Young Vines, First Crop – Year Three

The pinot gris vines, planted two years ago, and grown last year up onto the trellis wires, are now ready, possibly, to produce their first small crop. In those first two growing years, in late June, the winegrower had gone through the vineyard, vine by vine, pinching off the tiny flower clusters. Each vine tries to bear a crop of grapes, and the grower resists that, wishing the vine to expend it’s growth force on making leaves and shoots and roots, not grapes. During those first years, the winegrower wants the vine to grow larger, stronger, becoming well established in it’s allotted space within the vineyard row. The vines shoots growing outward and upward, leaves covering the six lineal feet of trellis allotted to each vine, covering, too, the vertical area from the bottom wire to a foot or so above the top wire. This is the ideal: a uniform wall of leaves, not more than 3 or 4 leaves deep, intercepting virtually all the sunlight that strikes that area, using those photons to make the complex organic molecules that fuel the growth of the vine. And underground, too, the root system stretching out under the row, and across the row middles, meeting the roots of neighboring vines, and reaching ever downward, deeper and deeper into the soil, claiming an ever greater volume of soil that can be called upon to deliver up water and other nutrients for the service of the vine. To achieve this, the grower has tended the young grapevines, providing water if drought reduces the natural supply for the vine roots; tilling the soil to eliminate competing weeds near the vine [yet leaving ground covers growing in the row middles, away from the vines, to provide stability for the soil, insurance against any erosion of the valuable topsoil by wind or water – topsoil, the source, the pool, of life for the land]; spraying the vines with sulfur or copper fungicides if needed to prevent the growth of mildews and molds that would interfere with the health of the vine, spraying as well with insecticide if needed to control leaf chewing, or sap sucking, insects. And, equally important, pinching off the flower clusters, just before the flowers open into bloom.

Now, this third growing year, the grower has pruned the vines, each individually, allowing more or less buds to remain depending upon the vigor of each vine. Those vines that grew excellently in their second year, reaching to the top of the trellis wire, and along the wires laterally, are pruned to leave 10 to 20 buds on two shoots, each curving from the bottom wire, up and over the middle wire, and back down to the bottom wire, one shoot outward along the row in either direction. When these vines are mature, filling fully their trellis space, those shoots will just touch their neighboring vine’s shoots. This year that much growth is rare.

Most of the vines have not grown that vigorously, and are left shorter, with fewer buds, fewer growing points. And now, in late June, the buds left after the pruning have burst forth with growth, shoots are growing up and out. By this time, they are nearly two feet long, with several leaves and one or two or even three little flower clusters showing. And it is time for the grower to decide just how large the crop can be. He judges each vine’s size, it’s growth so far this year, and the expected growing conditions for the rest of the season. Has this been a cool season so far? Warmer than usual? Wetter? Drier? If it has been cool and wet, he will likely remove half of the clusters on those vines growing well, and possibly all the clusters on the poorer growing vines. If the season so far has been warm, and the vines are growing particularly vigorously, he will likely leave one cluster on each shoot. It is a judgment he must make, now. If he leaves too much crop, he can come back later in the summer and remove more, but it is best to make the correct decision early in the season. If he removes too much, the vines will grow too lushly, and possibly not harden themselves off well before the winter sets in [and he will not have the quantity of wine he might have had he left enough clusters]. Making the decision about the crop level for each vine, the grower moves through the vineyard, pinching off excess clusters, tying the growing shoots into place on the trellis – tending each vine, nurturing that life. He watches what is happening in the vineyard, the growth of the vines, the sunlight, the rainfall, the competition of the weeds, the insect pests, the destructive fungi: attempting to make the minimal intrusions on this living system necessary to promote productivity and health. As June becomes July, and July, August, the winegrower watches, alert to the signs of deficiency in the vineyard, the signs of excess, balancing, always balancing, doing and not doing. Tilling the soil, tending the vines: and the vines grow, the flower clusters bloom by early July, and set fruit. The vines labor to ripen their young: the grower tends the mother. And as August becomes September, the grapes on the vine begin the process of ripening, heralded by verasion, the time of change.

As a human child ripens in the womb, as the mother’s womb swells, so, too, grapes ripen on the vine. At verasion, the grapes begin to swell, to soften [no longer hard, pea sized orbs], to take on color, and become translucent, light flowing through them, the sugars increasing, acids lowering, flavinoids increasing, aromatics building. These grapes are quickening, ripening, readying for their transformation into wine. And so it goes. Each week in early fall, the grower examines the grapes, checking the sugar levels, charting the change. If the week is rainy, no increase is likely [in fact, the berries may plump with that water, diluting the sugars and flavor components]; if it is warm and sunny, the sugars and flavors are built rapidly. By October, the vines struggle: in this cool region, the days of October are often sunny, but may be warm enough for the photosynthetic process to work for only a few hours during the afternoon. Ah, but the heart of the story of this vineyard, the first harvest, comes next issue. Wait, as the grapes ripen; wait for fall.

-Copyright © 1997 L. Mawby