How The Best Grapes Are Grown
Our Story Begins...
Life at the estate level vineyard is different from vineyards that use mass-production farming methods. Rather than a vineyard manager, at the estate level the winemaker is the principle farmer and personally oversees all the other farm workers to make sure that everything is done just right. Because the principal farmer is the winemaker, she knows exactly what qualities and characteristics the grapes must have to be put to the best use in the winery.
Believe it or not, the story of a new vintage of wine starts in the vineyard in the dead of winter.
Winter in the Vineyard
While the onset of winter may trigger a season of rest for some in agriculture, for those in winemaking it’s already time to take the steps critical for the new season’s crop.
Pruning is a Tradition
Pruning is a precise science. Generations of growing grapes in specific places informs the decisions of the winemaker in choosing which shoots to leave which to prune.
Like many perennials, grapevines produce their shoots for the following year in the fall after the harvest. These shoots “lignify” or turn to wood to survive the winter cold. Pruning after buds lignify helps the grapevine to age by selecting the best cordons (or branches) to preserve for fruit development. This pruning strengthens the buds and branches that remain on the vine for the spring growth.
Deciding which vines to prune
What to prune depends on the strength of each plant as well as the trellising strategy for the vines in general. Weaker plants are pruned more deeply than stronger ones.
Pruning shoots has to be done to create a balance between the amount of leaves in the canopy and clusters of grapes below. Each cluster must absorb enough energy from the leaves of the plant to grow into bright colorful grapes while still having space for sun to hit them and air to flow through them.
Nurturing the soil to maintain the right pH balance is important in growing quality grapes. Adding fertilizer to depleted soil beneath the vines in the late winter provides nutrients as the plants prepare for the coming spring growth.
Spring in the Vineyard
In the spring the buds break open and blossom, but the work of pruning continues. In this season the pruning is concerned with maintaining a careful balance between leaves and grapes.
Importance of the canopy
While it’s important that sunlight reaches each leaf where photosynthesis takes place, too much sunlight on the grapes themselves is bad because it can burn the skins. Therefore the leaves are lifted vertically to form a canopy that shields the growing cluster while providing maximum sunlight to the leaves.
Light through the canopy
Light reaching the grape clusters is important because it promotes the synthesis of polyphenols that are responsible for the structure and color of wine. Still, too much light can burn the skins. To get the right amount of light to the clusters, the vineyard workers must keep this in mind while pruning for balance and other strategies.
New shoots and leaves are carefully woven, wound, or pulled into the canopy to provide the needed shade; others are pruned to provide access to the sun.
Now the carefully trimmed leaves and shoots allow cooler light to reach the grapes in the morning, but also to protect from the hotter sun of the afternoon.
Adjusting for weather
The canopy must allow for airflow and sunlight to prevent rot and fungus from developing and yet protect from too much sun exposure. It is therefore adjusted in response to weather conditions. For example, if the season is unusually rainy, the canopy will be thinned to allow for more air exposure that will discourage the growth of damaging mold.
The Importance of Irrigation
Vineyards in all regions use irrigation to provide adequate water for grapevines. While arid regions such as Mendoza, Argentina are great for growing grapes, they are also regions with minimal rainfall. As a result, grapes would not grow in arid regions without the water provided by irrigation. Does that mean that arid regions are to be avoided for grape growing and moister regions are to be sought after? Not at all. Arid regions have minimal pests as a result of the dry climate so by irrigating in arid regions, you get the perfect moisture content while avoiding the problems that go along with less arid regions.
Since irrigation is so important, it’s worth understanding how it works. There are two major ways to provide irrigation: flood irrigation or furrow and drip irrigation.
Flood irrigation works by filling the row of vines with water so they can all absorb water quickly.
Drip irrigation works by stretching pressurized water-hoses down each row of vines with holes cut so the vines receive a slower, more regulated flow of water.
Fertilizer and soil description
Fertilizer is essential for the vines in most wine growing regions. If the soil is alluvial and stony, it has very little nutrients to support grape growing. Fertilizer is added to create a nutrient-rich soil to optimize the quality of the grapes. Does that mean that alluvial and stony soil is bad for grape growing? Not at all. In fact, because it has these characteristics, pests are minimized. Therefore adding the right fertilizer in these types of soils gives helps the grapevines while remaining neutral for pests.
The important thing when fertilizing is to use the most natural, earth-friendly materials available. This keeps the terroir of the soil from being negatively affected. Vineyards that have ideal terroirs – those with clean air and water and few native pests, such as Medoza, Argentina – strive to use the most natural material possible in all vineyard operations.
The soil is tested regularly, especially in the fertilizing stages, so that the necessary chemical balance is maintained for optimal growing conditions.
The principal winemaker can plan pruning and irrigation strategies with the additional knowledge of how the soil will give the grapes nutrients.
Spraying for pests
Although bugs that feed on grapevines are almost non-existent in some wine growing regions, they are present in many other regions. Controlling for insects is necessary in those regions where insects are a threat to the health of the crop.
Spraying for mold
Fungus or mold is a threat to the crop in any wine-growing region. The problem is that using harsh chemicals on the plants to illuminate them, such as is the case in most mass production wine manufacturers, ruins the terroir of the grape. Spraying with copper and sulfur compounds, which are natural deterrents, controls for fungus diseases without introducing harsh chemicals that ruin terroir. Even these can be minimized by properly using the canopy to provide good aeration.
The way to think about it in practical terms is this way. Do you want your wine with bug spray or without? If you answered, “without,” then try to choose wines made at the estate level with grapes grown in arid regions where a serious effort can be put in to using the most natural materials to support the health of the grapevines possible.
Summer in the Vineyard
A vineyard in summer is a wonderful sight to behold. At the estate level, it’s easy to see the unparalleled beauty in the fruit that has resulted from all the hard work in the winter and spring. If only the weather cooperates, a good harvest is within sight.
In the summer, the winemaker and vineyard workers are occupied with spraying, weeding and still more pruning. Cutting shoots and leaves that block sunlight to maturing grapes is the primary purpose of pruning in the summer.
For nearly two months leading up to the actual harvest, the principal winemaker for each winery walks the vineyards daily to determine the ripeness of the grapes. The winemaker collects samples every week from the various vineyards to conduct an analysis of acidity, pH, sugars and taste. The way sample grapes taste is the most important indicator of when the grapes should be harvested.
Because each grape variety ripens at a different pace, the principal winemaker must manage the ripening crop to determine when each variety should be harvested and enter the winery without overlapping other varietals.
Once the crop has been fully tested, the winemaker customizes the final pruning for each individual vine to maximize each grape’s flavor potential. This is something that is simply not possible at the mass-production level.
Fall in the Vineyard
Fall is harvest time and is the busiest and most exciting time in the vineyard. Each grape variety is ripening at a different rate and deciding just when to harvest is the work of the principle winemaker.
When a specific vineyard is determined to be at its peak, the harvest workers move in.
Deciding when grapes are ripe for the harvest isn’t as simple as it might seem because different varieties of grapes ripen at different paces. When the winemaker decides a specific plot is at the perfect stage, the farm workers quickly move in to pick the grapes, which locks in their flavor.
Unlike in a mass-produced vineyard, at the estate level the grapes are harvested by hand. While more workers are required to harvest by hand than in mechanized harvesting, picking clusters by hand allows for gentle handling that preserves the integrity of the grapes.
Treating the Grapes with Care
Ideally, the grapes will be carefully placed into small crates such that those added above do not crush the grapes at the bottom of the crate. In mass production, mechanized harvests, this gentle handling is not possible and many of the grapes are broken, which introduces unfavorable flavors into the vintage.
While the harvest of a particular plot in a given vineyard takes only a morning, the grape harvest for a given vintage takes place over approximately two months in late summer and early autumn. Again, this is because different grape varieties and the conditions in specific vineyard plots will dictate different times to harvest.
Grapes To the Winery
On the mass production scale, the crates of grapes are loaded into trucks and often travel for hours to get to the winery. Trucks can be hot and this transportation process can diminish the flavor in the grapes because they get too warm.
At the estate level, the winemaker is on site to ensure that grapes are picked in the cool of the morning and quickly transported to the winery, which is often within a few miles of the winery, if not on the winery property itself. This ensures that the grapes are at their best when they’re crushed, which creates the richest flavors possible.
As each plot’s harvest arrives at the winery, the growers give a sigh of relief. The time of risk when the crop is threatened by unpredictable factors, such as weather, is over. Now the crop is safe in the winery and the quality of the wine is totally within their control.
In an estate vineyard the wisdom and precision of the principal winemaker produces a higher quality grape essential for making a world-class wine. The stress and worry about the grapes being out in the unpredictable elements of nature is over and a new type of work begins—transforming the best grapes available into the world-class, estate-level wines.
Does that mean the work in the vineyard is over? Not at all. The work necessary to prepare the vineyard for next season’s harvest will soon begin.
Test your knowledge
- » Why are grapevines stretched along a trellis?
- » What does the wine maker do in late fall or early winter that is critical to spring growth?
- » Why is pruning so important?
- » Why is too much rain a problem for grape crops?
- » Describe one irrigation system.
- » How does the principal wine maker know when to harvest a specific vineyard?