The majority of the wines we know and love are made from the grapevine species, Vitis vinifera, which likely originated in what is modern-day Turkey or Georgia. These days, over 1,000 distinct varieties of this species are used for wine production, from household names such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to Austria’s Blaufränkisch and France’s Gamay, to gems such as Greece’s Roditis, or the red-fleshed Saperavi from Georgia. As we don’t know whether it originated in Europe or Asia, it’s referred to as the Eurasian grapevine [if you fancy taking a deep-dive into its origins, check out our two-part series by Dr. José Vouillamoz].
What’s this got to do with bees?! You might well ask.
As it’s World Bee Day, we wanted to take a delve into the intersection of bee-keeping and viticulture. We all know the basics of pollination, but what’s fascinating in terms of the modern grapevine is that… it doesn't need pollination. Essentially, it can successfully have sex with itself.
Before Vitis vinifera existed as we know it today—in its self-fertilising form—there was Vitis vinifera silvestris (which still exists in the wild), from which all Vitis vinifera grape varieties are descended. This wild grapevine is almost always “dioecious;” meaning that the plant either has male or female flowers. Hence, it needs pollinators, like bees, to bring pollen back and forth so that it can successfully produce offspring. If the weather conditions aren’t great, or if there’s a shortage of pollinators, fertilisation won’t occur, and thus the vine will not make a baby in the form of grapes, meaning no wine.
As it happens, however, naturally there is a very tiny percentage of Vitis vinifera silvestris plants that are hermaphrodite. This means that the vine has male and female parts and thus can self-fertilise.
As José outlines in pt. 1 of his series, when our predecessors first began to domesticate the grapevine many thousands of years ago, they figured this out, and hence chose those rare hermaphrodite grapevines to propagate, as this provided them with a form of ‘wine insurance.’ So, it turns out that cavemen and cavewomen were pretty clever.
Until the 19th century, although grapevines didn't ‘need’ to breed, they still did, and as well as propagating them via cuttings, human beings actively bred them—on purpose and by mistake—via different varieties cross-pollinating and producing children in the form of grape seeds. This is how we ended up with such a complex and confusing Grapevine Family Tree; as varieties such as Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, for example, gave us their children in the form of Chardonnay, Gamay, Aligoté, etc… or Cabernet Franc x Sauvignon Blanc, which gave us Cabernet Sauvignon.
Disaster struck when an epidemic occurred in the 1850s, when ships brought over a louse known as phylloxera from the US to Europe. This tiny louse feeds on the vines of Vitis vinifera, and the resulting gnaw-shaped holes and deformities cause the vines to die due to girdling or fungal infections. As the insect is native to the US, American grapevines have natural resistance, and hence nobody saw this disaster coming. Thankfully, a group of scientists figured out that the Eurasian species could be grafted onto the root systems of American grapevine species, and ergo: our beloved wines were saved. This does mean, however, that grapevines no longer breed as rampantly or randomly as they once did, as if a seed is allowed to grow, it will grow on its own roots, and likely succumb to phylloxera.
So there you have it, a brief history of the sex life of the grapevine. But while today's grapevines don’t need bees to reproduce, they do need them to furnish their homes, to make their homes comfortable and to keep their fridge stocked full of nutritive elements. In other words, bees contribute hugely to the overall ecosystem, and they play a significant part in combating the monocultural nature of a vineyard.
Bees pollinate vineyard cover crops such as clover and vetch, and pollen and nectar is the vital food source for bees. In turn, cover crops help to fix nitrogen into the soil, which helps grapevines to grow. In addition, cover crops can sequester carbon, meaning they can play a vital role in combating climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They can also be mowed down or cut to create mulch, which can give the soil vital organic matter and work as a natural weed control mechanism in very hot, dry regions (the mulch can suffocate new plant growth, as explained by Jurgen Gouws of Intellego Wines).
Once cover crops—both native plants and purposefully sown plants—are established, this leads to diverse and thriving vegetation, which in turn leads to soil that continues to thrive, and a complex microbiome. This microbiome; namely the mycorrhizae, which forms a web known as a mycelium beneath the ground, keeps the grapevines alive. It is this world that exists beneath our feet which makes nutrients available to plants, thus feeding them, as well as aiding them in their communication with their surroundings via complex signalling which still isn’t fully understood by human beings. There is also recent research that even demonstrates the power of mycelium to directly combat deformed wing virus and Lake Sinai virus in bees.
At La Stoppa winery, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, the team also keeps bees, and emphasises their importance as a vital part of their overall ecosystem. Winemaker Elena Pantaleoni says,
“We preserve this place with forests, bees… It’s part of the balance between us and the Earth. We should be cautious knowing that we’re only guests here, and consequently we have to behave accordingly – not as if we’re the owners of this planet.”
Plus, there’s pleasure derived from bee-keeping, too; something about the simple act of taking note of the bees’ ongoings brings us closer to nature. At Pranzegg, in Alto Adige, Marion Untersulzner and Martin Gojer began keeping bees recently. Marion says,
“Since we’ve had the bees, we really notice the beauty they add to our environment. Every time we see a bee, we think: is that one of ours? What’s she up to?”
In the Southern Rhône, it was beekeeping that first drew Jean-Luc Auffret of Domaine Jean David to the Great Outdoors. A close friend of his—Sylvère Petit—is a filmmaker and wildlife enthusiast. Sylvère launched a docuseries about animals, filmed from their point of view. Jean-Luc says,
“He wanted us to be on the same levels as animals — not a human being telling us about them, as per all the other nature documentaries.”
One of these was about bees, so he learnt the ins-and-outs of beekeeping and kept bees with his father. Jean-Luc himself became interested too, and before he knew it, he had received some bee hives as a Christmas present.
“Before that, I knew nothing about bees. But I decided to learn as much as I could; buying books and speaking to beekeepers. I was still working in IT at the time, and when I was going to see the bees, I thought — hey, it’s not bad being outside… working with living things and the seasons... at the end of the day that’s just a really wonderful thing, isn’t it?”
Of course, there’s the process of producing honey, too, and the business and community this can spark. At Tim Phillips’ vineyard, Charlie Herring, in Hampshire, a local friend, Krysia Watson, keeps bees on the property. She manages them and gives Tim some of her Watsons of Norleywood honey in return for keeping them on his family’s land, and the bees invigorate the entire ecosystem. Tim says,
“All of the elements – from the grass to the chickens, from the mice to the bees, they are the heartbeat of decent wine. Their presence brings energy.”
At Ori Marani winery, in Georgia, Bastien Warskotte and Nino Gvantseladze combine Champenois know-how with Georgian grape varieties to create spellbinding and utterly unique sparkling wines. To try to make a traditional method sparkling wine in a natural manner, they experimented with using local honey with a mix of their own frozen grape juice (instead of cane sugar from abroad and lab-cultured yeast) to restart fermentation in the bottle. It worked, and thus their cuvée 'Areva' was born. They’ve since modified the cuvée to a unique method that sits somewhere in between the pét-nat and col fondo methods, where they add honey to the bottle when the fermentation has just finished, so the yeasts still living in the bottle with the wine kickstart the refermentation process, making bubbles.
And when it comes to wine, that’s the point really, isn’t it? To create something exciting; something beautiful and meaningful that respects and nourishes the earth simultaneously. Bees, cover crops, mycelium, grapevines and the occasional bottle of experimental sparkling wine are in fact all codependent, and as winelovers, we depend on them, too.
And to that, we raise a glass to the bees.