In a sense, so much of the year’s labors have led directly to this point. Harvest. This year we have walked with you through how the rains of this past winter impacted the vineyards, the decisions that affect the living vine and how that vine will produce for years to come, the importance of pruning and leaf thinning and how these processes contribute to yielding grapes that are ripe and sweet and ideal for making wine.
As it is with most of the wine making experience, Harvest is a balance of knowledge, instinct, and experience. Our winemakers have honed their physical senses to determine the optimal time to pick the grapes from the vine and combine their senses with their scientific knowledge. From the color of the grapes, to the texture and taste, and even the scent in the air, all signs indicate that we have entered the harvest season.
The cool night air will protect the grapes across various vineyards as workers race the dawn to bring in the harvest. The sweet scent of fermentation will permeate the air and, if you have never experienced harvest, there is nothing quite like the smell. For the next few months, the wineries along Amador’s First Wine Trail will be focusing our efforts to bringing in this year’s yield of grapes and crafting the next vintage of your favorite wines. And we invite you to come join us as we do so.
The nine wineries along the trail offer a diverse look into Amador county winemaking, and you don’t want to miss this exciting stage of the process. Come into the tasting rooms and experience the culmination of past harvests, and then come and visit us at some of the local celebrations of wine, like the 25th Annual Big Crush Harvest Festival.
Canopy Management is a very official-sounding term for pulling leaves off of vines. Also referred to as "leaf thinning" or "leafing" it is the practice of managing the green growth in a vine to keep in balance with the fruit growth. Too much vegetation, and the grape clusters are hidden in the shadows and will not ripen evenly or productively.
Another benefit leaf thinning offers is assistance with air circulation. Lack of air circulation from too many leaves is a factor in the development of powdery mildew (which can also lead to bunch rot).
Interestingly, more vegetal growth does contribute to a wine's "vegetal" taste, but not in how you'd think. Chemical compounds are responsible for vegetal or herbaceous characters in some wines, chiefly the class of pyrazines called methoxypyrazines, or MP. MP creates the familiar green pepper/green bean aromas associated with many Bordeaux-type varieties. These chemical compounds break down in light. Several studies have revealed a strong relationship between exposure to light and decrease in MP content. So if the grape clusters receive light, not only do they ripen and gain red/black berry aromas, jam aromas, fresh fruit aromas, and fruity flavors, but the "green taste" that we associate with unripe grapes also dissipates.
So, now we know more light is good, but this doesn't mean we want the clusters to get sunburned, either. It can easily get over 100 degrees in Amador county, and if not protected, the rays can damage the fruit, as well as the overall plant. If the climate is hot and sunny, like California's, the goal is for the clusters to be shaded by leaves for about half the daylight hours.
Deciding where and when to remove leaves is a complicated task. The vineyard managers sit down with teams and look how can they can achieve the desired "appled" light effect - or get good light penetration to the clusters at different points of the year. They will strategize where and how they're going to leaf each plant because there are many row directions as well as elevations and exposures. For instance, if you have an east west row direction, then they would typically leaf on the North side which will allow the afternoon sun, or the South side, to be protected from the high-intensity head of the afternoon and evening.
And this might change over the course of the year. They might look at a vineyard in July when the sun might be hottest on the morning side, but by September or even into October the heat might be on the opposite side of the vine. So then they might go in and do a second "leafing" to remove leaves on the interior part of the canopy to create this nice micro-climate environment for the grape cluster.
We just got out of one of the wettest winters in history here in Northern California. Many have been asking what impact all the rains have on the vines. The reality is…not much. Grapevines go dormant in the winter, and can actually tolerate being submerged for around 20 days. In fact, the French once used vineyard flooding to control the Phylloxera root pest. The recent Northern California rains we short lived and spread out nicely. The biggest concern was erosion. Everyone was keeping an eye on trees, slopes and vineyard architecture like posts and trellises to ensure any shifting ground didn’t topple things to the ground. By now, most areas have recovered nicely and vineyard reservoirs are full and our water tables are ready for a bountiful 2017 harvest.
For our entire state it’s pretty amazing to finally see our creeks full and so much green natural all around! After years of drought and vines struggling under the dry conditions we are happy to see this turn-around. Many wine producers all over the state has agreed they will take the continued rain over no rain at all, because it’s good overall. It’s a great feeling to get some “seasons” back.
Many people in Northern California are complaining about the rain this year. But, we love the rain. You see, here in Amador County, we only get rain two, maybe three, months of the year. So, during that time, we need to fill up the water reserves and fill the clay soil as much as possible to sustain us through the growing season ahead. And, while the vines may look like they're taking advance of the rain and sleeping in late this time of the year, they are actually getting ready to explode out of their shells.
It is during the month of February you will typically see pruning in the vineyards. It can be argued that pruning is the most important process a vineyard worker can do to ensure vine health and the quality of the eventual wine. How a vine is pruned determine how many buds will develop, clusters will grow, and if the vine will be in "balance".
Balance is what we all strive for, of course, but especially a vine. If, when pruning, a worker leaves too few buds, then only a few clusters develop. This means the leaves and tendrils can go wild. The vine has a dis-proportionate amount of energy going to leaves causing overly "vegetal" growth. Too many leaves mean that the struggling existing clusters don't get to the sunlight, and green pepper or vegetal qualities can seep into the wine.
Too many buds left on the vine means there are too many clusters in proportion to the leaves and tendrils. The photosynthesis in the leaves can't keep up with the needs of the ripening fruit, leaving the fruit undeveloped and lacking complexity and depth. Or, the clusters are unprotected from too few leaves, and sunburn or raisining results.
This isn't the end of the decisions. There are actually several different methods of pruning and subsequent "training". (Training is how the vines that will grow from the vine will be managed during the growing season.) These systems have complicated names like "low-head bilateral cordon". To go into the different types takes a semester at a good viticulture college to learn, and a lifetime to perfect, but basically it depends on the plant and the location. If the vine is in a location with good ground water, or a steep slope, you may choose to prune in a different manner to affect the growth of the eventual fruit and vine to give it the best chance of balance. Likewise, not all varietals are the same. An early-budding varietal, or a particularly vegetal varietal might be pruned differently than each other to help control growth.
Not to add any more pressure, but being a living thing, vines have scars and growth. Meaning pruning marks build on each other year over year. So, the cuts the vineyard workers make this year will affect a vine for years to come.
So, while it may look like quiet vineyards hibernating in the rain, February is actual a vital month in the 2017 growing season. While it may seem cruel to severely cut back the vines to naked little stubs this time of year, it is absolutely critical to the vine health, the vitality of the leaves and fruit, and the quality of the glass.
So, happy snipping!
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