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Friday, November 23, 2007

Article links

_ The two varietals I've got on order, Cab Franc and Mourvedre, are being grown in Georgia. And we're talking "Gerogia on my mind," and not "Georgia the cradle of winemaking" where grapes have been cultivated for wine for over 7,000 years.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wine and turkey

Mike Steinberger over at Slate has as a good recommendation for this Thanksgiving. Since wine-turkey pairing is the topic du jour, I thought I'd add my own suggestions. While I think I may take Steinberger up on the Oregon Pinot notion, I also might suggest a lesser known varietal also grown in Oregon. Gruner Veltliner is an Austrian varietal, reminiscent of Gewurtztraminer, that is very food-friendly white wine that has enough complexity to hold up to a big, strong bird like a turkey. And speaking of Gewurtz, why don't you give that a try, too? Traminette is a hybrid of Gewurtztraminer that is grown commonly in Missouri, and it would be an excellent choice.

As for other varietals grown in our area...a Cabernet Franc that's light on the oak might be just the red wine to consider. I believe that turkey is one of the most versitile creatures out there. Any number of wines can be paired with this queen of the table birds. Try a Viognier for a white. Or the Chambourcin from Augusta Winery here in Missouri for an ideal hybrid red.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Adventures in agricultural lime

I know that the first thing that crosses your mind when you twist out the cork of that last precious bottle of Pommard 1er Cru smuggled home in the half case in your carry-on luggage after your anniversary trip to France back in the days before the paranoia of the twittering fear mongers (nothing to fear but...) rendered corkscrews and even liquid itself verboten in-flight, before that rich, deep, very French odor of slate, raspberry and barnyard slips over the lip of the bottle, before your acknowledgement of the event you're celebrating, before your expectation of the table conversations that will be lubricated by maroon sunlight in bottle form, before the possibility slips through your consciousness of the extra-curricular activities (if you're lucky [sic!]) that might follow whatever event warrants such a fine bottle of magic...yes the first thing you will think of upon pulling that cork is, of course, the soil pH. Yes, you will wonder, yes, what exactly was the pH of the soil in which these grapes were grown?

Okay, maybe I'm making assumptions. In truth, unless the bottle belongs to a soil scientist, a vineyard manager, or someone with a serious problem, the last thing on your mind when you open a bottle of great wine will be the soil pH. After all, the acidity of the soil doesn't even relate, directly, to the pH in the finished wine. pH isn't a sexy wine word like "slate" or "shale" or "minerality," terms which have all become cliches among aficionados.

But soil pH is important if you're growing wine. The pH of the soil has an optimum range for vinifera, hybrids and native American varieties. Natives tolerate, and even prefer, the slightly higher acids of a low pH soil (remember, it's an inverse relationship, low pH = high acid). Cabernet franc, which I'm planting, prefers a pH of around 6.5. At this optimum range, soil nutrients are more accessible and are taken in at the right levels. While a low acid soil won't necessarily mean you wind up with a low acid wine, it can affect the overall health of the vine and thus the ripening and health of the fruit.

My soil tests showed that the pH of my first vineyard block at the new site was 5.5. Since I'm planting cab franc, I wanted to raise that pH to around 6.5. The way to do this, effectively lowering the soil acidity, is to add agricultural lime. It's a common necessity in our region. Your handy Extension person and or website can help you figure out exactly how much lime to add to your site to raise your soil pH.

Lime additions are calculated and measured and bought in tons. Even though I spent time growing up on a farm as a kid, I also lived in an apartment in Chicago for many years, so the idea of tons of anything is a foreign concept. I was sure it was going to be expensive to add appx. 800 lbs of ENM (effective neutralizing material, aka lime) to my one-acre bloc. Especially when a single 50-lb bag of pelleted lime cost six bucks.

There are two basic types of limestone...calcitic and dolomite. I have high magnesium content (call it 'mag' content to sound like you know what you're talking about) in my soil, so I wanted to add calcitic limestone as dolomite contains higher levels of magnesium. You can have too much of a good thing, and excessive levels of any nutrient can cause toxicity that is as dangerous, or even more dangerous, to your vines than not having enough nutrients. At first I planned on using bags of pellet lime, spreading them with a rented lawn spreader and a borrowed ATV. I thought this was a pretty clever solution, and when I figured out that it would cost me around 400 dollars to perform the entire operation, I was fairly satisfied. The problem was matching up the ENM rating of the limestone in question. ENM is measured in lbs per ton, so if you have limestone with a rating of 400 (per ton), and your experts tell you that you need to add 800 lbs of ENM, that means you need to add TWO tons of the material to reach your target. That's 4,000 lbs! A lot of stuff.

Once I figured this out, I grew cost was doubling, not to mention the workload. But then I learned you could buy lime by the 12-ton truckload. And what's more, a good agricultural co-op will deliver and spread it for you. The problem is that you need to buy a minimum of 12 tons. I thought this might cost a fortune, but then I learned I could get 12 tons for a couple hundred bucks...a fraction of the cost per ton than what I'd been planning to spend on bag lime. The only issue is that you have to have a place for them to spread the extra lime. I had them dump two tons on my one-acre spot (at 400 ENM per ton, that would mean I added the required 800 ENM to the bloc) and then spread the rest randomly around our property. That way I'll be ahead of the game when we plant new blocs in the future.

I had the field disked ahead of time to allow the lime to work down into the soil. I had to wait a few weeks for them to come out to our property as, believe it or not, 12 tons is not a very large project. They were liming area corn and bean farms with hundreds of tons, so they had to work me in. I met them at the vineyard, showed them where I needed the lime and they took care of the rest. I'll let it rain, then rip and then drag the bloc smooth in the spring to further spread the lime. I'll test again every year to to see how the lime levels are shaping up. A couple years down the road I can make adjustments as needed.

This is probably confusing to novices. It was very confusing to me, but now that I've gone through the process I have a pretty good handle on the hows and whys of spreading lime. I also understand concepts like acid rain better. This is a problem in the northeast...acid rain can reduce pH of soils into the low 4-range (increasing acidity). That would be no good for wine grapes of any variety.

So now at Thanksgiving or on your birthday or whenever you pop open that next great bottle of wine, maybe the soil pH will be the first thing you think about. I know I'll be thinking about it for a long time.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

November-December vineyard calendar

Farming is a seasonal business. Everything you do is tied to what Mother Nature is going to throw your way. Sometimes all you can do is react, but there is also plenty you can do to prepare yourself and your vineyard.

I'm beginning a new feature. At the beginning of every month I'll try to establish a comprehensive checklist of all the seasonal items to accomplish in the vineyard. This is specifically tailored for my region and varieties, but I'm basing this off of several calendars I've seen, both from the ICCVE and the fantastic "Production Budgets for Arkansas Wine and Juice Grapes" document. (I can't find it online anymore, otherwise I'd link to it.) I'm lumping the next two months together because this is the slow part of the season and many of these tasks aren't tied to what's happening in the vineyard and can be performed at any time during the two-month period. Once I have the entire year covered, I'll keep the posts intact and simply review and adjust them as I learn from experience. I hope folks can find this a useful reference, and also feel free to make suggestions.

  1. Clean and winterize sprayer(s)

  2. Winterize irrigation system

  3. Check on/confirm vine orders for upcoming planting season

  4. Review season disease and pest damage and revise/adjust IPM (integrated pest management) strategy

  5. Check stock of supplies, list items needed to order

  6. Adjust soil pH (add lime) if necessary

  7. Prepare ground for new vineyard blocs

  8. Check trellis, perform repairs

  9. Hill up soil on grafted vines

  10. Clean sheds, garages, equipment

  11. Evaluate effectiveness of and repair/adjust deer fence

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

An international obsession

When Missouri viticulture comes up in conversation, invariably someone says, "I didn't know you could grow grapes in Missouri. I go into the whole story of how Missouri was the second largest producer before Prohibition, well ahead of California. I explain the state's German winemaking heritage, the strong showing of norton in international competitions in the late 1800s, and the fact that a few tenacious individuals even grow vinifera here. I've also visited vineyards in Canada and at nearly 7,000 foot elevation in Colorado, a pair of unlikely viticultural locales. But it wasn't until I started blogging and getting readers and reading other blogs from around the world that I realized how widespread this pursuit truly is. Carlos is growing wine grapes in Colombia. That's Colombia, South America, with an 'o,' and not nearby Columbia, Missouri with a 'u.' Louise is growing grapes in Kenya, where forced dormancy and baboons are issues we can't even comprehend. Of course, vineyards still grow where you expect them to, in countries like France. Bertrand has, in my opinion, possibly the best wine and vineyard blog going. And that's where I learned about one of the most traditional practices, bulk wine, a time-honored practice that it is completely new to me. His recent story about bulk wine is fascinating: going to the winery with plastic jugs to get your fill and then bottling at home. I doubt any wineries in the States are doing that.

It's a fascinating pursuit. It's an obsession. Maybe it starts with a glass of wine or a photograph. Or maybe you're bitten with the bug when you stand in one of the world's great vineyards. It happened to me outside the little village of Pommard, Burgundy. Whatever the case, once you're afflicted by this strange compulsion to tame unruly vines, tend them until they bear fruit and then stomp the berries into submission so that you can begin the long, slow process of making wine, nobody is going to be able to talk you out of it. I'm glad to see that folks from every conceivable clime are similarly afflicted.

Monday, November 12, 2007

November surprise

A hard freeze turned the leaves brown overnight, and within hours they'd all dropped. The notoriously vigorous norton vines shed their dinner plate-sized leaves and exposed a few surprise missed clusters. I tried the berries (that weren't dessicated) and they were rich and without the usual norton acidic tang. It was a reminder to leave this varietal hanging longer to drop the TA as much as possible. I'm always overeager to harvest. I could have left them for another two weeks at least. Conversely, I should have harvested the traminette a week or even ten days earlier. It's a slow learning process, and you have to wait an entire year to correct your mistakes, by which time you're apt to have forgotten your lessons. How does the saying go? Insanity is doing things over and over again the same way but expecting different results. In any case, it's a great time of year...the season is over, and the weather pleasant for trellis repairs, which you can undertake at a leisurely pace.

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