Friday, March 13, 2009

Grapevines at The Cloisters

Grapevines in the courtyard of The Cloisters Pruning the grapevines in the courtyard Emerging leaf on the Concord grape

Above, from left to right: Grapevines have long been trained against the south-facing wall of the courtyard; Kevin Wiecks prunes last year’s growth back to a few dormant buds; the pink of the new foliage is transitory but beautiful.

Wine and wine grapes were of great economic and symbolic importance in the Middle Ages. Vineyards were associated both with royal and noble estates and with monasteries. Medieval wines were drunk new, and spiced wines, or piments, were also enjoyed. Wine was not only a beverage but a medicament, and the Tacuinum Sanitatis recommends grapes as a purifying and nourishing food.

Wine was essential to the sacrament of the Eucharist and this symbolic identification with the blood of Christ was expressed in innumerable works of art. The vines that decorated the margins of manuscripts were called “vignettes,” and the illuminators who produced them were known as “vignetteurs” (Celia Fisher, Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts, 2008).

Although there are well-established Concord grapevines in the courtyard of The Cloisters, it has been some years since grapes have been grown in Bonnefont Cloister Garden. (There was once a trellised Concord grapevine on the west wall of the garden, but the younger of two espaliered pears now grows in that spot.) There are a number of methods of training vines that were already in use in antiquity and the Middle Ages. There is no suitable place to train a vine upward at present, but there is room to plant some cordoned vines along the sunny parapet wall on the north side of the cloister.

The beautiful Carrara Herbal in the collection of the British Library has illuminations of both red grapes and white grapes. A number of the regional varieties cultivated worldwide today can be traced back to the Middle Ages, including Pinot noir, Nebbiolo, and Riesling.

Since wine grapes were so important a plant in medieval life and art, we are looking for a suitable cultivar to plant this season. Has anyone had success growing a particular variety in New York City?

—Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (1)

  1. Grape Vine Guy Says:

    Love the “Royal” History of Grapes. There’s still a little vineyard right in Paris - own by Munks - they don’t produce alot but that little piece of land is still growing grapes and they still make wine.

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