Great rivers and their great wines

Have you ever wondered why so many of Europe’s best known wine regions are situated next to major rivers?
The great chateaux of the Médoc along the River Gironde in Bordeaux; the famous hills of Hermitage and Cote Rotie on the Rhone south of Lyon; Sancerre, Vouvray, Muscadet et al along the Loire; the best producers of Rioja on the Ebro; Ribera del Duero and Portugal’s Douro Valley wine region along the Douro; Germany’s Rheingau and Mosel regions; Wachau and Kremstal on the Danube in Austria; the list goes on and on…
Of course, historically, rivers were an essential means of transport between wine producers’ cellars and their end customer markets. Overland transport of wine by container truck was not an option in the 19th and early 20th centuries – neither the vehicles nor the roads to carry them existed! The wine logistics process relied almost entirely on shipment by river and sea, hence the necessity for wine producers of being near a big river, and the importance of wine-shipping ports such as Bordeaux and Porto.
But rivers also have a significant impact on the quality and style of the grapes which are grown along them.
The microclimate near a river is special. Rivers moderate temperature, making very hot regions such as Portugal’s Douro Valley slightly cooler, or cooler regions such as the Mosel Valley in Northern Germany slightly warmer. They help protect against extremes of temperature, which can be life-saving for the grapes in times of intense cold or heat. In years when frost affects the vines late in the Spring, once the grape’s buds have formed on the vines, such as 1991in Bordeaux or more recently 2017 across much of Northern Europe, vineyards situated near a river can be up to 2C warmer than those which are not; this can make the difference between life and death for these young buds.
Rivers reflect sunlight onto the vineyards along their banks, which is again beneficial in a “marginal “ climate or cooler vintage, where grapes need the maximum possible sunlight and warmth in order to ripen fully. The vineyards along the Rhein in Kanton Schaffhausen or further north in Germany’s Rheingau for example benefit from this. The steepness of the hill-slopes one often finds along river banks also helps optimise the vines’ exposure to the sun’s rays .
Last but not least, rivers develop over many thousands of years and thus have their own unique geology and soils. Rivers generally have stony beds and the soils along their banks are equally so. Stony soils are important because they provide good drainage to vines; very few grapes benefit from having their roots immersed constantly in water. And different stones do seem to give slightly different styles of “minerality” to the vines; the slatey soils along the banks of the Mosel give a uniquely fine and intense acidity to Riesling grapes, the granitic soils of Northern Rhone give an iron fist and masculinity to the Syrah grapes of Hermitage and so on.
So it is in fact no coincidence that Europe’s greatest rivers are peppered with wonderful vineyards up and down their banks!


Published on 15.07.2017 – Schweiz am Sonntag

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