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Why do ‘stressed’ vines produce better wines? Ask Decanter

What makes a stressed vine better for wine production?

Michael Orme, by email, asks: I’m always reading that ‘stressed’ vines – starved of water or various nutrients in the soil – produce the best wine. Why?

What is it that vines actually do under these circumstances that makes the fermented juice of the fruit they produce ‘better’?

Steve Smith MW, wine and vine conductor at Smith & Sheth and Pyramid Valley in New Zealand, responds: Let’s think like a vine! My reason for existing is not to make wine, but to get my grapes as ripe as possible, which will attract birds to eat my grapes so that they spread my seeds and my species thrives.

If life is too easy, in fertile soils laden with moisture, my tendency is to throw all my energy (sugar) into growing shoots and leaves, because there seems no risk to my life, so I may as well flourish where I am – no need to send energy to the grapes, because I don’t need the birds.

If I’m growing in a less fertile space and water is short, I’m thinking I need to get outta here because I might die. The best way to do that is not to grow leaves, but to put all my energy into the grapes and make them sweet and delicious for birds, then my seed is spread.

Sweet and delicious for birds also means great for winemaking: simple as that. That’s where the term ‘a struggling vine makes the best wine’ comes from.

But it’s a fine line. Too much struggle means super-high sugar (or no sugar, because all my leaves fall off!), no acid, tough tannins, flabby flavours; too little struggle, too little sugar, high acids, thin wines.

Every variety, rootstock and site is different; struggle at different times of the growing season gives a different response.

It’s the art of the vigneron to get this right, and the phrase should really be ‘a little struggle for a vine makes the best wine’.

This question first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Decanter magazine.

See also:

The life cycle of a vine – ask Decanter

Do rootstocks affect the flavour of a wine? Ask Decanter

What will happen to the Eiswein 2019 grapes? Ask Decanter 

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