A Tale of Two Syrahs
It was the best of vines, it was the worst of vines, it was the age of black ink, it was the age of red ink, it was the epoch of sustainability, it was the epoch of insolvency, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Sunburn, it was the spring of a perfect set, it was the winter of hard freezes, we had great wines before us, we had raisins before us, we were all going direct to the Harvest Fair, we were all going direct the other way to Bakersfield.
Vine Balance – Dispelling the Myth: Good Wines ONLY Come from Low-Yielding Vineyards
High quality wines are produced from winegrapes that are in balance with regards to their chemical and flavor characteristics—sugar and TA levels are not at either extreme; a little bit of “green” or “cat pee” can be OK. In turn, balanced winegrapes come from balanced vines AND vineyards.
Jim Wolpert proposed a working definition of Vine Balance: 1 – vine shoot growth provides enough lea area to properly ripen the crop, and 2 – crop per acre meets a rower’s and vintner’s goals. These two components vine balance are affected by: 1 – Choices made at the time of planting (soil, rootstock/scion), spacing and trellis; and 2 – Choices made during annual cultural practices (pruning, canopy management, irrigation, nutrient application, and weed / cover crops).
While not explicit in Woldpert definition of Vine Balance, I believe he hints at the importance of economical sustainability—the vine growth should fill the trellis and be appropriate to the initial vine spacing. If growers have large gaps between cordon arms or, conversely, excessively vigorous shoots that overlap, yields and perhaps quality will be diminished.
I would add that Vine Balance can be recognized when vegetative growth is sufficient to mature the fruit to complementary juice chemical and flavor characteristics.
Following the choices made to establish a vineyard, dormant pruning is widely viewed as the single most important cultural practice that affects vine balance. Prune too severely and there will be insufficient grapes to limit / slow shoot growth and the vine becomes unbalanced with excess vigor. Leave too many buds during pruning and the excess crop load cannot be matured / balance by weak shoot growth. The capacity of a vine is a balance between crop load and canopy size.
Obviously, pruning is not the only tool used to affect vine balance on an annual basis; shoot and crop thinning practices allow the grower to fine tune crop levels to match canopy and shoot growth. Furthermore, growers have a great influence on canopy size through irrigation and nutrient management. Excess applications of water and/or nitrogen will yield unbalance vines and poor quality winegrapes.
But, Wolpert makes the point that to a great degree, vines are self regulating. I agree, but, I won’t go into the details here. But consider that mechanically pruned vines in Sonoma County, with over 100 buds per vine, have been producing $25 bottles of wine for the last decade.
By and large, sustainable winegrape growers are seeking to produce “balanced vines” with as few inputs as possible. It troubles me to see growers attempting to balance their vines by applying the gas pedal and the brake at the same time to their vines. For example, you may have seen this vineyard: weed control is achieved through multiple discings, the drip irrigation system is turned on in May and runs through Halloween, and then the hand crews are furiously removing shoots while the cane cutters make a few more passes through the vineyard. I suggest that the proper cover crop and irrigation management strategies would eliminate much of the hand labor and cane cutting.
The sustainable economic bottom line for winegrowers is improved by: increasing returns / yields / price; and lowering cost / inputs. Minimizing passes through a vineyard are within the control of growers. Grape prices are difficult to affect.
I see a beautiful vineyard and a brilliant crew rising from this valley, and, in their struggles to be truly great vignerons, we will make great wine.
North Coast growers are blessed with a remarkable climate and soils that are well suited to winegrape production. Let us compare our region to, say, Bordeaux. I believe the vignerons near Pauiliac would love to grow vines with our moderate climate—dry summers and great fall ripening weather (a la 2012 & 2013) — AND, the sublime gift of irrigation.
Yet, our French cousins do make some wonderful wines, at least, every couple of vintages or so. How do they do it?
I submit that the Bordelaise grow balanced vines based on their millennia of experience. Specifically, they match their, climate, soils, varietals/rootstocks, vineyard layout and annual cultural practices to achieve what should be a balanced vine two out of every three years. God willing. And, they perform this feat while being prohibited to irrigate.
So, how did California winegrowers and winemakers come to believe in the myth that good wines come from dry farmed vineyards that may not yield more than 3 tons per acre? I believe that our lack of experience compelled us to seek guidance from our European forefathers.
But, transplanting the French winegrowing strategy to California does do hold true to breed in the New World. For example, let us use a French style vineyard layout of 1m by 2m planted to Merlot on 101-14. Let us then replicate this layout by planting vineyards in Calistoga, Kelseyville and Clovis. Without extraordinary inputs and management, I doubt any of these three vineyards would produce acceptable wines.
Why should the wines from these three hypothetical vineyards be so poor? Because these vineyards would be unbalanced.
Since the mid 1990s, the consumer’s willingness to pay premium prices for higher quality wines has given impetus to great strides in California viticultural practices. California winegrapes have widely adopted cultural practices that were rare or unheard of a generation ago. Allow me to list a few: drip irrigation, canopy management, mechanization (harvesting, leafing, and some pruning), varietal / clone / rootstock selection, vine spacing, trellis designs, IPM and training /education.
Sustainable winegrape growing should not just a set of prescriptive practices and products (pesticides & fertilizers). As the saying goes, “There are a thousand ways to skin a vineyard.” Sustainable winegrowing is a process towards continuous improvement. North Coast winegrowers should always be striving to improve their vineyards to meet the evolving demands of our customers.
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better balanced vineyard that I go to than I have ever known.
Jim Wolpert. Vine Balance and the Role of Vineyard Design. February 23, 2011. Sonoma County Grape Day.
Kliewer, W. M. and N. K. Dokoozlian. 2000. Leaf area/crop weight ratios of grapevines: Influence of fruit composition and wine quality. In: Proceedings of the ASEV 50th Anniversary Annual Meeting, American Society for Enology and Viticulture, Davis, CA. (also: American Journal for Enology and Viticulture 56:170-181. 2005)
Integrated Weed Management UC Pest Management Guidelines, University of California
Mark L. Chien 2009. Vine Size and Balance and Balanced Pruning. Penn State Cooperative Extension.
Ohmart CP. 2011. A View from the Vineyard: A Practical Guide to Sustainable Wine Grape Growing. Wine Appreciation Guild.