Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wine Grape Canopy Management

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History and Science Go Well With Wine

Wine has unfalteringly accompanied us through history. It has seen the rise and fall of many an empire, it stood by us in biblical times, sloshed around in goblets at our medieval feasts, and patiently waited for us to regain our senses during prohibition.

Man has been making wine for centuries. So we’ve had a little time to study and try to improve upon our techniques. In fact, we’ve done so much pondering on the subject that it has become its own science; enology.

There are numerous steps in making a good wine that start from the instant the very first vines are planted all the way to the bottle. Aspects of botany, soil biology, chemistry, microbiology, genetics, ecology, physics, and engineering (just to name a few), all come into play in the complex orchestra of making a wine.

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One technique that has emerged one the forefront of enology is canopy management. The term canopy management is just a fancy way of referring to the control and orientation of grape vines and leaves. But don’t be fooled by this simple definition, canopy management is a complex and important technique.

So What’s a Canopy and Why Does it Need to be Managed?

When viticulturists refer to the “canopy”, they are talking about the shoot system of the plant, which includes the leaves, the stems, and the grape clusters. The canopy can be described by it’s length, height, width, leaf area, and density of the shoots.

When picturing a healthy vineyard, you may think of long dark green rows of vines, with dense and lush leaves. As you walk into the rows, it’s shady and the air is cooler and moist. These growing conditions may sound perfect but in reality they do not produce the best wines. The best wines come from low yield vines that are slightly stressed and the grapes have more contact with light and air.

Research has proven that fruit from these types of vines taste better and are less likely to suffer from infections of bunch rot or mildew. This is because removing leaves and spacing out vines increases air movement. This in turn means that moisture from rain and dew dry faster, which prevents the formation of diseases. Also, any preventative sprays used on the canopy will penetrate farther in. So through leaf plucking, trimming and vine positioning, the viticulturist manages the canopy to produce the best grapes for wine.

Plucking and Trimming and Spacing, oh my!

The aim of canopy management is to maximize the amount of sunlight and minimize shading , all while maintaining a good balance between shoot growth and grape production. Doesn’t sound too difficult, right? The tricky part is that every grape variety, every vineyard, and every growing season is different. So in turn, every canopy needs to be managed differently.

There are five basic steps of canopy management that every viticulturist should follow. Some varieties of grapes require all five steps, some require less, and some require the repeat of certain steps. If the growing season that year is dry, then less steps should be used, or if it is wet, more should be used. Viticulturists must decide (sometimes through trial and error) how to adjust canopy management techniques to best suit their own situation.

So let’s start with the first step, shoot thinning. This consists of removing any unwanted shoots that are growing on the trunk of the main vine. Any shoots that have no fruit are removed first, unless the vine itself is damaged and the new shoot will help replace the trunk. Shoot thinning should be done early in the season. This way shoots are easily removable and the grapes are visible to distinguish between fruitful and unfruitful shoots. Once shoot thinning is done, the canopy should have about 6-8 shoots per foot.

Our next step is shoot positioning. Shoots don’t just grow up and down. Often they grow sideways and attach to other shoots and vines. So the viticulturist positions the shoots so that they will grow in a way that promotes an open canopy, and stays with the shape of the trellis system. There are two unique terms used in shoot positioning and they are combing and tucking. Combing means to position the shoot downwards and tucking means to position the shoot upwards. Shoot positioning should be done some time between blooming and when the fruit sets in. During this window of opportunity, the shoots are strong enough not to snap and the tendrils aren’t fully active.

The next step is referred to as cluster thinning. This means to remove some grape blooms or the grape clusters from the vine. But why do this, it sounds just like the viticulturists are cutting off the very thing they want to grow. This practice actually improves the grapes and vines left behind and leads to a healthier long lived vineyard. Not all varieties of grapes require cluster thinning but most varieties will be improved using this technique. Also, sometimes a vine will fall behind in production. A viticulturist might completely remove every cluster from this vine. This allows the vines to recover and put all of their energy into the vines and trunk. This makes for a healthier vine the next year.

Step four is leaf removal. Leaves are removed for two purposes. They are to increase airflow and increase sunlight exposure. Leaves are plucked from the shady side of the vine and not the sunny side. This is because direct sunlight may give the fruit sunburn. Pulling leaves from the shady side will increase light and air penetration but still leaves the fruit in a protected position. One disadvantage of leaf pulling is that it allows birds to easily penetrate the vines too. Leaf plucking should be done before veraison. Verasion is when the berries stop growing and coloration (in red grape varieties) begins. Any leaf plucking done after this period is useless because it is too late to have any affect on the berries themselves and will most likely only cause sunburn.

The final step is shoot hedging. Shoot hedging is cutting any shoots that grow beyond the space of the trellis. This controls shoot length and helps promote shoot placement and spacing. The weather determines how many times shoot hedging is required. A particularly rainy summer will mean more hedging for the viticulturist because shoot will, well, shoot up.

“Beer is made by men, wine by God” ~ Martin Luther

Wine production is a centuries old technique, but how much praise for the end product do we deserve and how much do we owe to nature? We have come to understand many ways to make better wines but we still don’t know exactly every aspect that makes a great wine great. That last tiny aspect that pushes a good wine to great may not be under our complete control. The same exact wine from the same exact grape will vary from year to year. Whether it’s the rain, the wind, the sun or the soil, there is a factor or two in wine making that is left up to chance. We are never completely sure what we are going to get until we pop that cork.

I’ll drink to that.

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