Green Work | March 2012

This is not a p.r. article expounding on the virtues of yet another environmentally friendly winery (green fatigue). This green work refers to the meticulous handwork done by quality conscious winegrowers from May to August. It is often referred to as canopy management, but I think that the translated French (travail en vert) is more direct.

Green work has a huge quality and stylistic impact on wine, arguably second only to terroir. Green work is rarely discussed in winery tours or winemaking interviews. It is not real sexy, and is difficult to explain, but I’m up for the challenge:

Shoot thinning. In May, tender green shoots emerge from pruned vines. Not all these shoots are needed. There can simply be too many, leading to a crowded canopy. There can also be blank shoots that do not carry clusters, but take up valuable space on the trellis. These undesired shoots are meticulously removed by hand. Each vine is an individual. Strong vines can carry more fruitful shoots than weak vines. Varieties with small clusters are allowed more shoots than those with large clusters. Shoot removal is an important part of fine tuning yields which in turn very much dictates wine style and quality.

Leaf pulling. In most vineyards the grape clusters are uniformly positioned in a clear row along the trellis wires. This fruit zone can be naturally dense and compact as clusters, leaves and shoots all compete for valuable real estate. If the clusters are buried deep into the interior of this zone, the lack of sun and air movement can lead to rot and under ripe flavors. During the summer, the vineyardist is constantly fiddling with this fruit zone in order to allow just the right amount of sun and air exposure to each cluster. All summer you can find us with our faces in the canopy pinching off tender lateral shoots and leaves.

Climate change, soil, grape variety, and shifting wine style preferences make leaf-pulling decisions very dynamic. Too much exposure in a hot year can lead to overripe, flabby wines. Too little deleafing in a cool wet season can result in rot and green flavors in the wine. True vine geeks can spend an entire evening discussing timing, severity and technique at the expense of other dinner guests.

Shoot positioning. This is the most mundane of vineyard tasks. During the growing season each individual shoot needs to be secured to the wires. Those beautiful lines of vines marching up and down the hillsides don’t happen naturally. Aesthetics is only a byproduct of the vineyardist’s desire for uniformity of shoot exposure to the sun. If all the vine’s leaves are equally exposed to the sun, their associated clusters will be more uniform in their ripening. Even ripening makes better wine. There are many techniques of shoot positioning ranging from tying individual shoots, to movable catch wires, to weaving shoots through closely spaced wires. In all cases humans are very involved in making it happen.

Hedging. During the summer, especially a wet summer, the vines can grow outside their allotted space. Once the shoots grow beyond the top wire they can make a tangled mess that is best addressed with hedging shears. Admittedly, larger operations have mechanized the operation, but I remain a steadfast Luddite. I also get a great upper body workout as a benefit. My staff has, on occasion, expressed a difference of opinion in the matter.

Neatly hedged rows of vines can give the vineyard a sophisticated manicured look, but as of late, shabby chic is in vogue. We are finding that a bit of shoot sprawl provides more shade from the hot mid-summer sun. This change reflects the global warming impact on our vineyards.

Cluster thinning. There is a relationship between yield and wine quality. Conscientious wine growers have a yield goal in mind for each parcel. If the amount of clusters per vine is too great, the wines can be thin and anemic. Some vines in some years will balance their yields naturally, without human intervention. However in most cases, to make the best possible wine, man needs to get involved. Cluster thinning refers to manually cutting off some of the potential crop during the growing season. Again, timing and technique vary depending on vine age, success of pollination, and variety.

With red varieties such as Cabernet Franc or Sauvignon, a special additional thinning called green harvest is necessary. August is when the berries turn color from green to purple. This change is called veraison. This is the only time when the grower can see ripeness differences in the grapes. Some clusters are green, some pink, and some purple. The best growers will make a pass through the vines at around 80% veraison, cutting off the greener clusters to ensure a more even ripening at harvest.

Veraison is also the best time for a winegrower to visit other winegrowing regions. In the northern hemisphere this is typically in early August. It is at this time that we can see a winegrowers philosophy and execution. The vines are set. All of the work is done. We can see how many shoots, leaves and clusters were left. We can also see what has been dropped to the ground.

The people needed to do these tasks have to be experienced, skilled and readily available. Timing is critical. The work is meticulous, detailed, and repetitive. One could easily make comparisons to the work at a high-end restaurant kitchen.

Every year green work is executed more precisely. We learn the rhythms of the seasons. We understand the personalities and needs of our individual vineyards. Our wines continue to get better and better (especially our red wines), not because our vines are getting older, but because we are getting older and wiser.

Flavor, March 2012

Jim Law