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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Donkey Changed Wine?

Pruning for lower yields is one of the hallmarks of quality

As legend has it, it all began in 345 A.D. with Saint Martin (one of the Catholic Church’s three patron Saints of grape growers and winemakers) who lived in the Loire Valley of France.  Saint Martin wasn’t just a Saint.  He was a winemaker involved in the trenches making wine.  A mistake made on Saint Martin’s watch, however, altered the path of making quality wines.

Saint Martin rode on his donkey to the fields located not far from his monastery where he and his brothern monks grew grapes for wine.  As was common during this period all over Europe, monks were the winemakers and the monasteries counted on sales of their wines to fill the church’s coffers.   It was early September and the grapes were almost ready for picking.   He tied up his donkey securely and then proceeded to inspect the rows of vines and the readiness of the grapes. 

Hours later when Saint Martin returned, he found much to his horror that his tethered donkey not only had eaten all the fruit off of every vine that the animal could reach, but he had chewed several vines right down to their trunks.  Saint Martin rode back to the monastery and shared the unfortunate news with his brothers.  Many thought the vines would die.  None of them dreamed what would transpire the following year.

As the monastery’s vineyards began to bud with new growth, a strange phenomena happened to the rows that had been devastated by the donkey.  These vines were growing far better than any others in the vineyard!  By the end of summer, the fruit on these once desecrated vines was not only the largest, but the best tasting in the vineyard. From this point on, the monastery began “pruning” their vines after the harvest.  The lesson was not lost on the monks---as centuries passed, pruning has become a mandated part of every grape grower’s routine.

Pruning grape vines follows the philosophy of quality over quantity, similar to that of thinning a fruit tree. The idea is that if one reduces the number of fruit that a plant must grow, the plant will put more energy into developing each remaining fruit into higher quality.  In contrast, unpruned wild vines typically produce smaller grapes that are sour in flavor.

As in many things in life, mistakes have created some of the biggest opportunities. Wine, itself, is thought to have been created by grapes that were mistakingly left for weeks unattended.  So was Roquefort cheese which was supposedly invented when a shepherd in France left his uneaten lunch in a cave and returned a month later to find it filled with blue mold.  As a wine lover, I want to go on record to say “merci beaucoup” to that donkey of Saint Martin’s.  Bravo!

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