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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Veraison hits test vineyard

I know that I once said that budbreak is the "pinnacle of the viticulture experience," but now that veraison has hit the Chambourcin vines in the test vineyard I'll have to retract that statement. It seems as soon as the berries turn you can taste the spice, jam and dark fruit on the skins, and I can't help popping a few in my mouth as I walk down the aisles. This really is as good as it gets. There's a lull now that I'm finishing with the bird netting, the vines are trimmed and the sprays are up to date. The summer is drying out and the vines are less vigorous. Now I can enjoy veraison until the next crisis. There is so much potential in the fruit at this stage.

Veraison is easily identifiable in red wine's the stage where they start to take on rust and and then purple color. In white wine grapes, the hard green berries will begin to turn golden and the skins will become translucent, and it's like peering into a glass marble. Veraison engages the white clusters more subtly, but it's no less enjoyable.

Veraison also means that the grapes are sweetening and become more palatable to the critters, so it's a period of heightened concern. Rots also like the sugars, so you have to have enough stomach to sweat it out while you watch clusters whither away and hope it remains limited to only a tiny portion of the crop.

Trimming vines trellised on VSP

I just finished trimming and hedging the vines in the test vineyard to prepare them for bird netting. The Vertical Shoot Position or VSP trellis system is the most attractive. A well-maintained Geneva Double Curtain (GDC) or High Wire Cordon (HWC, also known as Sylvoz) can also be beautiful at various times of the year, but nothing is more gorgeous than a meticulously maintained vineyard of VSP. That being said, it's one of the least productive trellis systems out there. You can produce more fruit per acre on a split canopy, and without loss of quality according to Richard Smart, studies by ace VA Tech viticulturist Tony Wolf and other sources.

But I love the VSP aesthetically pleases me. In some ways it's easier to work allows you more access to the trunk for weeding and hilling (mounding dirt around the trunk to prevent winter free damage). It's more labor intensive to keep it trimmed and to keep the shoots tucked between the training wires. But it's also more logical...for some reason I can walk into a VSP vineyard and know exactly what canopy management tasks need to be tackled next.

Were I planning on planting more than a third of an acre per year, and had I any expectation to be earning a profit at this endeavor any time soon, I'd have to seriously consider GDC for my Cabernet Franc, or some hybrid trellis like the Smart-Dyson Ballerina. But for now I'll just do what feels right.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Best viticulture reference ever

Well, maybe not the best but on my shelf it is giving Richard Smart's Sunlight Into Wine a run for the money. It's A Pocket Guide for Grape IPM Scouting in the North Central and Eastern U.S. It is clearly the best disease guide out there for our region. It would even be handy on the West Coast. The genius of this guide is its the title implies you can slip it in your back pocket whenever you head out to the vineyard and you can diagnose ailments on the spot. Sometimes it's hard to tell your mildews or rots apart even if you are experienced.

This guide has good quality photos of multiple symptoms, a brief overview of each disease. It also covers insect injury, nutrient deficiencies and pesticide damage. There are other charts and images that come in handy, including photos detailing each stage of grapevine growth and berry development. I could have saved a few dollars in laboratory fees if I'd had this handy guide a month ago. I'm a big fan of the whole idea of a land grant university, and MSU's extension program is the original. I'm not surprised they're behind this clever little guide.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The godfather of Missouri vinifera

I spent Saturday at Michael Amigoni's vineyard in west-central Missouri. Michael is the godfather of Missouri vinifera, and his dedication to the growing of these traditional European varietals borders on obsession, but in a good way. Our region is still devoted almost entirely to hybrid varietals. I like many of these, but I personally feel that we need to grow at least 30% vinifera to help build a consumer market. Missouri vinifera could provide a bridge for consumers skeptical about both Midwestern viticulture and the unfamiliar varietals largely grown here. Michael would probably rather see 100% vinifera grown in Missouri despite the extra dedication, risk and labor involved in producing it here. He is having success, as you can see from the above photo, which shows veraison well underway in his Cab Franc block.

Michael's uncompromising dedication to premium winegrowing is tempered by his unrestrained enthusiasm for viticulture and a willingness to advise all comers. His vineyard is always filled with neophytes seeking knowledge, and he'll share everything he knows in exchange for a few hours of labor. One of his disciples has been recently motivated to sell his dental practice and plans to move to Washington to start his own vineyard and winery.

Michael has had his greatest success in the region with Cabernet Franc. Despite the fact of this year's freeze, he has a healthy crop of this varietal. With the number of Cab Franc plantings increasing, I'm tempted to change my plans and begin my commercial vineyard with a few barrels of this varietal. I believe Riesling would do well here, but it needs to hang a long time and Franc would have fewer problems with sour rot, bitter rot and ripe rot. Unfortunately, we have to contend with that trinity of cluster maladies rather than botrytis, which would actually be welcome in a Riesling vineyard. We also discussed Gruner Veltliner, an interesting, food-friendly Austrian varietal gaining popularity despite its cumbersome handle. It might be even more rot-susceptible than Riesling, though, and it has some issues with tenderness in early shoots. That doesn't bode well for my windy vineyard site or for the potential for more frost damage due to changing weather patterns.

So my goal has now changed. I plan to initially plant 300 Cabernet Franc vines next spring if I can get a block limed, plowed to at least 36 inches, and outfitted with an irrigation system. I'll then add at least 150 more vines (1 barrel) of Franc or Riesling every year after that.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Harvest workshop, Les Bourgeois

I attended a workshop on harvest decisions and vineyard cover crops at Les Bourgeois vineyards (yes, that's their actual family name) hosted by the ICCVE yesterday afternoon. As usual, it was filled with more good information than I can keep straight. We spent some time discussing sampling techniques and harvest decisions, especially given the legacy of this year's freeze event. We also covered some viral diseases and other harvest decisions. I include a photo of their harvester, which looks like some strange mechanical insect. It shakes the trunk and shoots, rattling clusters loose, which are then caught by rotating rubber bins and hauled up to the hopper. It sounds violent, but evidently such machines treat grapes more gently than hand harvesting crews. Something about it spoils that romantic notion of hand picking. I remember the crews we saw harvesting family vineyards in Italy...comprised of everyone from grandma on down to the toddlers. But then anyone who has done it knows it's hot, scratchy, tiring labor.

News links

_ Global warming to wipe out Napa vineyards? Money quote: "A study by the America's National Academy of Sciences last year suggested that the area of the US suitable for growing premium wine grapes could decline by 81% by the end of the century."

_ Maybe I don't need to buy a tractor.

_ For all those in the central and eastern U.S. who experienced serious freeze damage this spring, a seminar.

_ Missouri is in good company: Bordeaux has issues with fungus, too.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


These aphids are regular visitors to the test vineyard. I haven't read or heard much about their being a serious pest, but we had an explosion in the population after three days of serious rain in June and all growing shoot tips were covered with aphids and their ant minders. Growth appeared to be stunted, and then I started noticing other damage and defoliation.

I won't blame it all on the aphids, but they seemed to represent heightened insect activity. I've never sprayed insecticide before, but I finally broke down and applied a dose of Sevin. I'd love to grow as sustainably as possible, and it's disappointing to use the more toxic chemicals. But it's worse to watch a crop suffer.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

News links

_ New EU wine rules create controversy; growers paid to dig up 200,000 hectares of vineyards (at a time when China is planting copious amounts); small growers in the crosshairs.

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