t too acidic or porous. If this isn’t the case most plants will not grow.
Yet in my head, when we talk about urban agriculture, I keep thinking to myself “Well, this is so much different from viticulture.” Grapes, or wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) are funny in that they require quite the opposite. If you can imagine the most arid and unworkable piece of land, a piece of land that looks like it could harbor no life, I promise you – grapes (and olives for that matter) will likely succeed there. Growing quality grapes requires vine stress in order to reduce vine vigour. In addition, during a harvest the Vigneron will cut up to 30% of the bunches to lower the yield. This lowers the quantity of grapes, but make each grape’s flavor much more concentrated. Throughout the season, quality-conscious producers work day and night trying to increase the stress of the vines. This is often done by close spacing of the vines, pruning, and canopy management. Additionally, grapevines often do best in highly porous soils such as gravel and sand, and sometimes have trouble in clayey soils – ones which other plants love.
It’s interesting to think about how different it is to growing tomatoes in an urban garden versus growing grapes in a vineyard. Though I could hardly call myself an expert in either, I found the differences absolutely notable.