Old “saws” attempt to reduce wine making to a sound bite. For example, you have probably heard, “good wine is made in the vineyard” or “you cannot make good wine from bad grapes” or still another, “you can make bad wine from good grapes but you cannot make good wine from bad grapes.” They remind one of that question dealing with eggs and/or fried chicken.
Some winemakers lay shortcomings of their wines at the foot of the vineyard manager and a few vineyard managers maintain that a winemaker goofed and destroyed flavorful grape harvest by making less than a double gold medal wine! Hey folks — fermentation happens! The vineyard and winery are properly viewed as one entity, two sides of same coin. What happens in the vineyard will continue to happen in the winery and ultimately in the consumer’s glass — it is a continuous, inseparable process. Ultimately, the winegrower’s job is to grow the best grapes possible and not mess them up in the wine making process — it is a delicate balance.
That being said, this time of year is “make it or break it” time in area vineyards. Most bottling is done and the winery stands relatively quiet. Not so in the vineyard. The vines are in bloom, post-bloom and “fruit-set” from mid-May to mid-June. The nascent grape berries become visible at this time and attain ‘BB’ size, in other words, the current vintage becomes visible. While rain is generally looked upon favorably by most farmers, winegrowers know their grapevines need only a fraction of that required by other crops like corn and soybeans and most vegetables. As a matter of fact, grapes can survive and thrive with about 400-700 mm (15-27 inches) of rainfall per year. Some Yadkin Valley vineyards have received over nine inches in the month of May alone! Vineyard workers and smart, savvy, proactive winemakers are in the field this time of year. In fact, in most of Yadkin Valley vineyards those people are the same person! These winegrowers realize that what happens in the vineyard now will enhance and ensure a good harvest and enable a great wine.
This seasonal stage of the vine’s growth is referred to as the “grand period of growth” and vines canes can grow over an inch in 24 hours! So the vines are indeed “growing like kudzu,” but what we want are grapes — sweet, flavorful, aromatic and in the case of red varieties, we want rich, dark colorful grapes — not lush foliage! Winegrowers must go through the vineyard row by row and move wires that hold the vine’s shoot upright, remove leaves from around each cluster to allow sunlight and air to reach them, hedge/trim the shoots as they grow beyond the trellis, spray to control weeds and insects. Also, fungal diseases such as powdery mildew, downy mildew, phomopsis and botrytis are major threats at this time and the threat of infection is exacerbated by rain and humidity. Another disease, black rot, is prevalent at this time of year, and if you happen to have some grapes in your backyard that never ripen without rotting, then you have likely felt the pain of the winegrower who is less than vigilant at this time of year. But, the difference between those backyard grapes and a commercial winegrower who allows black rot to happen may be the success or failure of his/her business. Busy? If you grow grapes you are!
Finally, please know that the observations and tasks I have attempted to describe/explain here have been empirically and experientially proven to some degree. And, despite a late damaging frost that hurt many early varieties, such as Chardonnay — the 2016 Yadkin Valley vintage is progressing nicely. But as the “old saw” goes, “Ask three winemakers their opinion and you will get four answers.”
Gill Giese is the winemaker at Shelton Vineyards in Dobson.