In the Vineyard

A Vineyard Year — by Vineyardist Steve Purvins

The following is a year's 2005 chronicle of a vineyard by vineyardist Steve Purvins, who tends his Lawtan Hall Vineyard in Southern Maryland's St. Mary's County.

January

With winter rolling in, life in the vineyard is slow. But don’t think for a minute that we just lay around and drink wine until spring. Heck, with all of the new wine to drink, who’s got time to lay around?!

Every grape grower that I’ve had the pleasure to meet is passionate about ‘growing’ great wine. Growing regular old wine isn’t all too difficult, but growing a great wine is a different story. The grower must be very attentive as he follows his crop through maturity, harvest, and beyond. This is the time of year when we focus on the ’beyond’.

With vintage 2004 in the barrel, vineyard managers pay frequent visits to the cellar (it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it). Here is where we see direct evidence of our management practices. Did we judge crop load correctly? Was the canopy too thin or too thick? Were irrigation and fertilization regimens adequate? All this – and more – has a direct effect on wine quality, and can be detected in the wine.

So throughout the winter, both winemaker and grower check the new wine - not only for enjoyment, but with hopes of making next year’s wine even more so.

February

Even though it’s cold and snowy, spring is less than 50 days away! And while it may be a little early to be thinking about swimsuits and sunblock, if you’re a grape grower you’d better start thinking about pruning.

With spring about six weeks away, grapevines throughout the state will soon awaken from their long winter rest. But before that happens, grape growers will be out in their vineyards making sure that the vines are ready for a season’s worth of growth. Generally speaking, that requires the pruning of most of last year’s growth, which - as you might imagine – takes a little time. So growers with more than just a few vines will soon leave the warm confines of their wineries and, with pruning shears in hand, venture out into the crisp, wintry air.

March

Each year the typical vineyard will produce over 30,000 bunches of grapes. In order to make room for all of this fruit, growers are busy pruning and removing much of last years growth from their vineyards.

But the act of pruning is more than just making room for new growth. It’s the way that growers control the amount of growth that each vine will be allowed to produce in a given year, and it’s based roughly on the ratio of last years crop yield to pruning weight. This ratio is an indicator of vine balance (fruit load to canopy leaf area), and is the ‘holy grail’ of grape growing. Balance in the vineyard leads to balance in the glass.

April

Spring is here at last! The daffodils are out, cherry trees are in bloom, and all the slumbering lawnmowers will soon awaken from their long winter nap. All of this activity has not gone unnoticed in the vineyard...

By now most grapevines have been pruned. The bulk of last year’s growth has been removed, with a few carefully selected buds left (these will bear this year’s fruit). Basking in the warm spring weather, these remaining buds are staring to swell. Soon tiny leaves will appear, and the growth cycle will start anew. Varieties such as Seyval and Chardonnay will be the first to grow, closely followed by Pinot Noir, Reisling, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, Chambourcin and Vidal.

For the moment our work is done. We can sit back and watch in awe as our vineyards come back to life. We’ve done what we could, and can only hope that mother nature will be kind and bless us with a good growing season. To this we raise our glass.

May

Most everyone knows that ‘April showers bring May flowers’. Each year we’re treated to a wonderful display of spring flowers – daffodils, cherry blossoms, azaleas, dogwood trees, to name a few. But not everyone is familiar with (and fewer get to see) the petite and fragrant grape flowers of spring.

Bloom is a magic time in the vineyard, and usually occurs six to eight weeks after the first leaves appear. The vines will remain in bloom for a little over a week, with pollination occurring during this period. Unlike some crops, grapes are self-pollinating and do not require the assistance of the birds or the bees.

The grape flower really isn’t much to look at, and the casual observer driving by a vineyard probably wouldn’t even notice them. But during bloom, especially in the evening when daytime winds diminish, the vineyard is awash in the subtle, sweet aroma of grape flowers. One of the simple pleasures of life in the vineyard.

June

The cooler than average weather we’ve been experiencing this spring has slowed vineyard growth considerably, with some growers reporting that their vines are about two weeks behind ...

In a typical year (anyone remember when we last had one of those?), our grapevines would be entering the ‘Grand Period of Growth’. During this period of rapid shoot growth, some vigorous varieties may elongate as much as an inch a day. Believe me, it’s something to see your grapevines almost double in size in about a week!
This phase ends about as quickly as it began, and shoot growth returns to a moderate level. But soon it will be the berries turn to grow in leaps and bounds.

July

The dog days of summer are upon us, and while we’re busy pouring on the sunblock to protect us from the sun, our vineyards are soaking up as much sun as they can. This hot, sunny, and humid time of year signals a change in the focus of the grapevine.

Ever since budbreak occurred way back in April, the vines have been busy putting out leaves. And now that the trellis wires are full of leaves and the sun is high, the vine can focus all of this energy into the grape clusters. These small clusters are comprised of pea-sized, very hard and very green berries. For the next month or so, these berries will increase in size quite rapidly. The level of sugars inside the grapes will be slow to change, but the acids – malic and tartaric – will increase to their maximum levels (bite into one and you’ll see what I’m talking about!).

By next month we’ll be ready to talk about the end-game.....ripening.

August

For the last four months our grapevines have been hard at work, constantly pushing out new leaves while developing clusters of grapes, transforming the almost barren vineyard into a lush sea of green. But if you look closer, you’ll notice that things are about to change.

Up until now, the grapevine has focused on establishing a canopy of leaves (sunlight, or energy interceptors, if you will), and clusters of grapes (or energy receptacles). With all of this in place, the vine has reached a turning point. All of the vines effort is now put towards ripening its fruit.

This turning point is called veraison. Up until now the berries have been hard and green, but soon they will become soft and take on the colors characteristic of their specific varieties. The levels of acid in the berries begin to decrease while sugar levels begin to increase, and will continue to do so until harvest.

September

Just as Memorial Day signals the beginning of summer, the upcoming Labor Day weekend means that summer is on the way out. Students are returning to their classrooms to begin a new school year, but in the vineyard, it’s graduation time!
 
In the mid-Atlantic region, most varieties of grapes are going through their last month of ripening. Sugar levels (expressed in degrees brix) continue to climb, while acid levels decline. Tannins – found in the seeds and skins of the berries, and an important component in red wines – begin to lose their harsh astringency and become more supple.
 
During the next month, growers and winemakers alike will be out in the vineyard – looking, sampling, testing... and tasting. Grapes that pass the test will become ‘the class of 2005’.

October

The weather always makes the news, especially when it’s severe. And while the poor folks along the gulf have been hit really hard this year, the mid-Atlantic region has faired much, much better.

And the last few weeks have been exceptionally good to us grape growers...

If you gave a vineyard manager the ability to control the weather for a two-week period during the growing season, most would choose to reign over the last few weeks before harvest. In this ideal scenario, there would be no rain, tons of sunshine would fill the canopy, and the nights would be cool and crisp. These conditions allow the grapes to mature to their maximum potential, accumulating sugar, maintaining their acid levels, and acquiring rich fruit flavors.

Well, as luck would have it, we’ve been blessed with just such a weather pattern. And with a large portion of the harvest completed, 2005 is shaping up to be a really great vintage. Truly good news in troubled times!

November

While 2005 wasn’t the best for traditional crop farmers, Maryland’s grape growers were secretly hoping the near-drought conditions continued through the summer and into the fall. Grapes that grow under these strained circumstances reward the vineyardist with rich, ripe, mouth-filling flavors that would otherwise be lost to regular rainfall.

When it rains, the vines’ roots draw in as much water as the plant can handle. This is good in the spring when the vines are beginning their annual growth. But once fruit has set, rain will only make the berries big and watery – great for table grapes, no good for wine.

During drought-like conditions, the vines do not suffer. A mature vine’s roots can burrow 30 feet or more into the ground, reaching pockets of moisture.

As the wineries were harvest their own grapes and receiving more from independent growers earlier this fall, all agreed that 2005 would be a wonderful wine vintage. The early-ripening varieties and those in warmer regions of Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore were the first to come in. The grapes of the Piedmont and western mountains needed a bit more time to ripen, and many white varieties arrived in late September and early October.

Then the heavy rains came in October. In the case of some of the late-ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, grapes were still on the vine, nearing their peak ripeness. Growers had to make the split decision upon seeing the weather forecast – quick harvest the grapes, or leave the grapes on the vine until after the rains. Some pulled the trigger and rushed into the vineyard to harvest, while others let the rains come and go, and harvested after the grapes regrouped and reconcentrated.

Expect the first bottled fruits of the harvest to arrive this month as some wineries release Nouveau wines. These wines are from the tradition of Beaujolais Nouveau – quick-fermented wines released to celebrate the great harvest. After the Nouveau wines, simple tank-fermented wines will begin arriving in early 2006, with barrel fermented and aged wines coming soon thereafter. Red wines will debut throughout 2006, all depending on their fermentation and aging processes.

The age-old theory is that great wines are made in the vineyard. Maryland wineries subscribe to this premise, so jump at the chance to taste the new 2005 wines as they are released.

December

Now that the winemaker has taken all of its fruit and the frost has stripped it of its leaves, the hard-working grapevine can take a well-deserved rest. The vineyard manager can relax a little as well, knowing that his crop is in good hands.

After spending a good portion of the year caring for – and worrying over – his crop, the grape grower can breath a sigh of relief, knowing that it’s now the winemakers turn to watch over ‘Vintage 2005’. The wine cellar is where all of the action is, and the vineyard is once again peaceful and quite.

Vines now enter a period of dormancy that will last until next spring. The mean daily temperature needs to be around 50 degrees before the vine will begin to grow, which in our area doesn’t occur until April.

It's during this dormant period that the pruning of the vines occurs. Most growers will wait until later in the winter and early spring before they head out into their vineyard, pruning shears in hand. Now is the time to reflect upon the years’ prior experiences and (hopefully) use the knowledge gained from these experiences to make ‘Vintage 2006’ an even better year.