The Vintner’s Year | May 2013
North America seems to have enjoyed a much more favourable start to the year than Europe. ... Jim Law of Linden sends this latest monthly report from Virginia.
The busy season in the vineyard has started. The cellar has been abandoned as we head for the hills. All hands are on the vines. Quite literally. In a typical growing season (May through August) a vine is touched at least 12 different times. Handwork includes suckering, shoot thinning, shoot positioning, leaf pulling, cluster thinning and hedging. Many of the tasks are done multiple times, especially if the growing season is rainy. If it is wet, we need to open up the canopy more (leaf removal and hedging) to allow the clusters to dry. Additional soil moisture also stimulates excessive vine growth which adds to our work.
None of these tasks has to be done. A vine can be left to its own devices and still produce a crop. Handwork addresses the quality of that crop. Machines can also perform some of these tasks. They are much faster than humans but not as meticulous. Machines also work best in flat terrains. Slopes are very inefficient places to grow grapes.
On my travels and quest for a deeper understanding of the mysteries of making great wine, I focus on certain producers who outshine the rest of the pack. Their secrets of success usually revolve around this vineyard work performed in the northern hemisphere from May to August. In the trade we refer to this as 'green work'.
Green work’s goal is to coax the natural beauty and character of the vineyard into the wine. The vineyard site, variety selection and planting decisions are the foundation of the wine. The growing season defines the wine’s personality. Green work maximises the beauty of the terroir. It also brings out the best of the personality of the season. If all goes well, work in the winery is simply a matter of making sure nothing goes wrong. In that regard, my favourite winemaking quote/philosophy comes from a curmudgeonly Bordelais winemaker who I worked alongside. 'Ne ratez pas,' politely translated as 'don’t mess up,' followed every instruction.
The month of May consumes us with shoot thinning. To the casual observer, shoot thinning is a rather mundane task that involves removing undesirable young shoots from the vine. In fact, with each vine we are making yield decisions for this vintage and structural/training decisions for next year. In each block I decide on the number of shoots to leave on each vine. This will vary by variety, soil type, vine spacing and vine age. Additionally, within each block there will be differences in individual vine vigour that need to be taken into account. Only during the winter pruning, can the vineyardist evaluate the strength of each individual vine by looking at the size of the previous year’s growth. The pruner adjusts the length of the cane(s) left accordingly: shorter canes for weaker vines. When shoot thinning, one takes this into account and leaves fewer shoots on short-pruned vines.
A few weeks after we have finished thinning the entire vineyard new shoots sprout from latent buds. We then get back into the vineyard and do it once more.
This year, it seems, it is our turn to experience one of nature’s more vexing phenomena. In May literally millions of cicada simultaneously emerged from the ground where they have been living as larvae for 17 years. After two weeks they gather in groups in nearby trees, mate, and then the females start to lay eggs. This is where our problem begins. They lay their eggs in any small-diameter twigs including vine canes and shoots. A few incisions here and there is not a problem, but we are starting to see yield-reducing damage in a few blocks. In June the cicada population peaks. Much to look forward to in 2013!
Tasting Notes & Wine Reviews from Jancis Robinson