The effects of Vineyard Management are critically important, but not always easy to recognize. They usually impact wine structure: Acidity, Tannins, Alcohol, Complexity, Phenolic Development and Mouth-Feel. Choosing one practice, over another… often has little to do with science. A limited amount of empirical scientific data is available on this topic and terroir differences often demand widely different approaches. It is difficult to settle on universal best practices. These are the reasons wineries often depend on individuals with extensive experience in the local region. Does implementing these ideas have a direct observable connection to quality? Perhaps yes… at the very least, these ideas can impact the character of wine from individual vineyards. Here is a very recognizable example:
Italian producers have been converting old pergola style trellising (photos above) to head-trained systems (i.e guyot). This has been a major factor in the on-going improvement in consistent quality across Italian vintages. Head-trained vines make it much easier to employ pruning strategies throughout the growing season. A major factor in accommodating annual climate variation.
Harvest Yield Management
Vineyard managers typically have experience with enough harvest variation to get a feel for the tonnage of quality fruit their vineyards can produce. Too big a yield, and the vines don’t seem to focus on producing concentrated flavors and complexity. Too small a yield and the vineyard is not financially viable to farm. In some locations, the government dictates the yield, if the winery wants to put the appellation name on the label. Yield is a reasonable indicator of basic quality. Anything over 4 tons per acre will be approaching bulk wine territory. Most premium wineries drop anywhere from a quarter to half the berries in the field every year.
Fertilization and soil prep is a scary idea in a vineyard. Grape vines are highly efficient at growing successfully in very poor conditions, so any small change tends to have a big impact. The idea here is NOT for the vines to grow more vigorously. The optimum conditions desired for increasing harvest yield is the exact opposite of what is desired. Although, soil prep before planting vines is very common and usually deals with soil pH and plant metabolism. For example, in many wine growing areas in Arizona, it is critical that calcium carbonate and/or magnesium carbonate be mixed into the soil. So called “liming” of the soil is a vineyard tradition that has been practiced for hundreds of years. Higher pH soils tend to add acidity to the fruit, a critical component in quality wines.
Pruning Strategies and Row Orientation
This approach is more recent. Canopy management as a criteria for producing quality fruit is a strategy that requires a significant amount of pruning labor (high cost) and therefore is mostly employed in the premium and ultra-premium wine categories. A few years ago, I interviewed Jim Duane, winemaker and vineyard manager at Seavey Vineyards in Napa Valley. With a BS in Biology and a focus on botany, he spoke passionately about meticulously pruning the vines and modifying the canopy to match each vintage’s growing conditions. The row direction decision is now made based on optimizing drainage and improving direct sun availability. Vineyards planted on relatively flat acreage in the last 20 years are almost always planted with North-South facing rows to maximize consistent sun exposure. The vineyard in the photo above is planted down the rise and is unusual in recent times. Rows today are usually planted across the rise to facilitate optimal drainage. These ideas have become common practice in the U.S., although not as pervasive in Europe.
Single pass harvesting is the standard in the industry, but in the premium and ultra-premium category that is changing. Paloma Vineyard is an estate winery in Napa Valley that takes this idea to the extreme. Harvesting over extended periods of time, tracking rows and blocks for ripeness, or desired character. They have planted different clones of Merlot and vary the harvest timing as necessary for each. In addition, they bring in blocks early to improve structure and others later to enhance flavors. This is very labor intensive and must be a challenge to manage every year… but the results are hard to argue with… Paloma achieved a Wine Spectator #1 wine in the world rating in 2003 and regularly earns 95-100 scores every vintage. By the way, if you are lucky enough to catch a visit with the owner Barbara, you will get an in-depth peak into the life of a winemaker as farmer and the lifestyle that comes along with it!
This is an Old World versus New World discussion. Many vineyards are still planted and grown the old traditional ways in Europe, i.e. Pergola (Italy), Gobelet (Spain), etc. I have seen 75 – 100 year old Zinfandel vines in Sonoma County trained in the Gobelet method. See a photo of a Gobelet trained vineyard in Spain above. These Old World style methods make no sense to me for fine wine. Head training (Guyot method & similar) clearly provides better opportunity to employ detailed pruning strategies. Oh well, I am sure THAT will start an argument with a winery in Europe somewhere…
Terra-Forming, Terracing and Vine Spacing
I love the photo from Pride Mountain Vineyards above… Let me describe why this vineyard is so different:
This is a terra-formed terraced vineyard with a double row planting across the rise and a tight vine spacing layout. The vines in the front of the row produce riper fruit. Those in the back struggle and the fruit is more austere and structured. Everything in a Bordeaux varietal vineyard you could ever want, all in one place. This vineyard produces amazing wine. I doubt many vineyard owners would go to the expense of preparing a vineyard site this way.
Irrigation and Dry Farming
This is another one that will get me in trouble… This is one idea where I agree with the Old World thinking. In my experience, having tasted thousands of wines… There is a noticeable difference in wines from dry-farmed fruit versus irrigated. Why is there a difference? Is there verifiable science behind it? Not likely, but if I were to guess… dry-farmed vines struggle more, the roots drive deeper into the earth and build additional complexity in the wine?
I have had quite enough of what has turned into a very lengthy discussion. There were literally too many contributing factors affecting wine flavors and structure to even scratch the surface in these few pieces. I hope the examples provided and the recommendations offered made the information a little less dry and I apologize to the Old World Wineries in advance for representing their growing regions poorly. I just haven’t interviewed enough European winemakers to understand their local wine growing practices in this kind of detail. It is my hope to rectify that someday 🙂 Anyone interested in subsidizing an old Sommelier to make a trip (or two) over to wineries in Europe? Strictly in the interest of discovery and wine research to educate a U.S. wine industry thirsting for knowledge…