Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Winter Pruning

When the vines lose their leaves in the fall and turn into rather whispy-looking collections of twigs, it's time to start pruning.  Pruning is an essential part of growing grapes because without correctly pruning the vines, you will not be able to control the fruit production.  Because fruit only forms on shoots from one year old wood, there is a very specific way of pruning vines to be sure that the right amount of fruit is made in the spring when the vines flower.  Without pruning, you would get a lot of leaves and not much fruit, or sometimes a lot of leaves and way too much fruit (which the vine might not be able to ripen) as well as fruit being formed all over the place...on the ground, etc. where it couldn't ripen or would be eaten by critters.

My vines are being trellised in a top wire cordon system, and the pruning method therefore is spur pruning.  (I'm going to experiment with starting another row of vines next year which will be cane pruned on a Vertical Shoot Positioning trellis.)

Pruning might not sound all that exciting, and perhaps it's not, but I really enjoy it.  First of all, it gets me outside on a nice winter day.  It let's me spend some time with the vines really seeing what they did in the summer, without all the leaves in the way.  I go slowly, taking my time, readjusting all the ties on the trellis as I go.  I like to fire up my "burn barrel" and get a good fire going in there to burn the cuttings as I go.  This is a technique I picked up in Burgundy.  It has multiple purposes.  First, it gets rid of all those cuttings, and believe me there are a lot of them.  Also, by burning the cuttings, we remove a potential source of year-to-year disease/fungus/pests from the vineyard.  Finally, the ash can be sprinkled on the vineyard, bringing those nutrients back into the soil.  And hey, the fire keeps me warm!

The difference between the starting and finishing look of a pruned row is pretty impressive.  It looks like I have killed the vine, but trust me, in spring these things will explode into life and fruit production!


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Finally! A Real Harvest at Chateau Oiseau!

I never thought the day would come, but it finally happened—I managed to harvest a crop of Marquette large enough to make a batch of wine.  It took five years!  It was a bit anti-climactic though.  I had imagined the harvest taking place with a bit of advanced notice and with the help of many friends.  Yet, that was not how it turned out.  I guess I need to back up and tell the whole story.

My summer and fall is crazy hectic this year with business travel.  I was away for 10 days in August and when I returned, I discovered that some critter had gotten the clothes pin clips off the bottom of one row of vines to get at some grapes that had fallen off the vines and collected in the bottom of the netting.  This in turn allowed birds in and they ate all the grapes in an entire row.  Scratch that row.  What a heartbreaker.  Birds suck.

Another two rows had somehow been opened on the end and birds got in and ate as far down as they could get before the vegetation got too dense.  Overall, I learned some serious lessons:

1.     Clipping the nets closed with clothes pins doesn’t cut the mustard.  They need to be closed much more securely than that.
2.     Determined critters are trouble.
3.     Insect netting doesn’t discourage birds as much as bird netting.  The birds get all tangled in the “gill-net” like bird netting and they hate the stuff.  Insect netting keeps out the bugs better but is not as discouraging to the birds.
4.     The insect netting combined with the yellow-jacket baiting program really worked.  I have one row of vines that is only in the second leaf and so I only allowed each vine to make 2 clusters of grapes each.  I put bird netting on them because I didn’t have enough insect netting.  I assumed I would lose all the grapes to yellow jackets.  Yet there was no yellow jacket damage at all because I kept the yellow jacket population at bay.

Lessons learned for next year are basically that I need to close the nets better.  I am thinking of actually “stitching” them closed with fishing line or something.  Each year I get a little better at this.

So anyway, now back to my story….

I lost at least 1/3 or more of my crop to critters again.  Not happy.  But I closed the nets back up and started taking refractometer measurements.  On 8/17, the grapes were averaging 20-22° Brix and I was shooting for 24-25 Brix to get the acid down.  (These hybrid grapes are known for high acid.  Getting the acid down sometimes means letting them get a little high on sugar if you can, and then watering back the sugar a little).  I figured I had a long way to go to get these final numbers where I wanted them, and I would let them hang until after a business trip I have this coming week.  Well, a few days ago on my morning inspection of the grapes, I noticed that all the sudden within just a day or so, quite a few of the grapes were starting to raisin a little.  I did some quick refractometer measurements and realized that they ripened much sooner than I expected (maybe because the clusters were “thinned” for me by my bird friends?) and they were not going to be able to hang until after this upcoming business trip.  If I was going to get them through primary fermentation before the trip, I had to harvest right now!  So I literally dropped everything I had planned to do last Friday and started the harvest alone!  No friends, no celebrations, no helpers (even my kids were at school, so no forced labor)….just:  Get those nets off the vines and harvest those grapes ASAP!

The harvest took about 90 minutes.  I carefully cut each bunch off the vine with a pair of pruning shears and lovingly placed it into the lug.  I was pleased to see that I got about 80 pounds.  Without the loss to critters at the last minute, it easily would have been 120+ pounds.  Next year, if I can reduce the critter loss and get the last couple of rows productive, I am easily looking at 150+ pounds (9 gallons of wine).  My most productive vine (which also miraculously didn’t lose fruit to critters) produced about 15 pounds of fruit.  If all my vines were to average just 10 pounds, I would be looking at 300 pounds, which is a good 18 gallons of wine.  That’s starting to become worth all the trouble!

As is common with young vines, I had a couple green berries on most of the clusters, so I decided to hand-destem the grapes and pluck the green ones off.  This would keep from contaminating the must with the vegetal high-acid juice of unripe grapes.  It was time consuming (took 2 hours) but a labor of love on my beautiful estate-grown grapes!

When it was all said and done, the must was 25 Brix (perfect) with a pH of 3.6 (!) which honestly is so perfect that I didn’t believe the meter.  I was expecting 3.2 from Marquette, which was why I had selected 71B as the yeast.

71B is a strain known to be good for high-acid grapes because it actually metabolizes some of the malic acid in primary, to get the pH into a range that the MLB can handle during malolactic.  As it turned out, this was entirely unnecessary with my grapes so next year if I can manage to duplicate these numbers, I may use a yeast more well known to produce better flavors (I love BDX for Bordeaux grapes and Assmanhausen for Pinot Noir.  However Marquette is more often compared to Syrah, so perhaps Clos is a good choice?  I have no experience with this yeast and I welcome advice from other Marquette winemakers.)

Right now the wine is bubbling away in primary fermentation and smells absolutely delicious.  After the five years of hard work, worry, sweat and tears (well, maybe not actual tears, but some pretty depressing moments) right now I am super happy, excited and proud.  I grew grapes.  I am making wine.  My wine.  From my vineyard.  Chateau Oiseau estate grown!

A few pictures here...

Friday, August 2, 2013

The netting goes up!

Well, with veraison here and the birds getting excited about a new grape crop to devoir, it was time to test out my new T-shaped trellis wires and put up the bird/bug netting.  A big thanks goes out to my friends Dave and Robyn for lending a big hand rolling out the netting and getting it adjusted just right.  The next day, my kids and a friend of theirs helped me clip 350 (!) clothes pins on the nets to seal up the netting on all sides.  With any luck this will deter both the birds and the yellow jackets.

Now the fruit is ripening within their cocoon of safety.

The T trellis and wires to hold the netting up are working even better than I could have hoped.  The netting is well away from the fruit and the birds have been absolutely baffled by this.  My fingers are crossed....oh please Lord can I get some fruit for winemaking this year PLEASE????

I have noticed that the younger vines on the Cotes d'Oiseau block are lagging at least a week behind the other blocks of vines in veraison.  Hmmm....should be interesting with harvest.  I may have to actually ferment two blocks separately as there is no way I will be able to harvest the entire vineyard at the same time.

Keep your fingers crossed and wish me luck!!!!


A few pictures:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Another step towards netting...

This week I was pretty busy in the vineyard.  After a lot of thinking about last year's disaster with birds and bugs, I came up with a netting plan that is considerably more sophisticated than last year's attempt.  Last year I put bird netting directly over the vines, so it was just laying flat against the shoots.  Unfortunately, with the type of trellis system I have, that puts the nets fairly close to the fruit and the birds quickly figured out they could peck through the netting and reach many of the grapes.  Some would land on the netting and weigh it down, then peck right through to the fruit.  They eat nearly half the crop!  The juicy grapes dripping attracts yellow jackets.  Once the yellow jackets found the vineyard, a swarm came in and drilled holes into the remaining grapes, sucking out the juice.  My entire crop was lost.  Very sad to have nothing to show for a whole summer of work in the vineyard.

I have taken a more systematic approach this year.

1.  I am actively reducing the yellow jacket population with baits/traps.  This started in March.
2.  I am using insect netting this year to attempt to exclude these pests as well as make the bird's lives harder.
3.  I built an extension on the trellis consisting of "T" shaped pieces that suspend two wires above the vines.  I will drape the netting over this apparatus to keep the nets way up above the fruit zone.  No pecking through the netting.  In addition, this can be used like a quasi VSP trellis, to allow some of the shoots that want to up upward to do just that.

As you can see from this shot of the fruit on some of the more mature vines (these are in their 4th leaf) I have a good crop to protect this year!  Crossing fingers I might actually make some wine from my own grapes this year.

There is a small section of the 5th year vines that are already starting veraison (changing color) so I am now in good shape to get the netting on this week when I can drum up another set of hands to help.

So that's about it for now.  I'll make another post when the netting goes on and we can see how this all works.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

It has been a while since my last post.  It didn't seem necessary to post pictures and comments about early spring in the vineyard.  I have done it many times before, so why be redundant?  I was waiting for something interesting and new to say before posting.

So, I'll bring you quickly up to speed on 2013.

During the dormant phase this winter, I did my usual annual pruning (I use a spur prune system on a high wire cordon trellis).  I burn the cuttings and spread the ash on the vineyard to bring the nutrients back to the soil, as I observed in Burgundy in 2011.  This was a wet spring, yet somehow, the fruit set wasn't bad.  Not great, but better than last year.  I have 6 vines in their 5th leaf, quite a few in their 3rd and 4th leaf, and 9 vines in their second leaf.  I could be close to full scale production next year, but this year it will be an interesting and solid harvest if I can finally get some grapes all the way to ripe without some calamity, natural disaster, pests, or some combination of them all!

I'm impressed by the incredible vigor of mature Marquette vines--they can quickly take over a vineyard.  I went to Maine for 6 days with my family and when I returned, shoots had gone all the way across rows into the next row of vines.  Good grief I have no idea how anyone can manage a full vineyard, or even an acre of vines.  It takes an incredible amount of my time just to handle 30 vines!

This spring I started using yellow jacket traps to catch the queens early.  As a result I have seen precious few yellow jackets, thank goodness.  They were my main enemy last year.  I hate those little buggers.  First of all they sting like hell.  And they eat fruit like crazy!  I have also purchased some good insect-exclusion netting that will be put up soon.  Forget bird netting, this keeps out everything. I'm just worried how much sun will get through and if this will be a problem for mildew with reduced air circulation.  I'll have a whole blog post on this netting process, so I won't cover it now.

Once the vines got to the point that the canes were strong enough to be "man handled" a bit, it was time to undertake a little shoot positioning and leaf thinning.  Basically, the vines send the shoots off in any direction that helps them get more sun.  A vine might send a shoot across the row, down the row, and end up 2 vines over.  What a mess you have by mid-July.  Left to their own devices, by fall you wouldn't be able to get through the vineyard without a machete.  So at this phase, I walk down each row and re-position shoots that are going the wrong way.  In general I pull them off the top of other vines and send them down towards the ground.  In a VSP (Vertical shoot positioning) trellis (the kind I wish I had built in hindsight) you would snake them up through the wires towards the sky.  But in a top wire cordon, it's downward they go, then trim them off at ground level.  I had shoots that were over 10 feet long, so that once they were positioned correctly, five feet of cane has to be pruned.  There is no point in letting them snake along the ground--they will spring roots and try to start a new vine.  I kid you not...grape vines are seriously invasive.  Anyone who has wild vines around their house can tell you.  I have some wild vines in my back yard that try to take over the whole place every summer.  No matter how brutal I am yanking them up, chopping them off at the ground, they come right back!

Once the shoots are positioned, it's time for some leaf thinning.  This is hard to get used to, and this is the first year I have done it because it seems so weird.  The idea is to increase light and ventilation in the fruiting zone.  The fruit will mature better and with more flavor if it is exposed to some sun.  So removing the leaves blocking light to the fruit achieves this goal.  In addition, this allows air to move around the fruit better, helping to reduce issues with mildew and hopefully reducing the amount of fungicide that needs to be used.  What's weird is spending years coaxing the vines to become big and healthy, trying to keep bugs from eating the leaves...and then intentionally plucking off leaves.  But by the time the vines are mature and making fruit, they are also making more leaves than they need and spending too much energy on trying to take over the yard.  You need to keep them in check and force them to ripen the fruit, not grow more shoots.

I included a picture of my fake owl standing guard.  Not sure if it helps, but I need all the help I can get from those birds!

I have included a few pictures of the process.  Stand by for netting in a few weeks....