The Hardscrabble Journal

Why I love to prune grapevines

I’m now used to the puzzled looks in reaction to my declaration that pruning is my favorite vineyard activity. So I’ve been working on an explanation that makes sense of it all.

The three months of November, December, and January are my least active time in the vines. This is just as well as both parties need a rest. In February, as the days lengthen and temperatures moderate, there is a magnetic pull to the vineyard. It is a sort of reunion. After months of cellar work, firewood, desk-work and relaxation, my focus returns to the vines. Just walking a few rows I am reminded of the previous growing season. Last year was very dry and it shows in the vines, as the canes are smaller and shorter than normal.

But it is not until the pruning starts in earnest that we really get reacquainted in an intimate way with the vines. Each vine is an individual and needs to be evaluated for both form and function. Form refers to the shape of the vine. There should be some consistency of a system so that any experience pruner can “read’ the vine and know how to approach the pruning. Over the years vines can grow out of a given desired shape and they may need to be severely cut back in order to reestablish form. Most people have trouble doing this because it is drastic and reduces yields in the short run. I however love it and find it intellectually challenging. This is why I try to focus more on older “problem” blocks.

Next is pruning for function, also referred to as balanced pruning. Each vine has a vigor and yield potential that can be quickly determined by looking at last year’ growth. Cane numbers, their size, internode length, lateral production are evaluated. Then the vine is pruned accordingly. For weak vines only a handful of buds are retained with the goal of rejuvenating their strength. Moderate vines are pruned classically with great satisfaction. Excessively strong vines are problematic and may require leaving extra “parts” to channel all the vigor, which never ends well, is tough to manage during the growing season, and usually produces poor quality grapes.

There is a certain degree of excitement and challenge as one moves slowly down a vineyard row from one vine to the next. Both the pruning shears and the mind need to be sharp. Once we are “in the groove” we prune one vine every one or two minutes. No time to linger over decision-making. Gut feel and intuition prevail.

week of 2/19/18:Soils, Slopes, and Great Red Wines

I’ve had an article in my head for the past couple of years. Last month I was contacted by Linda McKee, editor of Wines and Vines, a well respected trade journal. She wanted to know if I would be interested in writing another piece (I wrote something for W&V last year). The subject would be on the relationship of vines, soils and slopes. But this was too broad and I needed to narrow the focus. I decided to write about what I have learned about fine red wine growing at Linden (Hardscrabble specifically) over the past three decades and how vineyard planting decisions significantly determine red wine quality over the life of the vineyard.

I also needed some corroboration from colleagues who were also doing some good work on understanding soil/vine relationships at their perspective vineyards. So a group of us from RdV, Linden and Barboursville met last Friday and talked and tasted and learned from each other. We focused on the four Bordeaux varieties that we all grow and use for the blending of our top wines (Barboursville Octagon, RdV Lost Mountain and Linden Hardscrabble): Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

I was relieved that there was consensus. Each operation is fine-tuning their plantings according to the soils and slopes on their farms. This may not sound like a big deal to some, but the progress we have made in the last few decades is outstanding. Most of the future quality improvements of Virginia red wines will be related to this notion. I’ll post the article after it comes out, probably in a few months.

week of 2/12/18: learning by looking backwards

In youth I looked forward: new Lyre training systems in the vineyard and fancy high tech dejuicing tanks in the cellar. With age I find myself looking backwards. Linden’s winemaking has become boringly traditional and the vineyard now looks more like Barolo rather than New Zealand.

Perhaps that is why I am embracing a new/old pruning technique that I will refer to as Lafon. Rene Lafon wrote a technical pamphlet in 1921 detailing a new pruning system that would allow vines to have a longer and healthier productive life. I had read about a modern revival of this system in Europe in reaction to an increase in severity of wood diseases in many vineyards. Luck would have it that last year an Italian pruning consultant specializing in the Lafon method to Barboursville Winery paid visit to Linden (via Barboursville: thank you Luca) just as pruning was starting. I decided to dedicate a young block of Petit Manseng to the Lafon system. I had some skepticism at first, but now I am starting to understand the benefits, especially in our climate. This system will not work in our older, widely spaced vineyard blocks, but looks promising for our locks that are less than 15 years old (planted at 3 to 4 feet between vines. My goal is to have most of these blocks converted to the Lafon system within three years.

week of 2/5/18: dressed to prune

As much as we love winter, pruning this week spurred a longing for at least a hint of spring. So far this year pruning has been a slow process. The weather has not been extremely cold, but it has been windy, cloudy and dreary. Motivation has been lacking under these conditions.

Often the biggest cold weather obstacle is dressing appropriately. Cold day pruning involves a full body insulated coverall that adds about 20 pounds and reduces mobility about 80% (Shari calls these “Fat Boy suits’). We also have to put on our very heavy duty super insulated boots (I call “Moon Boots”) which seem to weight in at an additional 20 pounds and makes driving a manual clutch downright dangerous. Then there are the scarves, hats, and insulated gloves. Face-masks and heating pads for gloves and boots are optional.

On these days we try to prune blocks located close to the winery, as full garb long walks can be exhausting. Pruning involves bending down to cut ground level suckers along with reaching up to pull canes off of high wires. This is not a problem if one is wearing a light jacket and work boots, but when dressed like an astronaut it can be exhausting.

week of 1/26/18: KS, the Evolution of a New Wine

This week was white barrel topping week. Once a month we top off all barrels. Because of evaporation through the oak staves, each barrel loses about a half a liter of wine (angel’s share). To prevent exposure of air to the wine’s surface, we fill each barrel’s head space with the appropriate wine. Next week we do the same with the red barrels. Topping day gives us the opportunity to taste, as every barrel will be “un-bunged”.

This week Jonathan methodically took  lots of samples. That afternoon in the library, we did an organoleptic evaluation of each barrel (fancy phrase for ‘taste’!). Our main objective was to wrap our heads around a new white blended wine that for the time being we are calling KS, or Kitchen Sink. This is not an inspiring name, but it is the best we could come up with in the middle of harvest when it came time to label the barrels.

Vintage 2017 presented us with many small lots of unusual and very intense white wines. We made last minute picking and crushing decisions based of the quality of the grapes rather than having a particular wine or wine style in mind. Now comes the job of figuring out how all the pieces can come together. We have a very concentrated dry Vidal from Hardscrabble, an already blended Viognier/Chardonnay from part of a parcel at the Boisseau Vineyard, some Hardscrabble Semillon and perhaps some Petit Manseng. This eventual blend will be a reflection of the vintage: high alcohol and lots of density and intensity. A white Chateauneuf-du-Pape comes to mind.

In any case, this week’s tasting was only food for thought. We have a month to contemplate, then in late February we can hopefully put a blend together. Not sure when we will bottle. Seems that the wine will need a fair amount of time to marry the components. We are in no hurry.

week of 1/22/18: pruning and tasting

Weather and health determines so much of how our work week evolves. This week was scheduled to be an important tasting/blending time for the 2017 white wines. However, Jonathan came down with a cold/flu. One can’t make important winemaking decisions if one cannot taste properly. This kind of delay is common at this time of year.

We in the industry make a point of tasting quite a lot in the winter. Because we have time. Once we get into March our time in the vineyard becomes more precious. On Monday a number of winemaking colleagues got together at my house for lunch, discussion and blind tasting of Chardonnays from Burgundy, California and Virginia. It is critical to taste our wines alongside benchmark examples. On Thursday I did the same with Bordeaux blends. I included Linden’s Hardscrabble Red 2014 and 2015 to see how they presented themselves in a grouping. The 2014 is still tight and disjointed, but the 2015 is more approachable. We will release the 2015 before the 2014.

A mild week gave me plenty of pruning opportunities. We are making good progress and are ahead of schedule. This is good because we have a big planting to do in early spring which will leave little time to finish up the pruning and tying. We are also in the process of taking budwood cuttings to be grafted by Wiemer Nursery up in the Finger Lakes. The vines we will plant in March are from buds we took last winter.

 

Week of 1/15/18: bottling

Bottling is the culmination of several years of winegrowing effort. For this reason it is arguably the most stressful aspect of winemaking. There are a lot of moving parts and players. Everything has to come together with perfect synchronicity.

Timing of bottling is important. This past week we bottled Claret and Petit Verdot 2016. We used to bottle these wines after 20 months in barrel, but have now shortened the interval to 15 months. This reflects a stylistic change and a respect for the vintage: we want to capture the fruit and freshness that the 2016 vintage gave us.

There is also a logistical aspect for choosing the week. It was very cold and windy, therefor difficult to do any vineyard work. Best to stay inside and bottle. The bottles were delivered back in December. We need to get them here before any chance of snow as a loaded 53 foot tractor trailer on our snow packed steep windy lane would not have a good outcome.

The “North Cellar” where we set up our bottling line is underground, but still susceptible to water pipe freezing. And that it did the week before bottling. Fortunately we had a brief thaw and were able to repair the burst pipes.

The bottling line has not run since August. I’m always amazed at what can go wrong as a piece of equipment just sits dormant. But we can count on some sort of problems went we start her up. Jonathan is well versed in our GAI Italian bottling line, but all it takes is one cracked “O” ring to stop the bottling.

This week my final concern was getting all the staff here on the first day of bottling. Snow was predicted that morning and these mountain roads can be dangerous. Fortunately we got just a dusting. Bottom line, we had a gloriously boring two days of bottling (with one “O” ring induced hiccup). That’s as good as it gets!

January 8-14

A temporary thaw did not thwart us from ice skating on the farm pond. Looks like we will have another opportunity later this week. Yesterday temps hit the 60sF. Tomorrow morning predictions are for the single digits. I’m hoping that the warm up was too short to de-acclimate the vines. Always reason to worry.

We got some pruning in. Working on the Late Harvest block which is an interplanted block of 34 year old Vidal vines and younger Petit Manseng. We are cutting back harder than usual as last year’s dry summer made for smaller vines. This block is a candidate for the magic potion: chicken manure.

We did a lot of tasting this week. Blending trials focused on Hardscrabble Red 2017. Looks like a majority of the barrels will make it to the blend with (as usual) Cabernet Sauvignon being the majority. We are still going back and forth between a more finessed blend or a more structured, powerful version. Press wine inclusion will be a deciding factor.

Also held a great tasting with the RdV staff. We did a “first/second” tasting. Two wines blind, one of which is the winery’s flagship wine, the other a lesser wine of the same type and from the same year. We tasted three flights of white Burgundies, Bordeaux, a Zin, and Barolo. I was very consistent: incorrect in my guesses. We learn more from being incorrect than from being right, so I learned a lot!

Week of January 1-7 2018

This has been the coldest week I can remember since 1994. The pond has frozen enough for ice skating and most outside wall water pipes have frozen. However, we are not too concerned about any vine damage as the coldest temperatures have “only” been in the low single digits. Additionally the cold came gradually and the vines are at peak cold hardiness. If this would have happened in late February it would be a different story.

Under these circumstances our vines can handle about -5F. They aren’t affected by wind chill factors. But we are. This has been a very physically inactive week. Nothing happening outside. Cabin fever has yet to be much of an issue due to a lot of good books and waning holiday activities. We have copious amounts of firewood stacked and the pruning can wait for nicer days. Fortunately there has been only a trace of snow, so snow removal has not been a factor.

We had put barrels of wine outside to chill. if the wine temperature gets down to the high 20sF for a period of time they become cold stable and won’t throw tartrates (wine diamonds) later in the bottle. However we brought them inside earlier this week in response to my nightmares of exploding barrels and frozen wine running on the crush pad floor.

This week is Linden’s traditional start of blending trials. We have started with Boisseau and Avenius reds (all 2017). This vintage is an easy one to blend as we have so much good material to work with. Shari, Jonathan, Richard and I get together at 3:00 and first taste taste through every barrel (of Boisseau in this case). We take notes and discuss the merits and deficiencies of each barrel, then start with three possible blends, tasted blind. After two days we came pretty close, but we weren’t comfortable enough to make the final decision, so will re-visit in February.

The Avenius lots were much easier as the Cabernet and Merlot had great synergy. The first blending attempt was spot on, but ultimately we ended up kicking out one barrel of Merlot in order to increase the % of Cabernet and give more density to the wine.

Hardscrabble blending this coming week.

 

Extraction

With the exception of one stubborn lot, The Merlots and Cabernet Francs are finished fermenting. We start our “two day tastings” today. Every two days Jonathan takes two samples of each bin we taste for the progression of tannin extraction by tasting the most recent sample along side the sample taken two days prior. We are looking for a positive progression both in mid palate density and tannin length. At the same time, we want to drain and press before the wine picks up bitterness and “gout de marc” (taste of the pomace).

The Cabernet Sauvignons and Petit Verdots are now in mid-fermentation. We have transitioned from daily pump-overs to twice a day punch downs. The Cabs are fermenting warm (around 29 C or 84 F), while the Petit Verdots are kept cooler ( 25 C or 77 F). Normally we are very hands off with Petit Verdot for fear of over extraction of rustic tannins, but this year the skins have some nice flavors and tannin maturity, so we may push it a bit.