by Jim Law
Hardscrabble Vineyard is now in the fifteenth year of a ten-year plan of replanting vineyards. It has taken a bit longer than planned, mostly because I’ve been dragging my feet on the final stage, which was implemented just after harvest 2016. We just pulled out four acres of vines adjacent to the winery. None of these vines were removed because of old age or low yields. They were pulled because the wine quality never lived up to expectations.
I tried every “band aid” viticultural technique known to mankind:
Re-trellising, field grafting, changing pruning systems, interplanting, and multiple pickings. Some of this helped, but the truth eventually became apparent. It was planted wrong. It certainly didn’t feel wrong 25+ years ago, but I’ve learned a lot since then. I had a C- planting on an A+ site. The only solution was to start over.
My hope is that others will learn not only from my mistakes, but more importantly muster up the courage to face those mistakes and start over. At this stage of our industry’s development we will all make establishment mistakes. At what point does one make the decision to try again, building on experience?
First, the problems:
- Not understanding the impact of differing landscape forms (topography) and soils. The removed vines were Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. They were planted from 1988 to 1997. Many of the rows ran from crest, down to swale and then back up to a crest. It took a while, but eventually I got an eye for seeing vigor hot spots and resulting ripening imbalances based on subtle landscape form differences.
About three years ago I hired Alex Blackburn to do a complete soil mapping of the farm. This confirmed much of what I was observing. It also gave me better tools to make replanting decisions with more confidence.
- Row direction was east/west, which is not efficient for ripening. While this may not be an issue for earlier ripening whites, it can delay ripening for late ripening reds, which is problematic on our cool, high elevation site (1,300+ feet).
Rows were also planted perpendicular to the slope, which impedes superficial run off of rainwater. Rows planted up/down slopes results in less water penetration and less rutting/soil compaction.
- Lyre training with low density (6’x11’) vine spacing. Once the vines got some age on them (12+years), they struggled to fill the trellis. We tried interplanting within rows and even establishing new “in-between” rows. The result was weak, struggling vines adjacent to vigorous vines.
- Vine age differences within blocks. Young vine grapes will often ripen as much as 10 days before older vines. This presents a quality problem and a picking nightmare. We have tried to do multiple pass pickings, but this, combined with all the other issues became unacceptable.
Re-planting is scheduled for Spring 2018. We will soon be taking bud wood to send to be grafted (all on Riperia Gloire). Coincidentally, the same varieties will be planted, but in different sections: soil and landscape form dependent.
- Cabernet Sauvignon always takes priority at Hardscrabble. There are two distinct ridges of granite-based soils where CS will be re-planted. When CS is planted in the right place (low water-holding capacity soils) it makes our best wine. When planted where water is too available it is picked for rosé.
- Cabernet Franc likes the same soils as CS, but is more adaptable to less than perfect circumstances. The CF will go on a fairly steep slope that has a slightly higher clay (water holding) content. It will be a small planting, as we typically don’t use a large percentage of CF in the flagship Hardscrabble blend. Some of the CF block will be where the old CF grew and did quite well, but the original CF was of an “old” (unknown) clone that rarely made wines with structure that we need for blending.
- Petit Verdot seems to be happy in most reasonably well-drained soils. I’ve not noticed any great quality improvements that are soil related with PV. It is a workhorse variety, always making good, but rarely great wine. PV will take up the sections that are less uniform and closer to the swales and dips. These are areas where CS and CF would probably be too vigorous due to too much water availability.
- Merlot. None to be planted. I’ve taken a hiatus on new Merlot plantings due to the winter damage of 2013/14. In fact we’ve removed two small blocks and re-planted with CF and PV. Besides, Merlot likes clay. Much of this parcel is more granite based.
The vineyard block that we just removed made good wine, but rarely good enough make it into Linden’s flagship wine Hardscrabble Red. One lesson I’ve learned from my visits to top producers in any viticultural region is that to get to the next level of quality one has to make the tough decisions. In the Old World, where old vineyards are most prized, this means planting for the next generation.