Pergola Taught

For me, there are a couple of very different burning issues to be addressed in the world of wine, and rather quickly. One of those is diversity, but important as that is, I’m not sure an old middle class white bloke like me can add a great deal to the mix, aside from a bit of mansplaining, and others far more qualified are doing pretty well at highlighting these issues. So, I’m not going to talk here about diversity, but I will point you towards one recent article, written by Christina Rasmussen on the Littlewine Blog. It highlights the issues starkly, but it is also full of positive thoughts. Not misplaced positivity, but the kind which echoes the belief that “positivity wins, negativity loses”. You can link to that article “Wine’s Diversity Activists” here: . Highlight the issues and then look for solutions, working together to make them work, is the tone of this piece of essential reading.

The other big issue for me is sustainability. In some ways wine makers are looking for solutions to the problems of climate change all the time. They are right at the sharp end, as anyone who tried to make Champagne in 2003, or Burgundy in any number of vintages in the last six or seven years might tell you (climate change, or perhaps more accurately climate chaos as some scientists prefer to call it, can bring high temperatures, but it also brings frost and hail which can have far worse consequences). They can see the likelihood of Syrah widespread in Germany and Merlot in Kent long before the wine drinkers who focus on what’s being made now.

The question is, how to focus on sustainability? One aspect of sustainability is how the whole of modern winemaking has left behind tradition, singling it out as somehow the practice of peasants in a time before agro-chemicals and modern winemaking science enlightened the grape growers of the world. This ties in very much with a strand of my Lockdown reading. I’m thinking in particular of three books. Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe threw new light on indigenous farming practices which sustained aboriginal populations in Australia before the British took the land in the eighteenth century. Braiding Sweetgrass is a very important book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which looks at the wealth of knowledge possessed by the native nations of North America, knowledge which so obviously would be of significant use to today’s ecologists and plant biologists. The third book, which I’m sure many of you will know, is Wilding by Isabella Tree.

These books tie in especially with the very different ideas of various writers on different types of cultivation, and initially I was thinking of writing about Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008), the Japanese farmer and philosopher and a proponent of natural farming. He is known for supporting no-till agriculture, which is being trialled on an ever-wider scale here in the UK now. His best-known work is “The One Straw Revolution” (1975, trans 1978) in which he sets out his natural farming philosophy and gives practical advice to those wishing to discover that path. One of his greatest influences has been on modern permaculture. He’s as important as Steiner.

You will find his methods being practised in viticulture from Alsace (Lissner, Beck-Hartweg) to Greece (Ktima Ligas), and echoes of his philosophy in the wild Graupert vines of Meinklang in Burgenland. But I was looking for something a little more practical, something more focused. And then there it was. In an article in Trink Magazine Volume 3 ( David Schildknecht visits Weingut Abraham in the Alto-Adige, in Northeast Italy.

Ecology and the vineyard after Fukuoka, Domaine Lissner, Alsace

Martin and Marlies Abraham are a young couple who have thought deeply about what they are doing and, as Schildknecht highlights, have an approach which “is consciously oriented towards traditions that had gone neglected in the late 20th century”. One of those traditions is the pergola training system. Here we have it, a tradition whose purpose has been eroded by modern notions of viticulture, but whose purpose might just be suited to a sustainable approach to viticulture in this region’s high-altitude winemaking.

Viticulture was once wholly sustainable, part of an eco-system capable of sustaining life, not just for humans but for all the flora and fauna. Monoculture for the vine was largely a product of 20th century ideas about production and progress. As chemical treatments for pests and diseases became more readily available after the Second World War and the Vietnam War (some having first been developed for a military application), vineyard treatments went hand in hand with other ideas about modern farming, in particular mechanisation. Of course, mechanisation is not always possible in mountainous wine regions, but never mind. There was a lot of dollar to be made out of persuading farmers that their old peasant viticulture was backward and nice modern, wire-trained, vines would give you much better wines at less cost…once, of course, you’d spent a fortune on installing the new systems and bought all the chemicals.

To the right Timothée Stroebel’s organic vineyard in Champagne, to the left his neighbour, not organic (photo courtesy Christina Rasmussen)

The pergola is a shining example of all that is supposedly “peasant” about old time viticulture. A system which, I was taught, was made for high yields of dilute grapes. After all, pergola central, Northeast Italy, grew Vernatsch (aka Schiava and known as Trollinger in Germany), a notoriously prolific variety noted for vast amounts of weedy red wine before the vine consultants advised the producers of Trentino-Alto-Adige to rip it out as quickly as possible.

My notions of the pergola were pretty much confirmed when I first saw this system in operation, not in the Südtirol, which I have only visited once, but in Northern Portugal, in vineyards making both red and white Vinho Verde. The vines were grown around the periphery of fields sown with other crops, and the resulting wines, especially the reds (this is late 1980s), were thin and acidic. But then the Minho Region is pretty damp and wet, isn’t it!

The pergola is what we call a horizontal vine training system quite different to the vertical shoot position trellis systems like guyot, used in so-called modern viticulture. Other horizontal systems date back a very long time, for example the famous cordon trenzado of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Just cast your eyes over any Roman mosaic or medieval manuscript depicting viticulture, however, and you will more often than not see a pergola.

Unlike the ground-hugging vines of Tenerife, or Pico in the Azores, or Santorini’s reclusive Assyrtiko vines, the vines on a pergola are raised above the height of a vineyard worker. They are back-breaking to work on, shoot-tying or pruning, and to harvest from (probably why it was generally a job delegated to the women). There are some scenes in Eric Newby’s book, A Small Place in Italy, which bring to life the sweat and toil of harvest in such a vineyard. So why were they developed?

It turns out that pergolas have a number of advantages, advantages which are amplified when the vines are growing on poor mountain soils on steeply angled slopes with lots of sunshine, but equally at times, lots of precipitation. The raised canopy above the grapes provides ample protection from sunburn. You think it isn’t baking hot in Alto-Adige summers? Try the famous apricots of Switzerland’s Valais to see how hot sunny steep Alpine valleys get in the month or so before harvest.

With all that canopy shade the ground stays several degrees cooler than using a modern, low wire, trellis system, which allows moisture retention, key to helping avoid vine stress. The grapes are also well ventilated on a pergola and whilst botrytis can be an issue with pergola systems, they can also provide the best protection against fungal diseases, especially powdery mildew. This is why you’ll see plenty of pergola-trained vines in Japan, with the grape bunches further protected by the wonderful waxed paper hats painstakingly placed as mini umbrellas covering the grapes, in a country where summer and harvest-time rains make viticulture more difficult.

There are in fact many kinds of pergola, and of course most are not strictly “horizontal” because the arms of the structure more often raise the shoots by around thirty degrees. The pergola type most people with a little wine education will have heard of is the tendone or “big tent”, a canopy made of wires rather than the wooden beams of the older generation pergolas, and which you will find widespread in many regions of Italy. It’s used by the famous producers of the Abruzzo, like Emidio Pepe. You see Tendone a lot in Bardolino, in Southern Italy, but also in South America, where it is known as Parral (Argentina) or Parron (chile).

Then there’s the double-pergola ubiquitous in the Veneto, which can be seen to good effect on the hillsides of Soave’s Classico zone. There are modern training systems which don’t look a whole lot different to these, to be found in the New World, and at one time occasionally in England. One example would be the Geneva Double Curtain, developed at the New York State Experimental Station at Geneva, NY, but with one very significant difference. GDC (as it is known) was developed to reduce shade, not increase it, and in doing so increases yield.

The most interesting pergola system I’ve seen is in a region I am pretty passionate about, Aosta, but despite several visits to that tiny region I can’t find a photograph. Here the pillars supporting the canopy are big fat concrete legs, tapered like some early, simple, classical columns. They are made from concrete, not marble, but painted white they are aesthetically attractive. And practical. Practical? Have you ever come across the Aostan wine called Enfer d’Arvier? Yes, these slopes may be Alpine but they get damned hot.

So why the terrible reputation for pergolas? Walter Speller has written about pergola training more than most, including articles on the subject on see Debunking the Pergola Myth, 26 May 2020 (where you might find a photo of those Aostan pergolas, as used by Azienda Selve in that case, which makes gorgeous natural wine Nebbiolo, known locally as Picotendro, near Aosta’s southern border at Donnas/Donnaz and which I first tasted and fell for at Raw Wine London in 2017).

I began a thread on Twitter a week ago which seemed to strike a chord and one of the contributions made by Walter a few days ago was a photograph of two pairs of bunches of Schiava/Vernatsch grapes. One pair was pretty large with bloated berries whilst the other pair looked, well, like normal bunches of grapes. The twist was that both bunches came off pergolas, but the large bunches had been irrigated, the smaller hadn’t.

On that one trip I made to Alto-Adige, many years ago, something surprised me. On the hillsides near Bolzano (Bozen) I saw sprays set up in the vineyards, big agricultural versions of those which we might see watering an English lawn, spraying water in a circular arc. In fact, if anyone still has a copy of Burton Anderson’s Wine Atlas of Italy (Mitchell Beazley, 1990) turn to page 99. Above the photo of the beautiful Abbey of Novacella/Neustift is a photo of the steep Santa Madelena Classico zone and if you look carefully you can spot exactly the same irrigation in place among the lush leaf canopy of summer vines, just beneath that famous old cable car climbing from Bolzano. I had once naively thought such practices illegal in a DOC vineyard.

So perhaps the bad rap suffered by the pergola is not the fault of the system itself, but of over-watering the vines to push up the yield? That would figure when we look back at those thin local wines drunk in tiny bars in Northern Portugal. The water in that case fell naturally from the skies, but it’s water all the same.

But we have a problem here. As Walter Speller points out in his article on Jancis’s site (behind the paywall), a large fortune has been spent in getting rid of pergolas in many of the Italian regions where they have always been traditional, and nowhere more so than Alto-Adige. It is also equally true that a smaller fortune, but a fortune nevertheless, has been spent in ripping out traditional Vernatsch vines and replacing them often with international varieties, albeit ones which may have a moderate history in the region.

Pergolas and flora at Kardaun, above Bozen, Alto Adige (photo Urban Plattner via Valerie Kathawala, with permission)

One of the saddest parts of this scenario is the loss of genetic material, not just old vines per se but genetic diversity from which a healthy vine population could rise again. And once the consultants, nurseries and vineyard construction companies have made their money, it would cost an even larger fortune to re-instigate the pergola, a cost beyond all but the most committed believer in tradition. It would certainly make little medium-term economic sense. Such believers exist, as David Schildknecht found when talking to Marlies Abraham. She says, when asked whether they would consider constructing a new pergola vineyard, “we could imagine doing it, but it would be an expensive investment”. Their pergola experiments have yielded even more benefits than those I’ve mentioned, but you should go and read the article in Trink Magazine to find out more.

When traditional ways of doing things are lost there’s also something else that disappears, part of a region’s cultural heritage. This is something that is less tangible than sunburnt grapes or moisture retention. It does include autochthonous grape varieties. After all, it’s a shame to visit a wine region and to be able to sample traditional food, traditional crafts and occasionally, traditional music, yet to find a region’s traditional grape varieties have all been replaced by Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But cultural heritage is more than this. It’s the sum of things coming together that give a place and its people an identity. Along with climate change we are seeing plenty of that kind of loss in our increasingly globalised world, and bringing us back to the “D” word, the only way globalisation can work on a human level is through diversity, not homogenisation.

As for the poor old pergola, as climate change becomes more evident, even in Europe’s higher vineyards, I think people may start to regret the hasty removal of these traditional vine training systems. We may then begin to understand that this old “peasant dogma” had efficacy after all. We can perhaps begin to comprehend this as part of the burning necessity of viewing our world in a very different way to that espoused by 20th century scientific knowledge. As we move through the 21st century we can see that understanding evolves. After all, what is culture but, in one sense, wisdom passed down from one generation to the next. Who would have thought that the pergola could have taught us that?

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
This entry was posted in Artisan Wines, Japan, Philosophy and Wine, Vine Training, Viticulture, Wine and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Pergola Taught

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  4. The possibility that pergolas can bring sustainable solutions to climate change-related issues is something that should be explored further. I think it is also important that we recognize the cultural heritage that is left behind when we look to replace traditional vine training methods. It can be difficult to retain old practices, but it may be important to preserve that aspect of identity by using those old practices as appropriate.

    Liked by 1 person

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