How I’m Trying to Make Better Wine

Jim Law

“When scientific knowledge and technology are limited, our senses of observation, intuition and sensitivity are heightened.” Andre Ostertag (Alsace)

I am not content with the quality of my wines. I know that they can be better. It is also self evident that if I do not change what I am doing, my wines will not improve. Although I am making changes and improvements in my cellar, I feel that the key to improving my wines is found in the vineyard. What follows is a synopsis of the directions and priorities I am currently implementing to make better wines.

LONG TERM DECISIONS:

These are the choices that determine wine quality in a decade from now. They are the most important decisions and also the hardest to define and justify. In my case, they have been very intuitive, reflecting 25 years of winegrowing on my farm.

  1. Soil, site and vine relationships. My farm is blessed (or cursed depending on one’s philosophy) with a very diverse array of soils, slopes and aspects. After a couple of decades of mistakes, observation, and non-interventionist winemaking, I am getting a feel of what makes sense to plant where. Soil rules. I am a farmer and not a geologist, but by simply recognizing surface rocks, I can now get a pretty good idea of which variety is most appropriate for a given site. I mentally rate my soils as warm soils (thin, rocky granite) and cool soils (deep, clay greenstone). My best soils for late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon are warm eroded, thin, rocky granite. These soils allow Cabernet vines a natural vegetative/fruit balance, even at very dense plantings. Greenstone indicates a deeper soil with water retentive clay. Most reds (with the important exception of Merlot) produce wines that are thin, hard and vegetal on these soils. White varieties thrive on greenstone. The increased vigor gives more aromatics and focused acidity.
  2. Steep slopes. I am finally planting my steepest slopes, which I am convinced will give me my best wines. After travels in Alsace and Northern Rhone it became evident to me that I needed to get over my fear of planting difficult and potentially dangerous steep slopes. This has required investing in new equipment such as crawler tractors and convincing my loyal vineyard staff that I was still reasonably sane.
  3. The conundrum of rootstocks and clones. While I am feeling comfortable with matching variety to site on my farm, I still feel clueless as to rootstock and clone decisions. Given our stage of development, I do feel that there is way too much importance placed on these two aspects of viticulture in the East. We here in the East need to be cautious about embracing clone or rootstock evaluations from other viticultural areas. I consider myself to be in an experimental stage. A block needs to be in the ground for at least 12 years before any realistic evaluations can be made. For this reason, over the past 5 years, I have been planting a patchwork of clonal selections and rootstocks.
  4. Planting a vineyard for years 10 to 30. There is a tremendous surge of new plantings going on now. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, and are focused on the early vineyard years. My original planting here at Hardscrabble is now going into its 24 leaf. I have learned that vines, like children, go through growth spurts and personality changes. My old vines are now well behaved, balanced, and in many ways easier to manage during the growing season. They are not as strong as they were in their adolescent and young adult years. When they were stronger I gave them room to grow with wide spacing and, in many cases, divided canopy systems. Over time they began to struggle to fill the space that I asked them to. I have tried interplanting, both between vines and even between rows. I have converted, or in some cases, re-converted from divided canopy to simple VSP. Cordons have weakened or failed, leading me to cane pruning over cordon pruning.
  5. The courage to remove under performing blocks. Ultimately, judgement day arrives for any vineyard block: to pull and replant, or to keep working with what you have. Even though I can now improve upon my planting decisions in most of my original plantings, I cannot plant old vines. This is where the tough decisions have to be made. I just removed my original planting of Cabernet Franc. This was not a difficult decision as the vines were riddled with leaf roll virus and both quality and quantity were dismal. A few years back I made a more difficult decision to pull a very productive block of Chardonnay. I didn’t like the wine quality. I also concluded that this Chardonnay was growing on one of my potentially best red variety soils.

SEASONAL DECISIONS:

Of the thousands of decisions made during any growing season, there are three areas that I try to focus on: yields, canopy management, and picking strategies.

    1. Yields. I have become obsessed by crop load decisions and timing of crop reduction. I believe that these factors are important keys to growing great wines, but I am not yet confident as to what crop levels and reduction methods are best. Like everything viticultural, much depends on how each growing season unfolds.I consider pruning to be a very primitive attempt at determining yields. I tend to leave more buds than I need, knowing that we will be shoot thinning later to a more precise number. Pruning should be more focused on vine health, structure and uniform distribution of shoots and fruit on the trellis.

      Shoot thinning is probably my most important tool in both achieving good canopy architecture and honing in on appropriate crop levels. We typically leave 2 to 2 1/2 shoots per foot of trellis. I am experimenting with timing. Most of our systems we thin when the shoots are 6″to 8″long, but we are now thinning our Geneva Double Curtain trained vines at bloom. The later the shoot thinning, the more devigorating the effect on the vines. We are also running trials in some vigorous blocks using vigor diverting “kicker canes” that are removed entirely later in the season.

      From fruit set until we are constantly removing clusters (or cluster parts) from the vines. By mid to late June it is clear as to the level of fruit set for each variety. I also take into account soil moisture at this time, as it will dictate vine vigor over the next critical 6 weeks. If it is dry, we will be more aggressive early on with crop thinning. If it is wet, we will initially leave a larger crop to help slow the vine down. Our first rough attempt to reduce crop comes just after set when we make our first pass at leaf pulling. At this time we have our “faces in the canopy”and it is obvious when a given shoot is carrying too much crop. Because the cluster stems are tender, they can be snapped off with fingers rather than picking shears, making the task easier.

      By veraison (early August) my goal is to be 100% crop adjusted in the whites and 90% adjusted in the reds. We do a final pass through the reds at about 80% veraison to remove less developed clusters or shoulders (wings). Vines with large clusters, and our high end red blocks receive shoulder removal scrutiny. Often, even one cluster per shoot is too much crop. This year we may do some trials on pre-veraison partial cluster removal if cluster sizes look too big.

 

  1. Leaf pulling. In the humid, rainy East leaf pulling for disease prevention is a no-brainer. The more difficult question is how the severity and timing affects wine flavor, style and structure. At Linden we typically make three separate passes at leaf pulling. The first pass is at fruit set (mid-June) where we quickly remove leaves around the clusters on the east or north side of the canopy. Because of time constraints (there are a lot of other viticultural demands on labor) the work is fast and not real precise. This pass is done principally for disease control. Just before cluster close (early July) we will go back and fine tune our leaf pulling in varieties and blocks that are sensitive to bunch rots and powdery mildew. This not only allows for air and some sun exposure, but also opens up the fruit zone for good spray penetration of the critical pre-cluster close spray.It is only after veraison that I start the guessing game as to the appropriateness of additional leaf pulling for wine flavor. I try to read the unfolding of the vintage as to temperatures, sun intensity and rain. Potential sunburn or over-exposure of the clusters has to be balanced with rot and underripe fruit characteristics. As equinox approaches, the sun gets lower in the sky, and temperatures cool, I feel comfortable being more aggressive with leaf pulling. My late to ripen varieties will often be entirely stripped of leaves in the fruit zone by October.
  2. Harvest decisions. It is rare that we will pick all of any given variety on the same day. Its not that we can’t logistically, it is because not all of the grapes ripen at the same time. Micro-block harvesting has greatly contributed to my wine quality. In some ways I have had to re-design my winemaking to accommodate so many small lots. Vine age and soils are the two major influences on ripening times within a given variety. Slope aspect, training systems, crop levels and clones can also contribute to ripening and therefor harvesting differences.”Ripe”is a very subjective concept in winegrowing. For white fruited varieties I focus on acidity (both total acid and the perceived “hardness”impact of malic acid) and aroma/flavor development. For reds I focus on tannin development (skins and seeds) and visual indicators such as berry firmness, skin condition and juice color.

Over the past several years I have “forced”myself to visit many other winegrowing regions during veraison. This can be an inconvenient time to leave my own vineyard, but it is the one time in the season where I can understand the decisions and focus of a given winegrower. All the aspects of canopy management and yields are visually evident. Time spent with the winegrower can focus on site aspects (terroir), picking decisions, and seasonal fine-tuning.

I urge you to take advantage of our unique sharing global wine community. I cannot think of another industry that is so open and generous with ideas. I hate to speculate about what my wines would taste like if it was not for the generosity of my colleagues.