Spring is finally here, and we’ve put new bedding in our hawk-houses and pairs have claimed their homes. Luckily our vineyard crew had been hard at work in our vineyard in January so when the Snow- apocalypse came in February our pruning had mostly been completed. We were snowbound for four weeks and 4-5 feet in many places. Normally we get 5 inches of rainfall per year and very little snow, so this was quite a February to remember.
Back to pruning! The actual portion of the vines which produce the grapes are called 'canes', and these grow off the cordon of older vines. We prune to two buds which gives us the best crop size for our vineyard and the choice and length of the pruning supports the size of the crop. Once the vines are producing grapes, we’ll also hand thin to make sure we have the best crop.
Controlling the direction of the growth is important in the new vines to give easy access for air flow management, sun management, and provide adequate support for stress-free vines. When young vines are being trained, the green tape helps to hold the two producing vines, or 'cordon', to the wire. Our smallest vines still have milk cartons around the base, which we use in lieu of snow banks to help keep the young vines insulated during the winter. We purchase end-run or over-stock milk cartons from various dairies, and the waxy paper stands up to the water and helps keep the vines protected from wind, snow, and nosy small animals. After two or three years the vines are strong enough, and the tattered milk cartons are collected, their work is done.
Spring is in the air and with new bedding in our hawk-houses they have been receiving attention. Rabbits are scurrying around the vineyard and the sun even shines every other day or so. Our vineyard crew has been hard at work in our vineyard for the new year. James has been on the tractor with the mechanical pre-pruner to cut the longest vines, but the vines still require hand pruning. The actual portion of the vines which produce the grapes are called 'canes', and these grow off the cordon as pictured on the older vines. We prune to two buds which gives us the best crop size for our vineyard and the choice and length of the pruning supports the size of the crop. In apples or other tree fruits, this type of management would be handled through thinning of blossoms later in the growing cycle. Once the grapes are producing we’ll also hand thin to make sure we have the best crop.
We began our 2017 harvest with our Sauvignon Blanc. We harvest most of our vineyards with our mechanical grape harvester. It is a tall machine that straddles the trellis and uses special plastic rods, called bows, to shake the grapes off the vine. Depending on varietal this shaking will remove only the grapes and some leaves, leaving behind the rachis, which is the structure that holds the berries in a cluster. The harvester has a bucket conveyer on each side of the vine that the grapes fall in, which then carries them to another tractor with bins. A harvester can either be self-propelled or towed by a tractor and ours is pulled by a tractor because our vineyards have some steep slopes. We do still hand harvest of some of our steepest rows. When it comes to picking grapes, harvesting by machine is the most efficient method of removing grapes from the vines. In our vineyards, we can do roughly an acre an hour, so between 2-4 tons of grapes. In most cases the grapes go from being on the vine, crushed and into a tank for fermentation in a limited amount of time often less than an hour. Grapes that are picked by hand take more time because the grapes sit in bins under the vines until the bins can be picked up and taken to the winery.
Another reason we find the machine harvester a success is that our winemaker, Joe, can “blend” from the vineyard by choosing which rows be wants picked on any given day.
An example of a rachis after mechanical harvesting. Even though the grapes are gone, the leaves around are still whole and undamaged.
In viticulture (grape-growing), veraison is the onset of ripening. Veraison (pronounced, veh-ray-zuhn) marks the stage in vine ripening when the grapes go from little, hard green berries to softer, colored grapes. The term is originally French (véraison), but has been adopted into English use. The official definition of veraison is "change of color of the grape berries".
This time of year is highly anticipated. We have been monitoring weather, searching and waiting for the first signs of color in the clusters. These two pictures were taken about one week apart in our vineyard.
When the little berries begin, the acid content is much higher than sugar. During veraison, the sugar content increases and acid decreases, making the berries softer and plumper, looking more like actual grapes. This is a pretty important stage in winegrowing. Veraison is a physiological stage in the vine life cycle that is marked by a change in the appearance and hardness of the grape berry. Till now, the grapes looked like little green peas. Veraison takes them from this stage to actual grape stage. For white varieties, this means that they become a softer, transparent yellow-green color. For red varieties, it’s more obvious, taking the grape from bright green to red or purple. Up until now, the berries are very firm. Once they get through veraison, the berries are pliable and this elasticity is one of the only ways to observe veraison in white wine grapes.
As a general rule, once grapes complete veraison, they will be ripe and ready to harvest in about six weeks. Veraison typically takes 5-7 days to complete. The interval from veraison to harvest is different for each varietal, and is largely dependent on heat accumulation and crop size. Merlot takes fewer heat units to ripen than Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
In the case of both white and red grapes used in winemaking, the onset of veraison marks the end of grape skin cell division. Once it is finished, the grape skin cell number is fixed. A smaller number of skin cells generally mean smaller berries. A small berry has a better skin to juice ratio that ensures a better concentration of flavor and structure, something that’s very important in quality winemaking.
From this point on, the berries just keep ripening to become the perfect grape for our future wine and the busy time begins!