Seasons of the Vine

By Posted on May 28 2009 | By

The skill required in growing a successful home garden earns the backyard horticulturalist the rightful claim to a green thumb. 

But, put that same skill to commercial use and your success or failure simply keeps you in business, or not. And if you happened to choose to grow the delicate European wine grape, the challenge is magnified greatly. Growing wine grapes is an exacting business. Plunge in at your own discretion.

grapes1Why all the heartache in nurturing a simple fruit like a grape? In Virginia, it’s because, frankly, the vine is not particularly fond of our neighborhood. Don’t take it personally. Virginia is still for lovers. It’s just that if it had its way, the delicate Vitis Vinifera wine species would move back to its Mediterranean and European haunts. Virginia’s climate is a bit too rustic for its noble blood.

Fortunately, there are several hundred Virginia wine growers who ignore this grapey attitude. Mighty good news for us wine drinkers. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s wine is produced from this delicate species. Without it, here in the Middle Atlantic States, we would be drinking wines made exclusively from hybrids and native fruit. In fact, for the better part of 350 years, that was the only wine crop cultivated in the Old Dominion. And even then, it was a minuscule amount. Some hybrids do make excellent wine, but much of it can’t match the finesse of the old world grapes.

In the wine industry, the winemaker is often the person to receive the accolades and gold medals. But, the vineyard manager is equally–if not more so–responsible for the finished product.  The old adage, “You don’t make great wine, you grow it,” is such a time worn expression simply because it’s true.  The job of the viticulturist is a demanding, year-round occupation and critical to the success of any winery.

So, let’s pull on our Wellingtons and spend a quick year in a virtual Virginia vineyard.

We’ll begin our internship after the harvest, which occurs in September and October.

The months of November and December are the quietest of the year. The trellis system now supports a scramble of naked vines that during the growing season held a canopy of dense leaves and grape clusters. In the early winter, however, the vines simply remind us of Phyllis Diller’s electrified hair. These vines will remain untouched until January to allow them to winter harden. During this period, maintenance of equipment, repairing the trellis system and patching holes in the deer fencing will be our primary focus. And yes, taking an occasional sip of last year’s wines, to make sure they are aging nicely, is also on the “to do” list.

In January, with the coldest part of winter upon us, we begin to venture into the vineyard and start the annual pruning. Pruning is undertaken to remove last year’s growth so as to stimulate the entire vine to produce an abundant new crop. If we did not prune, during the summer the vines would quickly be overgrown, and the quantity and quality of the fruit would decline.

Legend has it that pruning was first employed hundreds of years ago after a monk, visiting a neighboring monastery during the Christmas season, tied up his donkey to the last post in a vineyard row. The animal worked itself free and spent the day happily munching on the bare vines. Upon the return of his owner, the beast of burden had eaten its way down an entire row, now shorn of its jumble of dried vegetation. The following year, this row produced the heaviest crop of grapes, and winter pruning was recognized as a key element in establishing a successful vineyard.

With solar energy increasing each day during April and May, the vines begin to surge with life. This can be the single most fearful time of the year for us. Our enemy is a spring frost. With the buds just on the cusp of breaking open, flowering and pollinating the entire vineyard, they are extremely vulnerable to death by freezing. If this happens, our entire vineyard can be wiped out overnight. Wineries employ a variety of strategies to prevent this catastrophe from occurring; including the use of smudge pots, wind machines, and spraying water on the plants to act as an insulator. Even helicopters have been employed to sweep back and forth over a vineyard at night, forcing warmer upper air down on the shivering vines.

img_0129_2It’s with a great sigh of relief that June and July arrive. The summer will find us spraying the vines to protect them from an assortment of mildews and insects. In Virginia, sustainable agriculture is employed, not organic. Most vineyards apply chemicals and pesticides in a judicious manner. But, to attempt growing the vulnerable vines organically, without any protection from the army of beetles, aphids, fungus and mildews would be to oversee a devastated crop. More ominously, it would mean no wine. I thought you would understand.

During August we begin to see the grapes dress themselves in their traditional colors-golden yellow for the whites and deep purple for the reds. This process is called veraison, or the turning of color, and signals a softening of the fruit with a concurrent increase in sugar production. The plant is shifting from growing to flavor development. As we prowl the vineyard, we will look for clusters that are underdeveloped or excessive in number, cutting, or dropping, the fruit. This thinning process provides the vine additional energy to fully ripen the remaining crop.

In September and October, all of our labors are coming to fruition. During this period, both the vineyard manager and the winemaker regularly walk the vineyard, taking samples of the fruit and measuring and tasting its quality. Technical analysis of the levels of sugar, acid and pH are also monitored. When all of these parameters come into harmony, the signal is given to harvest.

The whites are taken in throughout September. The reds are harvested in October, to provide additional ripening time.

The actual harvest occurs during the cool morning periods, if possible. Fruit taken during the heat of the day can lessen its quality and reduce the caliber of the wine produced. During this period-called the Crush-activity at a winery is hectic. Tractors, forklifts, crusher/destemmers, presses, winery workers and thousands of frenetic bees, collide in a dance of excitement and anticipation of the wine to be created. OK, the bees are simply sugar crazy.

As the harvest draws to close and the fermenting wine joyfully bubbles away day and night, its time to slip off our boots and reflect on the year behind us. If we paid careful attention to each step in the fruit’s production, our reward will be blue ribbons and gold medals arriving in the mail next year.

mountainBut, our greatest satisfaction is knowing that our labor will provide wine lovers around the state with another vintage of enjoyment. We have successfully transformed the vine into the wine.


Published May 28, 2009, in the Culpeper Times

Categories : WINE ARTICLES