by Maddison Pantlin
Illustrations by Alex Anderson
The key to starting anything is establishing a good foundation.
Skyscrapers downtown, children with manners, multiplication tables. The same applies to our favorite fermented fruit. You can’t make good wine from bad grapes! A winemaker will always tell you, the finest wines start in the vineyard. It’s the base of your recipe. The key component. A flourless cookie, is not a cookie.
This talented, annual growth plant is quite literally the definition of “fruits of your labor”. A vineyard takes lot of work and is not for the faint of heart, despite battling the heat in the summer with minimal shady options, there’s a whole lot of sweat, blood and tears that go into maintaining those happy, little bunches.
So what is a grapevine?
By definition, it is a perennial plant that bears fruit once a summer, dies and regrows in the spring. Sounds pretty straight forward right? Personally, I think grapevines are wicked.
First, they are self-pollinating. You do not need bees or any outside source in order for them to flourish and produce fruit.
Secondly, there is over 10,000 different grape varieties, naturally or cultivated as a hybrid.
Thirdly, they have tendrils. It’s a small appendage of the vine itself that acts as a support system to keep the vine upright. They will curl around anything close to them. Think of them as little children fingers grabbing anything they can reach.
The majority of varieties come from the species, Vitis Vinifera.
American species are used mainly for rootstocks as they tend to have varying levels of disease and frost resistance much higher than the rootstocks of Vinifera. Additionally, they are commonly used as table grapes or jam grapes.
Down to the Dirt
The first 1 to 3 years of a vine is used to establish a root, trunk and trellis system. Typically they will start to produce enough grapes after 3 to 5 years to turn into wine.
Further, vines a live up to 100 years and over, as seen in places like Australia. Try Yalumba Tricentenary Grenache, the vines were planted in 1889!
However, most vines will start to lose their vigour around 30 – 40 years. The vigour is the energy of the plant.
When it’s young, think of it as a University student in a bar. It’s going real fast and you need to direct its time and energy to the right places. Once it gets past around the 30 year old stage, the vine matures and is much more sophisticated as it slows in production producing less grapes but of higher quality.
“Old Vines” is not a legally controlled term and is generally directed at anything 30 years and older.
The pruning method
The pruning method selected will depend on the layout of the vineyard, desired production and method: hand or machine. Pruning will help determine your yield for the following summer. In the Southern Hemisphere, this will take place around June/July. In the Northern, Dec/Jan.
During pruning, a vine will be in its dormant period. Vines do not die in the winter nor do they “sleep”. There is an abundance of microscopic activity happening. This is where it focuses on storing all its energy for the next season, roots expanding, searching for nutrients and storing carbohydrates.
This is why it’s so important to not only prune correctly but prune at the right time of the year. Cover crops may be planted, manure or hay/straw laid down to help the vine make it through winter preventing erosion from rainfall and providing essential nutrients to the soil.
After roughing it through winter, battling temperatures on average as low as 10 – 15 celsius, Spring finally emerges.
Once daily temperatures reach around 10 celsius, bud break will occur and the vines become extremely vulnerable and delicate. This will occur in March in the Northern Hemisphere and September in the Southern.
Frost and hail storms can cause irreparable damage, if not could cost a winery their entire vineyard that year. For example, last year (2017) in France they hit an all time low with a loss of 39% of vineyards due to frost and bad weather. This year, (2018) they have been hit again with some wineries at a 100% loss.
After bud break occurs, shoots will begin to form, giving life to the vineyard. The viticulturist will control the shoot direction and number of shoots. A bud may break into 1 or 2 shoots, primary and secondary shoots. This helps control the desired quantity of grapes and the quality.
A limited number of grapes on a vine equals more concentrated, higher quality grapes.
A grapevine then pollinates itself where clusters begin to appear known as flowering. This will occur around May in the Northern Hemisphere and November in the South.
Summer is one of the prettiest times of year in the vineyard.
The entire acreage will be flourishing. The vines start to develop hard, little berries known as fruit set. This occurs almost immediately after flowering. Then the wine maker will choose to allow the grapes to ripen fully, or perhaps to green harvest.
WHAT is a GREEN HARVEST?
When a viticulturist drops any underdeveloped or unwanted grapes so the vine can focus on quality and control yield. All unwanted or unripened fruit may be dropped to the floor.
Once a grape has physically matured, it will start to change colors. This process is called veraison and occurs in July/August in the North and January/February in the South.
All grapes start out green then change to yellow, pink, red, purple or so dark, almost black.
This is all dependent on the variety. The sugar starts to increase and acid starts to decline. The longer a grape is on the vine, the higher the sugar and less acidity which will reflect in the final product. That is why harvest timing is very important to the overall desired wine.
This leads us into the wonderful time of year, Fall and harvest!
A viticulturist’s dream and a winemaker’s nightmare. For a vineyard worker, this is the final party. Likewise, for a cellar worker, it’s just getting started.
Choosing when to harvest depends on many factors, the optimal ripeness for the desired style of wine, weather forecast and man power.
Once a decision is made to harvest, it is generally a nonstop process that can last anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months.
White grapes are generally harvested earlier because they will mature much sooner unless hanging on the vine to raisinate for a late harvest or ice wine.
Black grapes tend to take longer to mature to achieve ideal flavor and color. Once all the grapes have been picked, general vineyard maintenance takes place such as fertilizing.
Stems and grape skins will often be put back into the rows of the vineyards as well as any plant, animal or synthetic fertilizers and sprays.
The vine will start to change colors, perhaps my favourite time in a vineyard.
You get fields of beautiful yellow and orange leaves. The leaves will begin to fall off and the wood begins to harden from green to brown. This is where the pruning and dormancy cycle repeats itself. Patiently waiting for bud break in the Spring.
It truly is a beautiful process.
You get to see nature untamed foraging ahead with simple human intervention to understand it, preserve it and apply knowledge that’s been passed down for centuries in order to enjoy its yearly fruit we have grown so fond of!
Until next year,
www.reuters.com – France Hail