Wine: Silly season stories

For anyone who’s involved with newspapers, this is the “silly season” – the time when news is short and the oddest stories find their way into print. But wine writers should be able to remain serious, as come the holidays and whatever-the-weather barbecues there are always bottles to recommend.

Not this week, though. I couldn’t resist writing a column drawing together some quirky items of wine-related news, to make you smile wherever you are, whatever you’re drinking. First up: do grapes grown in extra sunny climes need protection from sunburn?

One biodynamic grower in California’s Napa Valley believes so, spraying his cabernet and merlot with a mix including skin-soothing aloe vera and UV-absorbing marine algae. The effect on the final wine hasn’t been reported, but given the extreme dilution of the spray I suspect it’s minimal.

In Australia there have been wider-scale experiments with liquid sunscreen on white grapes, with good effect – appreciably less sun damage, even when temperatures soared above 45 degrees, and no adverse effect on juice quality.

And scientists in New Zealand who covered ripening bunches of sauvignon blanc with plastic filters have shown that UV exposure (Kiwi grapes get a lot more of that than those grown in similar latitudes in the northern hemisphere) affects the biochemistry of vines and the wine made from their grapes.

Comparative analysis later of protected and unprotected grapes indicated that more UV equals more polyphenols (chemical compounds important in the health-protective role of wine) in the grape skins. And tasters decided that different levels of sun protection did alter scents and flavours.

So there isn’t a simple answer to the sunscreen question: it can be a good idea if grapes are actually being scorched, but controlling sun exposure naturally through leaf cover may have a bigger role in determining taste.

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Now for question two: can music make wine better? Yes, says an Austrian ex-professional musician turned winemaker. He inserts a tiny speaker into fermenting grape juice and plays classical, jazz and electronic music through it, believing the sound waves stimulate yeast cells to “dance” to the tunes, absorbing more sugar and leading to fruitier, drier, earlier-maturing wines. Rubbish, say scientists. A shame...

Though the Austrian isn’t entirely alone – I’ve met an organic French grower who believes the classical music he plays in his cellar calms the wines as well as their maker.

Now for the animal stories, the first from Cape Town. Baboons have developed a taste for grapes, especially sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, and are stripping some of South Africa’s oldest vines of their fruit before heading for the hills.

Some, who gorge on fallen fruit or discarded skins which have fermented in the sun, don’t make it home, stumbling around in a drunken haze until they fall asleep. One grower’s defence is rubber snakes...

Canada provides the second story, of a beef farmer in British Colombia who is gaining quite a following for the meat from cattle which have red wine added to their feed for two months before slaughter. The happy owner says the beef flavour is better, there’s finer marbling and the fat tastes like candy. Hopefully, the cattle die happy.

I’ll spare you the details of the owl grounded by the contents of a discarded schnapps bottle, the peculiar diet – a gallon of wine a day, and nothing more – of an elephant kept in the 17th century royal menagerie at the Tower of London, and even – this time “food” for humans – the recipe for deep-fried beer.

Instead, a final pair of useless facts: a cork pops from a champagne bottle at an average speed of 38-40mph, and the longest champagne cork flight in the world was 177 feet 9 inches, a record set – of course – in the United States.

Caption –

Vines in Villa Maria’s McDairmid vineyard, Gisborne, New Zealand.