Wine Talk: The vineyard year

To everything there is a season, especially in the winemaking industry.

May 30, 2012 16:46
Kayoumi Vineyard

Kayoumi Vineyard . (photo credit: Courtesy)

Wine is an agricultural product made in the vineyard. Vineyard owners making good wine grow wine, not grapes. You have a chance to make good wine from good grapes, but it is very difficult to make good wine from bad grapes. Throughout the winery year the viticulturist, an agronomist specializing in vineyards, will tend to the vineyard, often under the winemaker’s direct instructions.

The leaves will have turned that lovely rusty color after the harvest, before falling away. The stark vines are left standing like wiry stick statues through the winter months, when the vines are dormant, almost hibernating. They look dead, but they are very much alive, as if gaining strength in their roots for the coming season.

A cold winter, like the last one, is good for vines.

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This is the time the vineyards are pruned. The pruning will determine how the vine is to be trained and grown. Some of the more newly planted vines are trellised to allow use of a mechanical harvester.

The older vines are in the bush style, very close to the ground. They have to be hand-picked. The pruning will also determine the sort of yield the winemaker is seeking. Questions of volume or quality need to be decided. A need for vigor is balanced by the need of concentrated flavorful bunches of grapes, which may require lower yields. All this is determined by this winter activity.

This is a time of birth and reawakening.

Sap flows upwards from the roots. The birds are singing. The bad weather of the winter has finally passed. Buds swell, and littler green shoots appear. These are tasty for wildlife, so young vines closer to the ground may need to be protected from hungry animals.

The next stage is for the tiny shoots to become stronger, and then tiny delicate flower clusters appear. This is a critical stage of pollination. In more northern vineyards in Europe, a harsh frost can at a stroke destroy or deplete a year’s crop. The grower has to nurture his charges through the difficulties of the spring and guard them from wildlife, pests and disease until the summer arrives.

You know it is summer when there is a sight of grape berries, which are first the size of a pinhead and later the size of green peas. In Israel, there is no rain during the summer months. It can be hot and humid. In midsummer, the grapes gradually gain their color, and the ripening process begins.

Again, the balance is maintained by managing the canopy of leaves. Too many leaves can be a positive or negative thing depending on the situation and the objectives.

Sometimes the leaves could be thinned if the grower wants more direct sunlight. Alternatively, fruit can be removed to concentrate flavor.

The most serious weather hazard in Israel is the hamsin – hot winds when temperatures can spiral. During these periods, the vine shuts down to survive, and ripening is put on hold. The main animal hazard depends on where the vineyard is situated.

On the Golan Heights, the main pest is wild boars. They love gorging on ripe grapes. The winemaker knows the grapes are ripe when the boars are nighttime visitors.

The main hazard in the northern and eastern Negev is roaming camels. They see the vine as a welcome salad, and they can eat a vine to its roots within seconds.

This is the season of the harvest. The winemaker will be monitoring the taste and making field analysis in the vineyards.

Acidity, pH, sugar levels, color and taste are checked repeatedly. Finally a decision is made when to harvest. Should the winemaker pick early for more acidity or later for more ripeness? Deciding when to pick can be a gamble, but getting it right is an important criterion for the successful winemaker.
In France, the harvest is over in two months. In Israel, it may last three and a half months. The bulk of the harvest is from August to the end of October, but more often than not it starts mid-July and can go into the first week of November.

In Israel, there is a surprising number of different microclimates for such a small country.

Harvesting is ideally done in the coolness of the night. Speed is crucial to get the grapes to the winery before the natural process of fermentation starts. It is also important to get the harvest in before rot sets in or the first rains start, which may swell and dilute the grapes. In Israel, it usually does not rain before the harvest is in, but from late October sometimes the first rains can give the winemakers a few sleepless nights. However, this is a far more regular problem in Europe than in Israel.

The harvested fruit is taken to the winery, and the winemakers and winery staff begin to work all hours at the winery to receive the grapes and turn their special cargo into wine.

The weather and “terroir” local to the vineyard have a large effect on the quality of the finished wine. There is a saying. In a good year, the winery owner says, “Thank God for the good vintage.” In a bad year, he says, “Thank God I have a good winemaker!”

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.

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