Tendrils, rachis and other secrets of grape harvest

What do you feel when you reconnect with an old friend? To me it feels as if time has not passed. This happened to me with Cristina, a language freak like me. We studied German together, as a “hobby” (why not?) for 5 years. We shared laughs and evenings of endless declensions. After losing contact with each other more than 15 years ago, we have now met again and I am so happy! The only thing that has changed is that she works as a sommelier and I as a floral designer.

Photo: Ernst lalleman (www.ernstlalleman.com)

These days, thanks to Cristina, I have learnt that, for old friendships, the one between man and wine. Archaeologists from the University of Toronto and the National Museum of Georgia are convinced that humans started making wine around 6,000 BC (that is, about 8,000 years ago). According to one of these researchers, Stephen Batuik, wine was at the centre of “religious worship, medicine, cuisine, economy and society throughout the ancient Near East”.

Cristina has shown me that the winery where she works nowadays, Bodega Bouquet d’Alella, is also a place full of history, because it has been run by the same family for a whopping 5 centuries: the Boquet family. Her bosses are the 14th generation and they continue to make organic wines from their own vineyards in a sustainable way.

Cristina & I
Photo: Ernst Lalleman (www.ernstlalleman.com)

I strolled through the vineyards listening attentively to all the explanations Cristina gave me almost without pausing for breath about how excited she was about her work (soisshe). The vineyards overlook the sea and are surrounded by fields of rosemary and lavender. They are very close to the village of Alella and embraced by the Serralada Litoral Natural Park. Yes, it is a very beautiful place.

From the moment the vine is planted, the root colonises the soil in a process that can last between 5 and 7 years. Then, during the following 30 years, the plant reaches its maximum development, both in terms of quantity and quality of its grapes. And it is from the age of 40 when the vine begins to produce less fruit, but maintains the quality of the grape or even improves it… “Something similar happens to humans“, I said smiling to Cristina.

In the northern hemisphere, the grapes are harvested between July and October. And between February and April in the southern hemisphere. The grapes are harvested according to the degree of ripeness we need to use to make wine.

According to Cristina, “each grape variety has a different vegetative cycle. There are some types of grape that ripen quickly and they are therefore harvested earlier. And there are other grapes that have a slower vegetative cycle, they ripen later… and they are harvested later. For example, the famous “Tempranillo” wine is so called because it is harvested very early. Its grapes are among the first ones to be harvested. And what would be an example of the last grapes to be harvested?: Garnatxa grapes, with which Bouquet d’Alella makes sweet wine. They are harvested at the end of October, we allow the grapes to “over-ripen” and in the end, rather than picking grapes, we harvest raisins: That is why their acidity level has plummeted and its concentration of sugars is enormous. We then produce a sweet wine in a natural and organic way, without adding any artificial sugar. This wine has the natural sweetness of the grapes“.

Cristina & I
Photo: Ernst lalleman (www.ernstlalleman.com)

As temperatures rise, harvesting processes are shortening and grape ripening is also accelerating. As a result, there are grape varieties that used to be harvested in September but now they have to be harvested in August. Harvesting can also be brought forward, for example, in case the weather conditions are expected to damage the harvest (hail, storms…): Then all the winery staff, without exception, take part in the harvest in a hurry to prevent a whole year’s work from being ruined.

During the walk with Cristina, I collected my little treasures: sprigs of rosemary, spikes of lavender, vine shoots… I had to take advantage of the opportunity to walk through this paradise. I was as happy as a lark. And as you can well imagine, when I got back to my atelier I started to design with all of the materials.

Wreath designed with vine shoots, lavender & rosemary from Bodea Bouquet d’Alella vineyards
Photo: Ernst Lalleman (www.ernstlalleman.com)

I designed this triangle wreath with vine shoots, lavender and rosemary. The vine shoots are the branches of the vine stock. From the vine shoots sprout leaves, tendrils and clusters. Shoots are pruned every winter to prevent them from growing too much, thus helping the plant to produce more and better grapes. The pruned shoots are composted for later use as fertiliser for the vineyards. The soil is fed with its own fruit and life cycles are closed.

Headband designed with tendrils from Bodega Bouquet d’Alella vineyards: Ritaflowers
Model: Kaylynn Vermeulen, from Dordrecht, Holland
Foto: Ernst Lalleman (www.ernstlalleman.com)

I designed this headband with tendrils. These are the stems with which the plant attaches itself to a surface or to other plants, which is why it has this twisted shape. The tendrils are used by the vine to support itself and keep it upright, usually twisted around a wire.

One of the most extensive research on tendrils was done by Charles Darwin himself, with his book “On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants”, published in 1865. It was Darwin who coined the term nutation to define the movements of the stems and tendrils in search of support. In other words, tendrils do not move, tendrils nutate!!

Headband designed with rachis from Bodega Bouquet d’Alella vineyards: Ritaflowers
Model: Fleur Elferink, from The Hague, Holland
Foto: Ernst Lalleman (www.ernstlalleman.com)

The skeleton or woody part of the bunch is also called “rachis”. And with rachis I designed this beautiful headband. Normally the grape berries are separated from the skeleton of the cluster to make wine. This “destemming” is a common practice in quality wines to prevent the skeleton from giving the wine green or astringent flavours. And after the stems have been separated, they are not thrown away, but are also composted to be used later in winter as fertiliser for the soil. Like tendrils, rachis have a very strong structure when they have dried.

Headband designed with rachis from Bodega Bouquet d’Alella vineyards: Ritaflowers
Model: Kaylynn Vermeulen, from Dordrecht, Holland
Photo: Ernst Lalleman (www.ernstlalleman.com)

According to Cristina, “Lavender and rosemary are plants native to the Mediterranean coast. They are part of the biodiversity of the environment. An ecosystem is balanced and healthy (it defends itself better against diseases) if the flora and fauna are indigenous, because positive synergies are generated. If, for example, we were to plant orchids (which is silly, because it is not their habitat), surely the insects interested in the orchids could also affect the vineyard. And in the end it would create a considerable natural imbalance.

Apart from maintaining the balance of the ecosystem, these plants have the added bonus of adding aromas and flavours to the wine. Especially in the vineyards where we have planted black grapes, we are particularly interested in having lavender and rosemary nearby. Because the aromatic components of the flowers fly through the air, they get caught in the proline, which is the skin of the grape. And when we then macerate these skins to extract the colour of the black wines, we also extract these aromatic components. You can notice this for example with their “Monastrell” wine, that when you drink it, you notice and recognise these aromas. In fact, there are wineries that plant specific plant species around the vineyard to capture their perfumes.

Crown designed with lavender and rosemary from Bodega Bouquet d’Alella vineyards
Photo: Ernst Lalleman (www.ernstlalleman.com)

Finally, we use lavender and rosemary as insect repellents. We spray the vines with a liquid solution and essential oils obtained after boiling their flowers. Both plants have very good antiseptic properties“.

The days with Cristina I discovered that a good process of cultivation, harvesting and vinification are basic for the creation of a good wine. However, the characteristics of a wine also depend on factors beyond human control: Temperatures, the quality of the soil, the amount of rain and sunlight received, the strength of the wind… All of these factors determine the particularities of the grapes used to produce the wine.

I discovered once again an example of the need to find balance in life, of the need to respect the Law of Nature. This Universal Law manifests itself in all minerals, in vegetables, in animals, in humans… And in wine. Thank goodness! Everything that is born, dies. Everything must be in a constant process of renewal. And if for any reason this process is altered or interrupted, a degenerative process will always begin. Every living thing requires the specific nourishment for its species, every natural manifestation requires the right conditions to exist. All cycles of nature have specific functions and any violation of this law has serious consequences. It is a very strong law. Including wine.

Bodega Bouquet d’Alella
Photo: Ernst Lalleman (www.ernstlalleman.com)

“Does wine spoil?” – I asked myself… – “Wine is a living product, which evolves and changes every day. It is in constant movement. It has no expiry date, because in the worst cases a wine ends up turning into vinegar… which is still fit for human consumption, but perhaps not as delicious as wine“.  Wine “spoils” because some oxygen has entered through the cork, for example, or because some fungus has entered… And, just like dried or preserved flowers, wine can also spoil when we store it in inadequate conditions of temperature or humidity, without protecting it from sunlight. That is why most bottles are dark (although nowadays, due to marketing, many are transparent… wine is not protected in the same way). Cristina recalls the case of a lady who said that her wine had spoiled after being stored for months on top of the washing machine… “Obviously, that wine ended up super unbalanced, with the movement of so much washing…!“.

Headband designed with tendrils from Bodega Bouquet d’Alella vineyards: Ritaflowers
Model: Kaylynn Vermeulen, from Dordrecht, Holland
Foto: Ernst Lalleman (www.ernstlalleman.com)

Like friendships, wine and designs with dried or preserved flowers are pieces of art that you have to know how to take care of to make them last for years. You can learn to do this over a lifetime on your own, or you can master the technique with someone to guide you. In the end it is a matter of time. If you have questions about wine, Bouquet d’Alella has some centuries of experience that will probably be very useful (contact them at enoturisme@bouquetdalella.com or events@bouquetdalella.com). And if you have questions about floral design, next yearRitaflowers will reach the humble number of 10 years, which is something. Contact me, I’ll be happy to help you too.

Bodega Bouquet d’Alella vineyard
Photo: Ernst Lalleman (www.ernstlalleman.com)

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