Winter time in the vineyard

12th March 2018

From around April each year, British wine drinkers will start to head to wineries across the continent.

Longing for days filled with wine tastings, long lunches and basking in the long lost summer sun. The vineyards are lush and good times are rolling with many thinking how good a life it would be to own and run a vineyard.

Summer in the vineyard
Robert Oakley Vineyard, Summer Australia 2018

Alas, as with most jobs they are a full time gig, wine making being no different. There is a lot of dedication and hard work that growers, winemakers and their team put in year round. Their labour of love is what transforms into yours, being that illustrious glass of wine at the end of a day. Our latest blog looks at the annual winemaking cycle and gives an appreciation for what happens during cold, dark winter months in the vineyard.

Winter time in the vineyard - Savage Vines
Bare vines, Beaune 2018

For many a wine fiend, the winter months in the northern hemisphere are often spent inside by a roaring fire with a glass of red wine in toe. Given that there are 5 months of the year where temperatures don’t get above 10 degrees, it’s no wonder that monthly red wine consumption peaks in Britain between November and February. Going outside is something people grimace at and only contemplate if it’s a life or death situation, like having to put food on the table or get to the pub to watch the six nation’s.

If we look at a typical annual cycle it looks something like this, starting with the pruning which starts from as early as November each year. In the northern hemisphere, the grapes are picked from the vines from August through to November depending on where they are located in proximity to the equator. Vines in the likes of Spain, Southern France, Greece and Italy all tend to be picked in around late August to September. Regions like the north of France, Germany and Austria will tend to wait until mid October to pick the fruit, sometimes as late as November in order for the the grapes to be ripe enough to be suitable for making wine

Annual Vineyard Cycle
Vine Calender

Once the fruit is picked, the vineyard isn’t given much love by the wine maker as they are primarily concerned with crushing the grapes and getting the juice into steel tanks to in order to start the fermentation process. Then they add yeasts, and in some instances, a little bit of sulphuric acid to assist with ensuring the wine doesn’t oxidise and maintains a level of freshness in the fruit. That is a very trimmed down version of fermentation which we will go into more detail on in a subsequent blog post. The point being that the wine maker is solely focussed on making sure the grape juice is fermenting in the right conditions and continues to develop its natural aromas and flavours.

Tank fermentation - Savage Vines
Tank Fermentation, Chablis 2018

On a recent wine buying trip to France, the team took some time speak with winemakers and get some insight into what was happening in preparation for the 2018 vintage. Driving through Epernay (Champagne), Chablis and Burgundy all the vines were bare boned. Not a leaf or grape in sight. Even through there was no fruit on the vines, there were growers out in the freezing temperatures pruning their vines. Once all the fruit and foliage has removed itself from the vine at summer’s end, pruning is a critical process in order for the grower to focus the vine to produce the highest quality fruit possible.

Winter Time Burgundy
Burgundy, February 2018

Winter pruning is the second most costly exercise in the vineyard. It involves the wine growers, makers and their team to walk along the vines and remove unwanted canes from the vine. Once the appropriate fruit baring cane has been chosen, all the other canes are removed and the cane is cut to leave a precise number of buds or eyes from which the fruit will develop.  This is what will determine the potential yield of the vine that vintage (although nature may have an impact upon yield if frost, hail, wind damage occurs).

Un Pruned Vine
Pruned Vine

There are many things to take into account when choosing the cane as well as its health.  It must be facing the right direction, and must be close to the trunk to keep fruit in the ‘fruiting zone’. Each vine has to be treated differently and although it’s not complicated, it does require an understanding of the vine, how it behaves and the impact upon the vine both in the current year and the year after.

Pruning is primarily done by hand and generally takes several months. The introduction of electric pruners has made life easier for pruners but it remains hard work and essential to producing high quality fruit.  High quality fruit has the capacity to make high quality wine and all pruning needs to be done by February. Once spring time has arrived, the canes will be trained along steel trellises as they become more subtle and are able to be manipulated.

All the cut cane will then be discarded and a favoured method for this is burning it. If you have ever seen smoke coming from a vineyard in mid winter then you are observing a winter pruning in full swing.

Winter Pruning - Cane Burning

Appreciate that wine making is not all about glamorous estates or domains, there is a lot of hard work that goes into the wine making process which continues throughout the year, even in the freezing cold!  Next time you are in front of the fire and working your way through a bottle of wine, stop for a second and acknowledge the labour of love which has gone into getting that wine into your glass.

Winter in the vineyard is grim.

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