Fine Tuning Canopy Management for Elegant Wines
by Jim Law
There is a slow shift of wine style preference on the high-end spectrum of Wineworld. Parker’s influence is waning, sommeliers are the new tastemakers, and big fruit bomb wines are becoming passé. Given this scenario, the climate of the mid-Atlantic has a distinct advantage over hot, sunny, dry California. We have the opportunity to make wines with elegance, complexity and longevity. No more apologies about the humidity and rainfall. Yes, it is still more difficult to grow grapes on the East coast than the West coast. It is accordingly more difficult to grow grapes in Burgundy and Bordeaux than in Provence or Languedoc. In fact, could it be that there is an inverse relationship between viticultural challenges vs. wine quality?
Over the past several years my thoughts and practices on canopy management have shifted. This is primarily due to the fine-tuning of Linden’s wine style. The past goal was maximum ripeness (over ripeness?), high sugars and big impact. Now we treasure finesse, acidity, balance, and lower alcohols. As the personality of our terroir unfolds, we are learning to maximize our advantages. I would like to share some of my thoughts and practices.
I grow two different crops at Linden: red wine grapes and white wine grapes. Red-fruited varieties are now on steeper slopes with low nutrient, low water holding capacity soils. The best wines come from vines that require very little canopy work because they are naturally balanced. They also stop their vegetative growth by the onset of véraison. White-fruited varieties are on more water retentive, more fertile soils. They produce the best wines when the canopy is full and the fruit is mostly shaded, especially from the hot west side.
With the diversity of soils, varieties and vine age at our estate vineyard (Hardscrabble), canopy management has to be fined-tuned to each of our 32 blocks. Fortunately Linden has a full time production staff, some of whom have been here for 25 years. Skilled labor and timing are the keys to precise canopy management.
Shoot thinning is our principle method of achieving cluster positioning, yield control, and maintaining vine architecture. The amount of shoots retained depends on yield goals and historical cluster weights. 2 to 3 shoots per canopy foot is typical. Two thinning passes are usually made. The first pass starts once the clusters have revealed themselves and shoot length and direction can be determined. This is typically at about 8” length. We leave extra back up shoots in the head region on varieties that have fragile shoots prone to breaking during thunderstorms (Chardonnay and Petit Verdot). The second pass is usually just before flowering in order to clean up the head area where new adventitious shoots have grown. Hardscrabble is mostly cane pruned so the job goes quickly. The cordon-pruned vines often require a third pass due to the continuing development of adventitious shoots. This third pass happens in conjunction with leaf pulling.
This unavoidable job takes way too much time. I’ve never liked movable catch wires as I find they bunch and crowd shoots. We still use Tapener tying tools, making constant passes. Timing is critical. If we get to each block before shoots start to fall, the job goes quickly and the shoots are uniformly spaced.
Never has the pendulum swing been so dramatic as with leaf pulling. 20 years ago we got a bit carried away with ‘bare naked’ clusters hanging in the breeze. The hot western sun melted away the acidity and fresh fruit aromas, taking with it most of the character of the wines. With each block we try to achieve a Goldilocks balance of allowing enough aeration and spray coverage with just the right amount of dappled sunlight.
Aromatic whites now receive only a very light removal of east side leaves that hide clusters. Merlot and Petit Verdot get about the same treatment with some additional lateral removal. In Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc we are more meticulous about removing cluster zone laterals to prevent pyrazine accumulation. “Hats” or “umbrella” leaves are always left above clusters to shade from direct sun. In order to leaf pull precisely we use small, low riding wheeled carts so our eyes are at fruit zone level, otherwise in order to see what they are doing workers will strip the umbrella leaves. Leaf pulling is done early and quickly, usually at or just after bloom. This opens up the fruit zone in order to make the critical post bloom sprays effective. We have experimented with very early pre-bloom leaf removal, but have found the excessive sun exposure to be a bit much.
In most vintages the first pass is the only pass, but in some cases we fine-tune in July while cluster thinning. Additionally, in the event of a wet harvest, once the sun lowers and loses intensity in September, we may do a “Hail Mary” pull for better aeration against rot.
At Linden we continue to hedge by hand, initially using Christmas tree machetes when the shoots are succulent, and then later in the season switching to long handled shears. Due to our slopes, uneven ground, and 30 years worth of trellis experimentation, mechanization would be impossible. Timing is critical. We wait until the shoots have elongated about 18” to 24” above the top wire, but before they begin to bend downward. Cutting just a few nodes above the top wire stiffens the shoots so that when laterals take over the upward growth, the permanent canopy height is ultimately extended 18” above the top trellis wire. I find that we seem to frantically hedge just before a thunderstorm. The associated wind and rain can bend down shoots and we would lose our window of opportunity.
With white grapes the goal is ‘shabby chic’: we want a canopy with side laterals sticking out, especially on the western side, as long as they don’t fall back into the canopy. Canopy tops are left a bit disheveled also. It’s not your photogenic hedgerow look, but it shades and cools the fruit zone. Reds are more manicured for fear of accumulating the dreaded pyrazines. The occasional exception might be Merlot, which can benefit from a bit more shading to retain freshness in the wine.
Linden’s cluster thinning operation has become simplified over the years. We basically do an aeration thinning, making sure that no two clusters nest or touch each other. This is done to reduce bunch rot problems. With a few exceptions, this usually is enough to keep our yield goals in line. Lag phase, or about 40 to 50 days past bloom (but before véraison) is the ideal time to do cluster removal so as to prevent berry enlargement compensation. If done too early, berries will increase in size resulting in tighter, more compact clusters.
In red varieties we do a final 90% véraison pass removing lagging green/pink clusters or shoulders.
A balanced vine with the right variety grown on the right soils makes the Linden’s best wine. Pre-plant decisions trump all other decisions, but it is hard to get it all right in such a new viticultural region. The more the vines are out of balance (excessive growth in most cases), the more time and expense we spend on canopy management. This constant beating back of the vines is know as band-aid viticulture, which will rarely produce wines of note. Hardscrabble has many corners, ends and sections of red blocks that are excessively vigorous because of soil inconsistency. To make the highest quality wines, those vines have to be harvested separately for a lesser wine, or removed.
If our goal is to make globally competitive wine, we cannot fall short on any aspect of viticulture. Our climate punishes bad timing and shortcuts, but rewards diligence.