Saturday, May 21, 2011

A day in the Vineyard

Anyone who thinks growing grapes is easy clearly hasn't tried it. I have been slowly planting vines in my yard for 2 years now. Since I have a lot of trees and shade, I can't just plant a huge area and be done with it. I'm using all the sunny spots that can't grow grass because it's too hot. Perfect for grapes. The problem with grapes is they grow on vines. Not trees or bushes. Vines need to grow on something. In the wild, grape vines grow up trees until they get to the top. Then, while stealing the tree's sunlight, they produce yummy grapes for the birds to eat and disperse their seeds. Pretty clever huh? Well, we humans want to trick the grapes into thinking they have climbed a tree and are now ready to make grapes for our wine. To do this, we build trellises that hold the vines up and allow them to spread out in the sunshine. There are all kinds of trellis designs from the simple to the complex. I have chosen to go for a very simple Top Wire Cordon (TWC) design because it looks nice in the yard, is easy to prune, relatively easy to build, and easy to train the vines. It is not the best in terms of overall performance, but it's a good compromise for me.

The vines grow up from the ground and reach a wire about 5 feet off the ground. The vine has one "arm" (cordon) that goes one way, and another that goes the other way on the wire. This "T" formation is the basis for all the other shoots that come off to produce leaves and grapes.

The problem with building a trellis is that the wire has to be held up by something. On each end of the wire is a post that goes deep into the ground so it will hold the wire securely. So far, my three "vineyards" scattered around the yard have (are you ready?) 14 posts. That doesn't sound bad...14 posts. Well, every one of them, 3.5 feet deep in the New England rocky soil was hand dug, and let me tell you, that is a lot of work. Now if I was crazy enough to do all 14 at the same time, I would rent a post-hole auger like I did when I built my deck last year and needed to produce 9 holes four feet deep for the concrete footings. But since I have been picking away at this vineyard thing, a few posts a month for 2 years, I have dug them all by hand. Ugh.

Anyway, a few weeks ago my good friend Pierre was here and he noticed that I had quite a bit of room between two of my rows and suggested squeezing another in there. I groaned at the thought of yet two more post holes, but today what do you think I did? Yeah, I got out there and started digging. Ow, my arms hurt.

I have 4 more vines coming from Northeastern Vine Supply next week to go on this trellis. But I also had a couple empty spots for vines that I have been growing in the house since March from cuttings. So I planted those today too.

Here's the thing that's cool about North American and Hybrid vines--they are immune to Phylloxera and can grow on their own roots. No grafting. So they are easy to replicate. Also, grape vines are really easy to root. If you take the cuttings from your winter pruning and just chuck them in the woods, chances are one or two will take root in the spring. So if you take the cuttings from your most productive vines and simply stick them in a pot of soil and water them, guess what happens? Roots pop out in a few weeks, buds form, leaves sprout and you have new vines to plant. This is how commercial nurseries replicate vines by the thousands.

My vines are not mature yet, so I only had a few that had much of anything to prune last winter. But I waited on those until early March to prune. I took the best cuttings into the house, potted them, put them in a nice sunny window and waited. Today, 2 months later, I planted them in the yard. I'll keep you posted on their progress.


Merlot? Merlot, you ask? Well, I'm not a huge Merlot fan to be honest. I ordered Chilean pinot noir. But my local winemaking place called and said the Chilean Pinot noir looked really bad this year and M&M wine grape in CT didn't send it to MA because it was so bad and they knew my local retailer would refuse it. So they called and offered me Merlot or Malbec. The last batch of Malbec from Chile had some pretty bad numbers to be honest, so I decided to try Merlot, which is a lot easier to ripen. It was a tough year for Chile so I'm looking for something that will actually make decent wine.

I took delivery of (8) 18 pound lugs of Merlot. They didn't look terrible, but not great either. A few fuzzy grapes with mildew and a few rotted ones here and there, but not as bad as the Malbec as I was told by my local winemaking buddy Steve. I sorted them carefully and also did something I have never tried before: rinsing. In the past I have had issues with Hydrogen Sulfide in my Chilean wines. I got a tip to rinse the excess sulfur off the grapes that is added as a preservative for shipping. We'll see if it happens.

As I was rinsing and sorting, I pulled out my trust refractometer to measure the brix of a few sample grapes from each lug. It was interesting that it was very consistent within each lug. For example, I tested about 5 grapes in one lug from different bunches and got 25 brix. In the next lug I got very consistent 27 brix. In the next, 24. The rinsing probably adds a tad of water to the mix, slightly diluting the must, but with grapes ranging from 24-27, I'll be ok.

Of course, once again I enlisted the kids to be my destemmers (slave labor true, but they enjoy it). I let the must warm to 60 degrees in the cellar overnight before adding the yeast (RC212 with Go Ferm starter) and now we have a nice ferment going. The numbers were about perfect on the Merlot though. Once I had enough juice in the morning to get a hydrometer reading and a sample for the pH meter, I got a Brix of 24.5 and pH of 3.55. Can't really complain about that. Once it hit 65 on it's own I turned on the heat and set it to 75. The cellar smells wonderful and I'm punching the cap three times a day.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spring is here finally!

The past two weeks have seen the re-awakening of the vineyard! On April 28 (see picture) the Marquette vines were just starting to break buds. Today, 2 weeks later, we have lots of leaves and even a few inches of growth on many shoots! I doubt I will get grapes this year. The vines are still too small. My Clos Oiseau vineyard in the side yard is entering the third year, but since the first year I didn't use grow tubes, they are only modestly larger than the 2 year old vines on the other side of the yard that did use grow tubes. For all practical purposes, the Marquette is all 2 years old.

I have ordered a few more Marquette vines to replace a couple that did make it, plus some for another small site out back. (Yes, I'm squeezing grapes everywhere there is light!)

Last night, with the knowledge that the Chilean grapes are coming in the next week or two, I decided to bottle the 2010 Chilean Malbec to clear out some carboys. So now I have 40 bottles of truly not-that-great Malbec awaiting labels. I considered not even bottling it, but I needed the practice with the corker. Also I have a ton of bottles, and corks that will go bad if I don't use them. So what the heck. I'll give the stuff a couple years and see if it improves. If nothing else, it makes a good picture.

Working on labels now...