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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Harvest season

This year Mother Nature almost redeemed herself for the early season freeze. We had a hot and dry July August punctuated with a pair of heavy downpours that soaked the ground just in time to relieve serious vine stress. Brix, which is the sugar content in the fruit, was climbing by one degree every day. The Cynthiana/Norton were the least affected by the freeze and had a cropload to rival last year in estimated weight. What's more, the Cynthiana were already at a brix of 21, well ahead of last year, leaving me to think that I could push them to 25 or higher and get an extra-ripe fruit to compliment the typically high acid in that varietal. Chambourcin and Vidal were coming along nicely despite ongoing critter attrition and the strange aerial rooting in the Chambourcins.

I picked the Traminette earlier in the week. They were struggling all season because they're early bloomers/ripeners and were hit hard by the freeze. And then the rains hit...two hard days of rain and cool weather that spoiled our hot and dry end to the season. I'm going to have to pick the Vidal earlier than I like, and the Brix was pushed down in the red varietals. They can hang another week or two, but the damp conditions might encourage some not-so-nice side effects.

In the photos above, the order is Chambourcin, Vidal and Cynthiana. In the first photo, notice how the bird netting was pushed in by some critter and one of the berries was plucked from the cluster.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Techniques for organic viticulture

When we planted our first test vines in May of '01 after a epiphanic trip to Cote de Beaune (Burgundy) the previous harvest season, I had intended to grow grapes organically. That's why I chose hybrids with good disease resistance in our area, including Cynthiana/Norton, Vidal, Traminette and Chambourcin. I had visions of featuring "Made with Organically Grown Grapes" on bottles of my private stock. I'm a card-carrying Sierra Club member and a proud tree hugger. My little diversion into agriculture has even heightened my environmental concerns as I can see global warming working directly through the progressive forward movement of budbreak and harvest during my six years of growing grapes. I've never met anyone with grapes in the ground who harbors the slightest doubt about the pace of climate change.

So as an environmentally conscious individual, I set out with the intentions of growing grapes without any chemical assistance. And I've learned the hard way that, if you want to grow good grapes in our region, you have to treat for fungus aggressively, including chemical sprays. Now my goal has shifted from growing organically to growing the best grapes possible. Once I can produce a full crop of quality grapes on a consistent basis, I'll move toward embracing more sustainable (and riskier) practices. But you need experience to minimize risk, and I've got a long way to go.

There are several practices that I now employ, which I haven't in the past, that are completely organic and sustainable. They include aggressive canopy management and leaf pulling, use of grow tubes and use of bird netting. I found that much late-season rot on the Cynthiana was due to bird pressure...a couple broken berries can spread disease throughout an entire cluster. Grow tubes seem to allow for stronger growth and root development in young vines, increasing its disease resistance in the first few years. Leaf pulling around the fruit increases air flow, sunlight exposure and reduces the damp conditions funguses like.

There are other things you can do that are completely sustainable practices, including use of treatments like Serenade and Kalligreen instead of more caustic chemicals. You can use bio-fuel in your tractor, solar-powered or solar-charged tools and pumps in the vineyard. I also plan to irrigate from a pond rather than using district water as water shortage becomes an increasing problem, even in our area. These things can save you money as well as reduce the footprint of your farming operation. But I've also learned the hard way that you first have to focus on growing good grapes, and right now I can't accomplish that in our region without some chemical intervention.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Aerial roots: danger signal

I'm still trying to figure out what these aerial roots mean. They are appearing at the nodes on my Chambourcin vines, though not on any other varietals. Shoot growth has been strong, petiole samples showed balance, and the fruit looks good for such a strange year weather-wise. It could be trunk damage from our freeze, or perhaps some root pest, but aerial roots mean that the vine is losing faith in its root system and is ready to start over. I hope this row survives.

Even though these vines have been showing just a hint of water stress, the good kind for this time of year, I gave them a good soak tonight. We've had very little rain and dry. We should have fruit that is unusually concentrated for our region.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Simple enough for a three year old

Today I'd like to sing the praises of the hand refractometer. It's the simplest viticultural tool to use. Its purpose is testing brix (sugar level) and while it might not be 100% accurate, it's fairly close, and you can perform a quick check as you wander through the vineyard.

The device is like a little telescope with a flat glass space on one end. You lift up a little plastic shield, squirt a few drops juice from a freshly picked grape onto the glass, drop the shield on the juice just like you're preparing a slide for a microscope, and then look through the eyepiece. It will give you a reading that's roughly twice the potential alcohol for finished wine. Tonight's readings were between 10 and 20 brix depending on varietal and the sun exposure of the grape in question. The overall average of the quick sample in the vineyard tonight was 15. We like to get to an average of 23 brix in our region, which will give us 11.5% alcohol. This year, due to the freeze, we have uneven ripeness, so I'll have to pick a number in the middle of a wide range and hope there isn't too much underripe fruit. Had I more vines, I'd drop all the fruit that's lagging right now. I probably should have done it last week. But my test vineyard is only 60 vines divided between four varietals, so I can't afford to drop any more fruit than I already removed in cluster and shoot thinning earlier in the year...I wouldn't end up with any wine. We've had a dry stretch, helping to hold various rots at bay, so maybe I can leave the fruit to hang longer than usual.

Hand refractometers only cost around fifty bucks, and they have heft to them. It feels like a real serious scientific tool in your hand. If you want to feel like one of the big boys, then order one of these gadgets. I like to stroll down the rows and squint into the refractometer and play like I'm a vineyard manager in Napa or Tuscany. Then my neighbor hollers and waves, spoiling the fantasy. It's all a game and I'm a kid, which is a rationale I embrace. Tonight my daughter helped me with the's so easy she can almost do it all by herself. But then she is brilliant for her much more advanced than other kids.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Cynthiana/Nortons hit veraison

The Cynthiana/Norton vines are hitting veraison in my test vineyard 1.5 weeks after the Chambourcin. The two varietals couldn't be more different. Chambourcin hails from the much-maligned French-American hybrid stock while Cynthiana is 100% pure indigenous, a naturally occurring hybrid of
vitis aestevalis. Chambourcin has loose clusters with large, dark berries while Cynthiana has tight little clusters with small berries. You can get some incredibly dark, rich wines out of either, though Chambourcin excels in a less tannic must with less maceration. Both of them make a very nice red wine and have fared well in the test vineyard.

It's easy for me to overlook Cynthiana despite the fact that it performs wonderfully in our region. But I'm something of a contrarian and this varietal is our Missouri state grape, thus my plans to plant Cab Franc in my commercial bloc. Were the total acidity a little lower, Cynthiana would stack up well against any red out there, and I think there's huge potential for blending a touch with some varietals that tend to get a little flabby. When you consider the trend toward large, fruit-saturated, high-alcohol wines made with extra-ripe fruit, a little Norton/Cyn could add some needed backbone and bite without resorting to acid blends off the shelf. I'll certainly experiment with a Cab Franc/Cynthiana blend, maybe 90/10, when I have the chance.

One problem with Norton/Cynthiana is the dual name. I like the latter while the former is more recognizable. Add this schizophrenia to its regional nature and the anti-American varietal stigma and it's got a long way to go to gain wider acceptance. I'm not sure the day will arrive when this varietal will make a splash in the wine press, though good stories abound. Paul Roberts has written extensively about this varietal, and there's a very amusing sequence in his book, From this Hill, My Hand, Cynthiana's Wine where he brings some splits of his homemade Norton to the great houses of France to solicit some feedback.

So when I talk about larger plantings of vinifera, I sometimes feel like I'm neglecting a local upstart cultivar that makes a very nifty wine. But then there are plenty of folks in the area making some good Cynthiana. And there are other folks out there promoting this varietal, so I still think it has a bright future.

Wine news

_ NPR has produced a great story on climate change and its impact on the Bordeaux growing region, which ran this morning.

_ Here's another viticulture blog featuring a fellow starting from scratch with a backyard vineyard.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Taking the Wine Aroma Wheel for a spin

I have to admit that I felt completely ridiculous when I pulled my six dollar piece of laminated plastic out of the envelope. I wasn't really going to use this Wine Wheel thing, was I?

I might pretend that describing a wine's aroma by comparing it to molasses, soy sauce, kerosene, geraniums, figs and so on is a strange thing to do, but in reality I'm just hesitant because there are plenty very good writers already doing it out there with wit and insight, including this guy and also this fellow. They can simply do it much better...what have I got to add?

But it occurred to me the other day that I'll have some gaps to fill in the winter. I can skim for interesting articles and talk about grafting or growing vines in your basement (I'm growing a row of ten Traminette from cuttings in the test vineyard, and some are already chest-high), but this blog will get stale with no new pictures to post from the vineyard. I'll be able to snap a picture or two of winemaking in the basement, but that's dull sport as making wine consists of 90% cleaning (unless you're a flying wine consultant and you zip around barrel tasting and reading lab samples, with other grunts doing the scrubbing).

But even after all that, I'm left with spaces to fill in the winter, and I don't want to lose the tiny audience I've managed to acquire, so I figured I'll write a few tasting notes when it's slow. After all, that's what it's all about, right...all of the time spent sweating in the vineyard and late nights in the's about that glass of wine at dinner. I might as well pitch in my two bits.

Thus the Wine Aroma Wheel. Now I can use the right vocabulary like the big boys. We took the Wheel on a spin last night with a bottle of budget white Italian wine my wife found at the supermarket. A few weeks back I gave her strict ABC (anything but Chard) orders and she came home with a bottle of Mariana delle Venezie 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pino Grigio. It was lovely for a budget white, and when it warmed up to room temperature you could clearly distinguish both varietals. I consulted my trusty wheel, sniffed and pondered and came up with lemon peel, dried straw and a bit of butterscotch on the Chard. The oak, if any, was quite subtle, and it was a nice change all the way around. I've had some terrific budget Chards lately, including a 5-dollar Santa Barbara from Trader Joe's that had some surprising citrus and tropical fruit (Wheel!), but I'm tired of the malolactic fermentation, oak and extra sweetness that one usually finds in Chards in my humble price range.

So there you have first ever tasting note blog. Look for more in the winter.

Tonight in the vineyard I hauled a couple buckets up to water the new vines. The Traminette is turning Gewurtz gold and it's almost time to check the sugars on that one. We've had 0.5 inches of rain in the past several weeks...just enough. The vines are showing just a trace of stress...the good kind. If the freeze hadn't happened it might have been a terrific year.

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