When the Future is Forecast at the Lowest Levels

GrapevineBiodiversity is a well-turned term describing the prevalence of varied ecosystems and the interrelationships of nature’s plant and animal species.

When humankind is introduced into the equation, things can go awry. The delicate balance between nature and humankind has increasingly affected the sustainability and even survival of a number of plant and animal species. 

Ecosystems have been, and continue to be, disrupted by humankind’s insatiable need to house and feed its growing populace. This has placed a great deal of stress on the natural order.

Over the last 200 years, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, humankind has altered the planet. Pollution, habitat destruction and climate change have endangered countless species. Needless to say, controversy follows humankind’s deeds. Is a given amount of destructive activity necessary to foster our growth? Should humankind unilaterally intervene in the balance of nature? 

My interest in the escalating debate over these issues grew when my sister forwarded me a link to an NPR story concerning the symbiotic relationship between humankind and nature – which has a direct effect on wine.

No, it did not concern the impact on winemaking of extreme drought or intermittent seasons of excessive rain or drought brought on by climate change, or the damaging effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Those are well-documented and have garnered concern across the globe.

No, this story spoke of a single insect that influences the fermentation process in grapes, and therefore, the taste profile of the wine produced from these grapes. What is at stake is the continuing existence of this insect, and others, as humankind intervenes in vineyard agriculture with chemical pesticides.

A microbiologist in Italy, Duccio Cavalieri, has been studying the vespa crabro, a wasp indigenous to the Chianti region of Italy. What did Cavalieri discover about this biological marvel?

After 15 years of observation and − what else − DNA sequencing, he discerned that this insect, which inhabits the local vineyards, has several beneficial traits. The wasp ingests the indigenous yeast that forms on grape skins during the growing season. It then deposits the yeast inside the grape using its unique stinger that, unlike other insects, enables it to pierce the grape skin. Once deposited, the yeast kick starts the fermentation process before the grapes are even harvested. This influences the ultimate flavor profile of the produced wine.

Old World and old-school winemakers have always farmed to live in symbiotic harmony with insects, wildlife and flowers. This practice preserves the inherent characteristics of their wines. Other winemakers introduce supplemental yeast, some genetically modified in a laboratory, to foster a particular type of fermentation, which influences the resulting wine. 

This wasp phenomenon presents a strong case for natural yeasts, but also brings to the forefront the potential damage that humankind can wield in the vineyard.       

I believe Cavalieri’s work is important in understanding the complexity of wine and how grapes from similar regions, even adjacent vineyards, can taste so different.

But is all of this just the proverbial tempest in a teapot? Relatively speaking, this is a small population of wasps, of a variety that isn’t found in many wine regions. The laws of biodiversity preclude the wasps’ impact over a broad geographic area. As such, they have a small impact on wine – but what an impact. And if humankind does not exercise prudence in the vineyards, a vital ally of terroir-focused wine may be lost.

Is there a real danger of losing the vespa crabro at this time? It’s impossible to tell. How many beneficial insects have already been wiped out through humankind’s intervention in the delicate balance with the natural order of ecosystems? Our wines may have already been exposed to changes created by these practices.

The next time you’re in a vineyard, or your backyard, take notice of the beneficial insects and raise a glass of wine to their prosperity.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.