In the Spirit: Birth of a New Vintage.

With the kind of winter we had, it feels like spring began back in January. Nevertheless, it is that time of year now when trees are starting to bud and flowers are starting to bloom and very soon…perhaps too soon!…summer will be in full swing. In the past, we have written about the spring time and what are good wines to drink in the spring. Rather this time though, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at just how important this time of year is for wineries and how important the winter and spring months are to the bounty that gets harvested in the fall and ends up in your bottle. For indeed, a successful winter and a good spring can literally make or break a vintage in the vineyard.

To begin with, though the vine is a stalwart plant and is actually known to produce the best fruit in years when it is denied ample water resources, every vineyard still requires on average at least 20-25 inches of rain per year. However, it is absolutely crucial exactly WHEN this rainfall occurs for it can be, and often is, devastating if that rain comes near harvest. In reality, vineyards do not need much rain at all during the growing season, unless the region is particularly dry and warm with a great deal of evaporation. However, it is ideal if the water table is replenished with rainfall during the winter months, as seen in the best wine regions in the world, such as Napa Valley. While the drought is seemingly over in California with the admittedly “excessive” rainfall seen this year, what is nevertheless holding true out there is that the majority of the rainfall received in the state’s wine regions generally occurs from December through February and then, like clockwork, nature’s sprinklers usually shut off around the beginning of spring. This provides a tremendous advantage to wine regions where this climate pattern occurs as they are able to get the water resources necessary for irrigation purposes and so forth during winter and not have to worry about troublesome rainfall during the growing season that might cause bloated, diluted grapes or mildew and rot issues in the vineyard.

Around mid-February to mid-March, wineries begin the very important process of winter pruning and this, even more so than winter rainfall, plays a very important role in determining the size and quality of that year’s crop of grapes. Without going into the technicalities of different trellising systems, winter pruning is essentially the process of cutting away the wood/canes from last year’s growth and leaving the buds from which THIS year’s growth will emerge. The number of buds left after pruning and the positioning of those buds are crucial decisions for any winery and greatly impact both quantity AND quality of the crop, for the best wines are produced from vines where the crop load of the vine is delicately balanced with the fertility of the soil, the availability of water for the vines and the warmth and sunshine available during the growing season. It is often said that “great wine is made in the vineyard” and nowhere is this seen more completely than in the decisions the winemaker makes during winter pruning.

Even further, the practice of winter pruning during this time of year will begin the process by which the vine begins to come out of its winter dormancy and it is extremely important that this process be carefully timed with the seasonal climate. In general, as the daily average temperature of the ground reaches about 50° F, the sap within the vine will begin to flow in a process called “bleeding” or “weeping”. This will lead, shortly thereafter, to “bud break” when small nodes begin to emerge into little shoots that will grow into canes. It is important to complete the winter pruning process a week or so before this happens, and indeed, the flowing of the sap may be impeded, if so desired, by delaying the pruning. This is another crucial decision a winery must make during this time of year because if bud break occurs too soon, for instance coming out of a warm winter such as we had here this year, a dangerous and most unfortunate frost one night may end up killing a number of buds which could severely affect the overall crop the following fall.

Lastly, after bud break in April, the shoots grow quickly into canes throughout the spring and eventually canes begin to bear flowers which will turn into grape clusters during the growing season. However, in order for this to happen, the flowers need to be fertilized with pollen…and in fact, the flowers will provide their own pollen in order to do so. However, this is again a crucial stage during the season that will have a huge impact on the crop of grapes produced. If a frost occurs at any time during this process, many flowers can easily be destroyed, thus greatly impacting the crop of the vine. Also, if the conditions are too windy, the flowers may not be properly fertilized in order to created berry clusters. It is important that the conditions of the spring be warm and calm in order for the best results. For this reason, you will see wineries exerting great efforts to block wind with tree lines or fencing or even netting over the vines and employing means of keeping their vineyards warm throughout the night with big fans that circulate the air, or heating cables running through the rows or even smudge pots or torch lamps being strategically placed in low-lying areas. The investment in your average vineyard is huge and so wineries will often go to great lengths to protect that investment.

So, while from the view of the naked eye, most vineyards seem quite calm and quiet during this time of year, the bustle of very important work is actually underway and indeed, some of the most important decisions and tasks of the year that go toward putting that juice into your welcoming glass are being made and completed. If great wine truly IS made in the vineyard, as the old adage claims, one could argue it is being made right here in the spring with the birth of a new vintage.

– Brian McClure, Beverage Director at The Greenbrier. Hashtag #88. April 2017. Featured photo by @adamdecker on instagram: Balleto Vineyards and Winery in California.

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