Tenacious Vines

The vine in early spring against a warm blue sky. Photo: PKR

There was so much about our trip to South Africa last year that was unexpected, and which I will explore a bit in upcoming posts. But one of the most unlikely encounters was with the grapevine in the central court of our hotel in Cape Town.

We stayed at the stellar Cape Heritage Hotel, which is part of the renovated 18th-century Heritage Square complex. Up against the wall of the hotel’s inner courtyard, a slender vine emerges from the ground and winds its way up to a pergola above a walkway.

The unprepossessing vine emerges from the ground. Photo: PKR

Planted in the late 18th century, this just happens to be the oldest known producing grape vine in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a white wine variety, a Crouchen Blanc that originated in the French Pyrenees. The varietal is all but extinct in France due to its susceptibility to disease, but this old vine takes care of its own needs in the courtyard in the middle of Cape Town. And it still produces enough grapes for the hotel owners to produce wine.

Let me say that we have a wonderful grapevine in our own garden in France. It was planted long before we arrived – it’s at least forty years old, and until recently, it produced more delicious red muscat grapes than we could possibly eat in a year. Unlike the vines of our village neighbors, the garden vine never suffered disease and always seemed supremely content to sit alone against our garden wall.

The vine climbs the same wall it’s been climbing for two centuries. Photo: PKR

That was right up until a worker dug too close to the roots of the vine and poured concrete before I could stop him. Quelle catastrophe!

I waited for a season, and when the vine didn’t leaf out or prosper, I planted a new vine a short distance away. I didn’t pull the old one, however. You know. Just in case.

Still, much to our astonishment, a year later the old vine regrouped and produced leaves. No grapes yet, but it’s working hard. I’m hoping it can make friends with the new vine down the wall.

All this is to say: Left to their own devices, grapevines are robust, determined, and a joy to behold, not just because of what they produce in the end.

As for the heroic vine of the Cape Heritage Hotel, I toast its tenacity, and the respect given to it by those who helped it survive for 240 years and counting.

The grapevine in the Cape Heritage Hotel courtyard in Cape Town. Photo: Cape Heritage Hotel




A Murder, A Charm, A Gulp

A Murder

It must be confusing for wild animals when humans constantly grow so much tasty food, only to try and keep it all to themselves. I see it in my own garden when the various fruits become ripe. All the birds I’ve fed through the winter are suddenly competition for my harvest in summer and fall.

Magpie Lookout – Australian magpie
Artist: Lyn Ellison

I’m not fussed about sharing the cherries, plums, red currants, apples and grapes with the birds. There’s usually more than enough for all of us. But in Australia and elsewhere, vineyards can lose up to 80% of their valuable crop to starlings, rosellas, cockatoos, and thrushes every year.

Until now, common solutions to keeping birds away from the grapes included expensive netting to block the birds from getting at the goods (but which can also make spraying difficult), noisy gas cannons to shock them into flight (but which also sometimes cause fires), and reflective tape, hawk-shaped balloons and recordings of predator calls to frighten them.

But birds can get into and tangled in the netting, and as for noise and shiny or floating objects, as soon as the birds realize they won’t get hurt, they just ignore both.

I’m reminded of a hike I took in Sheffield, England a few years ago, when I saw another bird control solution in the crop fields: Individual crows, dead and hung upside down at regular intervals from wooden posts as literal scarecrows. I don’t know how effective it was on other birds, but the sight definitely kept me out of those tilled properties.

Artist: CF Tunnicliffe

A Charm

Maybe with something almost as ominous in mind, researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia undertook a study at six vineyards in Victoria to see whether aggressive birds could be used to frighten grape-thieving birds from the vineyards.

In this case, the idea was to build observation perches for predatory birds like falcons, who would hunt vineyard thieves, and serve as a warning against hungry flocks.

For whatever reason, the falcons were not seduced by the five-meter high invitations to rest. But another kind of bird was: The mythical magpie. To be precise, the Australian magpie. I should note here that these magpies are not corvids, unlike Eurasian magpies, which are. There’s a great article here for a breakdown on the difference, and why Australian magpies are called magpies.

Be that as it may, over centuries and continents, magpies have been the subject of legends, both good and bad. They’re thieves and harbingers of death; they’re a sign of bad luck if seen alone, but of good luck if seen in groups; in many Asian countries the bird is associated with happiness, while in Native American lore, it’s a symbol of friendship and fearlessness.

For better and for worse, humans have a long-standing relationship with these birds.

Photo: TheMagpieWhisperer

It was magpies, rather than falcons, that took an unexpected liking to the high perches in the Australian study, probably because (as the researchers state) the perches provided excellent observation points for the lizards that magpies hunt.

I also read of the winery in South Australia that enthusiastically welcomes the territoriality of magpies in keeping other birds at bay. Their voracity for insects means that they pick out pests from the trunks of the vines, each vineyard row monitored by its own magpie.


A Gulp

Some of our favorite science stories are born as the results of research that sets out to find one solution and then finds another.

Researchers who had been looking to attract falcons to vineyards found that vineyards with magpie perches had a noticeable reduction in crop loss to smaller birds. In the study area, this was a reduction from 9% of the crop in vineyards areas lacking magpie perches to only 4% in the areas under the shadow of the tall wooden constructions.

Magpies might not be direct predators of smaller adult birds, but they do eat eggs and chicks of other birds, so that might be one factor as well as their simple threatening presence on the perches.


Australian magpies
Artist: Lyn Ellison

Researchers speculate that the falcons might prefer more natural looking branches to the straight perches, so a further study will test those.

Meanwhile, I am wondering what kind of impact these large birds might have overall on populations of smaller birds, insects and lizards in vineyard regions. Do the smaller birds move elsewhere? Do lizards keep down insect populations that might flourish in their absence if the magpies leave?

Viewing vineyards as agro-ecosystems rather than mechanistic crop factories changes the equations in the most interesting ways, this time offering a further strand in our long history with magpies.

There are almost as many terms for a flock of magpies as there are myths about this clever, communicative bird, and doubtless many more eco-interactions than names.

Something to ponder over my next glass of Australian wine.

*A murder, a charm and a gulp are just a few of the collective nouns we use for magpies. Murder is also the collective noun for crows, corvids like the Eurasian magpie.

The Spoils of the Day

The village of Vufflens-le-Château. All photos: PK Read

The village of Vufflens-le-Château.
All photos: PK Read

Sometimes the constant presence of natural beauty can lead to a certain forgetfulness of the visual bounty all around.

We’ve lived near Lake Geneva for a long time, and while I revel in the views of mountain and lake, I don’t always appreciate just how lovely the area can be.

Fortunately, friend, writer and local expert on the area Catherine Nelson-Pollard invited me along on a day excursion, and I got a good reminder.DSC03701

Twice a year, once in spring and once in fall, hundreds of winegrowers in Switzerland open their cellars to visitors.

I’d characterize the Caves Ouvertes event as one of the few real bargains in Switzerland: For the price is CHF 15 (around $15, or €15), intrepid wine tourists get a wine glass, a little neck pouch to carry it, a wine passport, a map, and almost unlimited tasting opportunities for as many wineries as you can visit in a day.

A free bus service takes pass-carriers from vineyard to vineyard along a number of possible routes in each wine-producing canton.

View of the Alps from Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland

View of the Alps from Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland

We did a short route in the canton of Vaud, which neighbors Geneva.

Swiss wines aren’t widely known outside the region. They tend to be lighter than their French or New World relations.

Production levels are generally small, and vineyards dot the lakeside, the hills and mountain foothills in small parcels. Almost all are tended by hand. This is not a business of vast profits and expandability of scale. DSC03704


A glorious day in mid-May, white clouds blown across the lake by a bise wind rendered gentle by the warm temperatures and the sunshine. Here a château, there a wall curving inward with age.


I had driven over the border from France, so my car was waiting for me back in Nyon, a short train trip from where the wine tours started.

Because I’d have to drive home later, I maintained a strict tasting regimen – small sips, lots of water, dumping the remainder of the tasting sample once I had determined whether I liked it or not. It’s the most sober wine tasting I think I’ve ever experienced. At least, for my part.DSC03713

Over the course of the afternoon, fellow travellers in other groups got ruddy faced. Someone next to me forgot the wine glass she had just put in her neck pouch and broke it against a table.

It was time to head home.

But not before buying a few bottles to share at home.

A good reminder to extend my local range from time to time, and not take its beauty for granted.

Ingredients for an excellent day: My wine pouch and glass - which I carried safely in a backpack rather than around my neck. The green wine passport, the wines, my train ticket, and a bit of old Seamus Heaney for reading on the train. Not seen here: the companionship of friends.

Ingredients for an excellent day: My wine pouch and glass – which I carried safely in a backpack rather than around my neck. The green wine passport, the wines, my train ticket, and a bit of old Seamus Heaney for reading on the train. Not seen here: the companionship of friends.

Musical Refinement

Sometimes a tugged mental thread yields the most unexpected byways of learning.

This particular journey began the other evening, when I was listening to a French radio station, Swing FM, while sipping a glass of champagne. The music playing was a heavy Hammond organ thing, the champagne didn’t taste quite right, and fortunately, some small task diverted my attention. When I came back to my glass, the music had changed to a happier swing piece, Southern Sunset.

It could be because I’m not a big fan of the mighty Hammond, but I was sure the champagne tasted better once the organ blues song had ended.

The question mark that popped up above my head was: Did the music affect my experience of the taste of the champagne?

And because this isn’t the end of my story, the simple answer is: Probably.

Some studies have shown that the tongue is easily fooled. When wine drinkers were exposed to various kinds of music, from Carmina Burana by Orff to Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague, the subjective perception of a wine’s taste could change by up to 60% – cabernet tasted richer, chardonnay more zingy, and so on.

Chalk it up to cognitive priming theory. The brain can be primed to respond in a certain way by environmental factors.

A point to be noted in passing: If you are trying to impress with a good wine, or cover the faults of a bad one: Play the right music.wine-music1

But could music actually change the way wine tastes, objectively (i.e. quantifiably)?

Again, according to some winemakers, the answer is: Maybe.

The sound frequencies of music played to vats of maturing wine are said by some to enhance the yeast activity during the fermentation process. I haven’t been able to find any studies which back this up, but the winemakers who play monastic chants and classical music to their vats seem persuaded.

And so to the end of my exploration today, the current apex of winemaking and fermentation sound techniques, the Sonor Wines speaker/vat technology.

Sonos Wines techology Illustration: Sonos Wines

Sonor Wines technology
Illustration: Sonor Wines

Created by a Viennese winemaker / musician, the claim is made that refinement of wine through music can be achieved through “a special speaker (…) placed into the tank or barrel to expose the fermenting grape juice to classical, jazz, electronic, pop or rock music. This method positively influences the maturing process of the wine and produces a better taste.”

My initial reaction?

It’s wondrous strange, and well, why not?

I don’t know if it works, I don’t know if it’s quantifiable genius or certifiable humbug, but on this dreary and rainy autumn morning, I’m happier for having found it.

Sober Expectations

Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California Photo: PK Read

Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California
Photo: PK Read

I saw recently that Napa Valley wineries had already started their grape harvesting season as of August 1 this year, almost two weeks earlier than the average, due to a short winter combined with a long and mild spring.

So I wondered whether our long, wet, cold winter, combined with a long, wet, cold spring and a massive hailstorm, had affected harvest expectations in our wine region of western Switzerland.

The answer, in a word, is: Yes.

Expectations for the Swiss vendanges – the wine harvest – are not high this year. The June 20 hailstorm destroyed around 6% of the Swiss vineyard crop within five minutes, affecting a potential 6 millions liters (1.6 million gallons) of Swiss wine. Harvesting isn’t expected for the remaining vines until well into September.

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm Photo: Les News

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm
Photo: Les News

Over in the French Champagne region, about three hours north from where we live, violent hailstorms from July 26-27 destroyed large swathes of vineyards – some areas experiencing a 10% loss, others 100%, with an overall loss expected of around 30% of this year’s crop. The same holds true for the Burgundy region.

Hailstorms (and even a “mini-tornado”) destroyed vineyards, but to a lesser extent, in the Bordeaux region as well. The French and Swiss Ministries of Agriculture are looking into adjusting insurance strategies to allow for ‘climatic risks’ in the future, as the assumption is that extreme weather will only increase.

French language viticulture news stories make for grim reading these days. What’s left of the crop will be harvested late.

Photo: RTS Info

Photo: RTS Info

So I guess California’s Napa Valley was a winner this year in vineyard climatology.

As for my single, heroic muscadet grape vine, which usually produces around 20-30 kg (45-65 lbs) per year, I don’t expect we’ll get more than a few good bunches this season – the cold, the wet, the wind have all done their part and our vine is the barest it has been in almost twenty years.

I do have one good harvest story this year, though – the lavender I planted last year as a part of a bee and butterfly section has attracted a healthy colony of bumblebees, who come and harvest pollen every afternoon. Their loud communal buzz fills one side of the garden, an industrious song for the summer heat.

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year - most colonies only number 50 or less, so I'm assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby. Photo: PK Read

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year – most colonies only number 50 or less, so I’m assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby.
Photo: PK Read

Blossoms and Bubbles

Different types of wine From: Winefolly.com

Different types of wine
From: Winefolly.com

I found this Wine Folly poster via Paul Dorset’s blog, so thanks Paul for the great pointer to a great wine blog. As it turns out, I’ve managed to try quite a few of these – and I think there are a few I’ve tried that aren’t listed.

For Mother’s Day, I will be raising my glass to all the wonderful mothers I know!

Here’s a bunch of flowers – I took this at a nearby friend’s house yesterday after an evening of – what else? – champagne and good conversation. The wisteria has burst out all over our area in eastern France and many walls are alive with purple.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

And speaking of purple and bubbles, NASA recently released this image of cosmic wind bubbles at the center of the Milky Way. Just thought I’d include it here.

Bubbles of gas and particles, 25,000 light years high – that emerge from the centre of the Milky Way, on either side of the galactic plane after being blown at supersonic cosmic winds during star formation. Go here for more information. Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center via New Scientist

‘Fermi’ bubbles of gas and particles, 25,000 light years high – that emerge from the centre of the Milky Way, on either side of the galactic plane after being blown at supersonic cosmic winds during star formation. Go here for more information.
Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center via New Scientist

Have a good Sunday!



Strong Whisky

French 'Tree of Whisky Aromas'via: provencedirect.com

French ‘Tree of Whisky Aromas’
via: provencedirect.com

Scotch whisky has been produced for something like 500 years, with the first historical reference of distilling in Scotland dated to 1494, a record of transfer for malt delivered to a ‘Friar John Cor’ to make acqua vitae. Given that this particular Friar John had enough malt delivered to produce over a thousand bottles of ‘water of life‘, the distilling practice must have been well-established by then.

We discovered Scotch on a hiking trip through central and western Scotland around twenty years ago. We went were the roads took us, and when we stopped somewhere, we tried whatever whisky was local. It made the process of being marginally lost most of the time much more palatable.

I hadn’t realized until recently, though, that my adopted home of France is actually the largest single market for Scotch. And not just since we’ve been living here. No, according to Whisky.com, Scotch established itself in France due to a specific agricultural disaster of the late 19th century which I’ve discussed before – the phylloxera beetle blight that decimated Europe’s vineyards as well as its wine and brandy production within a few short years. Apparently, Scottish distillers had ramped up their production enough over the four centuries since Friar John’s malt delivery to step into the breach created by the Great Blight. The wine industry recovered, but by then Scotch  had established itself as the spirit of choice over brandy.

An estimated 85% of Scotch is exported, with France as the largest single consumer by volume. Singapore is the leader in Scotch whisky imports per capita, while the US leads in imports by sales value. If I interpret this correctly, it means that France consumes a large volume of inexpensive whisky, Singapore has a high percentage of whisky drinkers in its population, and the United States likes the high-end stuff. In spite of recent dips in growth, Scotch whisky is still an expanding market, having seen an increase of almost 90% in demand over the last ten years. South America and parts of Asia (especially mainland China) in particular are predicted to see increasing interest in Scotch.

A few years ago, when Lagavulin 16-year-old became very popular in our area, there seemed to be a sudden supply bottleneck (for lack of a better term). Good thing Scottish distilleries are investing a reported £2 billion (US$ 3 billion) in production facilities over the next three or four years to keep up with demand. It looks like the industry is preparing for more good times, even without the help of the mighty phylloxera beetle.


Sky News article – Scotch exports hit a new high

Whisky.com – A Brief History

The Bottle Around the Bubbly

From: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-6-GkVLJwWOM/TuYTKyWF_wI/AAAAAAAAASU/7v5WfQCmfB4/s1600/Champagne-Bottle-714293.166160933_std.jpg

A little small talk tidbit for all those soirées in this month of holiday parties:

A bottle of champagne contains around 50 million bubbles, at three times the pressure of a car tire.

As an interesting prerequisite to the ‘invention’ of champagne, it was necessary to invent a bottle that could contain the pressure generated by all that pressure and thus avoid exploding bottles – a health hazard, not to mention a terrible waste. From what I have read, it was an Englishman from a region known for its hard cider who first came up with a technique for producing a robust glass that could withstand increased internal pressure. His name was Christopher Merret. One of those multi-faceted, inquisitive types that seem to pop up regularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, he was a physician and naturalist with a special affinity for the effects of minerals on glass-making and smelting. In 1662, he translated an Italian book, The Art of Glass (1611), and added a long series of notes based on his own observations.

Merret described how to add iron, manganese or carbon to molten glass in order to produce a bottle that could withstand the entropic powers of secondary wine fermentation, thus making possible the ‘verre anglais‘ used by Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon to make champagne. Perhaps not coincidentally, Merret also discussed how adding sugar and molasses could lead to secondary fermentation, leading to the first recorded description of sparkling wine.

At any rate, the first ‘official’ production of champagne – in 1692, thanks to Dom Pérignon – owes at least a little of its success to the existence of non-exploding bottles.

In more recent times, the weight of the heavy champagne bottle, which was standardized in the early 1970s at 900 grams, or about two pounds, is being retooled in an effort to reduce the product’s carbon footprint. The new bottles will use 65 fewer grams and have more slender shoulders while still retaining the robust strength necessary to contain those 50 million tiny bubbles.

Of Blight, Wine, Grafting, and a Kind of Success

I found a poster hanging in a small local bistro just over the border in Switzerland, one of my favorite places to eat for lunch. It’s a vintage poster for a French seed nursery in eastern France – but it’s also an historical document of an agricultural calamity.

wine, switzerland, blight, france, vineyards

Poster for American grape vine stock in Switzerland, Photo: PKR

At first glance, it shows a young, robust 19th century woman among grapevines on the southern end of Geneva but on the French side of the border.. But what it is really showing is the effects of the great agricultural, economic and culinary calamity known as the French Wine Blight. Actually, the blight affected all of Europe and the UK, and was apparently due to the introduction of a non-native wine louse, Grape phylloxera into the regions.

Dactylosphaera vitifolii

The phylloxera is a complex little piece of work, with a life cycle encompassing 18 stages in 5 main phases. Very difficult to eradicate, and indeed, there is still no known method to completely rid Europe and the UK of the pest. It arrived in the late 1850s, and wiped out an estimated 60-90% of European vineyards over the next couple of decades. One of the challenges was that it took ten years for those studying the problem to be able to locate its origin, namely, the phylloxera that took so many forms.

Nothing seemed to work against the pest, until the hybridization technique of grafting European grape varieties on to rootstock imported from the United States was discovered. And thus began the task of reconstituting the wine industry – a process documented in part by the poster I saw in Switzerland. No surprise that this poster was here – Geneva is surrounded by vineyards.

I posted recently that the old and very fruitful Muscadet grapevine located in our garden has been one of the few unaffected by a locally occurring pest. We don’t know why, except that we never bring in outside stock, we don’t handle other plants, and our garden is walled.

In Europe, there were a few tiny vineyards that remained unaffected by the wine blight. No one knows why. They still produce extremely rare vintages of wine made from pre-blight, ungrafted stock. One of them is a Bollinger Champagne, the Vieilles Vignes Françaises. Another is a port wine in Spain, and a third is a Sangiovese grape in Montalcino, Italy.

Did I mention why rootstock from the United States was the preferred import for grafting?

It’s because phylloxera itself is a North American import, brought to the UK and then Europe on hardy American rootstock for planting by horticultural enthusiasts. The American rootstock was, of course, unaffected because it was resistant against the phylloxera. I’ve heard American wine buffs proudly claim that the US saved the French wine industry, but it seems a bit of a stretch since it was our own little pest that ruined it in the first place.

It’s a remarkable example of the triumph of non-native species within an entire growing sector.

The great Mothervine, oldest grape vine in the United States
Located in Roanoke, North Caroline