“Fine wine is created in the vineyard,” is a well-known truism. Another holds, “It is easy to make bad wine from good grapes, but you cannot make good wine from bad grapes.” While these sentiments confirm the critical importance of the vineyard to successful winemaking, they don’t fully acknowledge how difficult it is to succeed in producing high quality grapes for fine wines. So much of what happens to the vine is not in the vineyard manager’s control, but in the hands of Mother Nature. Beginning with spring, this series will explain how intensive hard work is the essential starting point of any successful vintage.
The life cycle of a grape vine is a never-ending cycle, so it’s tough to choose a place to begin. But spring seems a natural starting point for this series because we are in springtime now, and it’s when the vineyard comes back to life. Spring also sets the stage for the most exciting and exasperating parts of vineyard life — the growing and harvesting seasons. In large measure, spring is the foundation for the year; what happens in the vineyard in the spring can determine the critical outcome at harvest time.
Grape vines are unusual plants in many ways, one of which is that they do not have a 12-month growing cycle, but something closer to an 18-month cycle. Some might find it surprising that the buds that come to life in the spring were formed on the vines the previous summer. The foundation for this year’s crop – the buds – was laid last summer and will continue in its growth cycle until harvest in the fall one year hence.
How The Vine Is Built And Grows
Just like the opening games of spring baseball, spring in the vineyard is a joyously hopeful time. The new growing season is ahead, with all the hope of a perfect harvest – not a bountiful harvest, but a perfect harvest. An ideal harvest in a vineyard does not necessarily translate into a huge volume of grapes; but rather, perfectly ripened grapes with high quality juice. If it is an abundant harvest, all the better. It is generally agreed upon in the industry that high quality juice comes from grapes that have achieved full ripeness, both in the grapes’ sugars and other constituents in the juice, such as flavor and aroma compounds. Achieving high quality juice starts long before the harvest, and spring is one of the most important periods, in which all of the fundamentals to achieve this goal reside.
The grape vine has a particular structure. To begin, and not to state the obvious, the vine has a trunk that grows out of the soil. Growing out from this trunk are versions of a tree branches, called cordons, spurs, and shoots respectively, as each are located farther from the trunk. So there is the trunk, from which grow two cordons (in most vineyards), from which grow the spurs with buds, from which will grow the shoots, which in turn will grow the leaves and from which will hang the bunches of grapes.
Depending on the region, vines can be trained in variety of fashions, without a cordon, for example, but the cordon example easily explains the basic structure of trained vines.
In its native state the vine would grow in a wooded area and would climb up and around a tree trunk, reaching for sunlight. It would grow vigorously and produce an abundance of leaves and some grape clusters. It is more inclined to concentrate on growing the vine than the grapes. However, this is not the recipe for producing great wine grapes, so in the vineyard things are different.
In the vineyard the vine is deliberately limited in its natural growth by the vineyard manager (the vigneron in French) through a number of methods such as the vineyard site itself, pruning, vine spacing, and rootstock selection. First, during dormant pruning, (discussed below), the spurs are cut to a length that gives the optimum number of buds for quality grapes. Later, once they begin their spring growth the vines are pruned to control the number of leaves and focus the vine on making grapes. However, there is a balancing act. The vigneron must remove enough leaves to permit good airflow through the vines in humid areas, which limits the growth of mold and fungus that will attack the grapes, and to allow sunshine to reach the grapes and the vine. The vigneron must also maintain enough leaves to allow for sufficient photosynthesis to maintain the health of the vine and to ripen the grapes. This balancing act continues through the summer which we’ll focus in our next installment.
Additional pruning later in the season will reduce the number of grape clusters on the vine and allow the vine’s root structure to spend more of its resources on fewer grapes. This process will result in better quality juice. We’ll examine these steps, as well, in future posts as the seasons progress.
What The Vine Is Up To In Spring
Like most plants, the vines have been dormant over the winter months. At some point over the winter the vines have been pruned to protect them from cold weather and to ready them for the new season’s growth. This is called dormant pruning. In this process the vigneron will cut off all but a specific length of the spur so that a specific number of buds are left intact on the spur. The wine grower must retain the right number of buds on the spur to optimize the number of grapes that ultimately grow and the quality of the juice. For example, in some regions the vigneron will leave three buds per spur.
Knowing how many buds to leave intact is learned from the vigneron’s experience over time, based on the type of grapes and the terroir. Terroir is the French term that refers to the collection of factors affecting a vineyard that are not manmade including soil type, climate, prevailing winds, nearby bodies of water, altitude, and others. The terroir can vary in different parts of the same vineyard. There is no precise English translation for this word, but many wine growers worldwide use the term in the French way.
After Dormant Pruning
The most exciting sign of spring in the vineyard is bud break – when the buds on the vines start to swell and show the first signs of green. This requires temperatures of 50° Fahrenheit and can happen as early as March in the northern hemisphere. Buds will form the shoots, from which new leaves and grapes grow.The buds also produce the vine’s tendrils that wrap around the trellis wires and support the vine. Some of the major wine-growing regions in the northern hemisphere experiencing spring vineyard activity now, although on different timelines depending on the region, include France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the United States, and China.
About ten days after bud break, the leaves begin to pop up from the bud. The beginnings of the tendrils that will hold the vines to the trellising emerge.
Spring is also the time for new plantings. New vines are planted to replace vines that have died or are too old, or to plant new varietals and diversify the types of grapes the vineyard grows. These new vines are often purchased from a nursery, a year old, with developed roots and certified free of any disease, and then carefully planted. In the first three years the vine is busy developing its root system. The young vines will need to be coddled during the summer, protected from strong winds and pests, and given water in hot, dry weather. After these first few growth years the grapes will be ready to be harvested for wine.
Hazards To The Vines
With all of the romance, poetry, and millions of words devoted to wine and wine making, sometimes it’s hard to remember that vineyard life is really just farming, complete with all of the risks, hard work, and anxiety that dealing with Mother Nature can bring. With spring comes not only joy in the vineyard but also some serious threats to new growth. New buds are very susceptible to frost and freezing, so a late frost or freezing temperatures can kill some of the buds, resulting in fewer flowers and thus fewer grapes.
Another danger is strong spring storms and winds that can strip the vines of part of their delicate new leaves. Loss of leaves can adversely affect the health of the vine and grapes during the growing season. Heavy storms and winds can also interfere with pollination, which is vital to creation of the grapes. As a result, reduced pollination will decrease the number of grapes in each bunch. As if all that weren’t enough, spring storms can also bring hail, which can severely damage the new growth and reduce the eventual crop.
So, the vignerons hold their breath until the danger of frost has passed and new growth is strong.
As if to prove how tough it is to make fine wine, this year has already brought some heartache to several regions in France. Starting on April 26th, parts of France were hit with over three days of very late, severe frost, which some are calling the worst since 1981. In that year, hail in August damaged some of Burgundy’s vintage. This time, Burgundy has been hit the worst, with Champagne and the Loire Valley also badly affected. Winemakers are saying that the vines’ buds were damaged, which will affect the yields for the 2016 vintage and perhaps the 2017 vintage as well. Damaged vines can take more than a year to fully recover.
In France, they are hoping against hope that the damage will not be catastrophic and the rest of the season will bring better weather. Time will tell as the growing season progresses, but worries are that prices will rise due to lower crop yields. Stay tuned, and savor the wine in your glass, and always appreciate the perseverance that passionate wine growers must maintain through difficult times.
After flowering, the show really begins in earnest. With the warmer weather and longer sunlight hours the vines grow rapidly, new leaves emerge at a remarkable pace, and grape clusters begin to form. All of this and more next in the summer edition of “A Year In The Life Of A Vineyard”.