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What does it mean: “quality wine?”
We hear the term and wonder how a particular wine is considered “quality.” You’re in a wineshop looking at shelf after shelf of attractive bottles and wonder: What makes this one a quality wine but not this one, next to it?
A lot of wine drinkers don’t even pause to consider what goes into making a wine and could care less. As long as they like it and it’s a price they want to pay, they drink it. If you want to know what distinguishes a quality wine, it’s the work that goes into producing the grapes that go into the wine. Another distinguishing feature of quality wine is how long and well it ages, once bottled.
We learn that 80 percent of the work of making wine happens in the vineyard. That doesn’t leave very much room for a winemaker’s influence!
Yet, it is common these days for winemakers work with the viticulturist to produce the kinds of grapes needed to craft the wine the winemaker envisions. Often, these techniques produce wine that will age well. It’s a fact that most wine purchasers today are not patient “collectors.” Most wine purchased today will be consumed within 72 hours. That’s a statistic developed through surveys. So why bother to make wine that will continue to age in the bottle for years?
My guess is that it is a matter of pride and, of course, profit. The casual consumer as well as those few rare collectors buy wine. Winemakers must still satisfy both kinds of consumer. But what effort in the vineyard helps produce the kind of fruit needed to make quality wine?
First of all the grower had to be careful in selecting a vineyard site. So many variables go into growing Vitis vinifera vines that the wrong site would be an expensive mistake.
Sunlight and temperature are the prime factors to be figured into the complicated equation. These are influenced by geographic latitude, slope, aspect and topography. And you thought it was soil! Soil does factor, but only after these other elements have been considered, because soil can be amended to be better – or less “vigorous.”
We’ve all heard about the “vigor” of a vine; but not many know that a site’s “vigor” is considered, as well. Vigor, for a vine, means it’s growth –- of buds, shoots, vines, leaves, etc.
For soil, it is the capability, or problems related to the ability, of supporting what you intend to grow. The grower can use practices that influence the ability of the soil and the mychorrizae that live in the soil to support grapevine growth. Mychorrizae is the term for the collection of different microscopic organisms that live in the soil around the roots of the vine. They can help the plant with uptake of nutrients and water; some of them can also hinder the process.
Water, ah, yes, water. Grapevines need a sufficient supply of water to thrive. Most warm climate varieties need a minimum of 15 to 16 inches of rain and/or irrigation water to produce quality grapes. Some AVAs in eastern Washington get only five inches of rain a year. The rest has to be made up with good quality water, most likely from a well or irrigation canal.
In eastern Washington conditions, any more total water than that is likely to produce grapevine vigor that takes away from the quality of the fruit produced.
So when there is an unusually rainy season, you find the growers very worried. They like to control the amount of water the plants receive. Strangely, warm climate grapevines seem to prefer to be a little water “stressed.” If the grapevines receive too much water, growers can “overcrop” the vines which may cause vines “bad” stress damage which will impact the ability to produce quality fruit in the future.
It’s the same for cool climate grapes grown in the marine climate on the western side of the Cascades; however, they better tolerate higher amounts of rainfall, up to 60 inches a year, and they do just fine.
It’s also essential to match the variety to the site. Less vigorous varieties go well on vigorous sites; and vice versa. A vine that is not as vigorous needs a more vigorous site. Again, the requirements to grow various varieties has to be considered before planting. Many vines are sensitive to cold and frost. Some are extremely cold hardy. These characteristics influence where in the vineyard they are planted, if at all. But that’s another subject, about slope, aspect and cold air drainage.
Just because you have a vineyard and want to grow tempranillo grapes doesn’t mean that the site you have is a good one for that particular variety!
Once the vineyard is up and growing, vineyard practices, including canopy management are essential to producing quality fruit, which equals quality juice for the winemaker to use in making wine.
Good viticulture practices are aimed at achieving an appropriate balance between vegetative and reproductive development, according to W. Mark Kliewer and Ted Casteel in Oregon Viticulture.
They further say that good canopy management aims to create a continuous canopy for efficient fruit production and to create the appropriate environmental conditions for the intended grape yield and wine quality.
A continuous canopy means that grapes touch on the trellis system. In eastern Washington that is usually a double trunk vines on a wide variety of trellis systems. The different systems were developed in response to various varieties of grapes’ vigor.
A discontinuous canopy, conversely, does not touch along the fruiting wire, therefore reducing economic efficiency.
Canopy management is a number of techniques that alter the position and number of shoots, leaves and fruit; in turn, this alters the canopy microclimate. Depending on the winemaker’s vision for the grapes to be produced is the method that is used.
All of the methods require a lot of work for vineyard help. Getting maximum sunshine to the fruit is the principal aim of canopy management. It includes pruning during dormancy.
This limits the number of buds and shoots in spring growth.
Vigor diversion is another method of canopy management. This means retaining extra shoots to divert excess growth capacity.
In some cases a third method used is shoot thinning and suckering. Suckers are the shoots that grow near the trunk. Extra shoots and suckers need to be removed to prevent vigor diversion.
As Vitis vinifera is apical (meaning it grows straight up, not down, like Vitus labrusca, the native American grapevine), it needs to be “hedged,” or cut at the top at some point during the growing season. Sometimes shoots must be hedged more than once. Often, catch wires are moved up to support these vines. Twelve to 14 leaves need to be left on shoots with clusters to support photosynthesis for leaves in order to produce good grapes; but around the grape clusters, leaves are “thinned.” This means picking them by hand to allow more sunshine to reach the clusters.
Some varieties are tender skinned to the point that they will “sunburn” in direct late afternoon sun. In that case, not as many leaves are removed from the side where the sun is most direct.
For every leaf between the shining sun and the cluster, sunlight is reduced 90 percent. If there are three leaves preventing sunshine reaching the cluster, you can imagine what happens to the ability of the cluster to become ripe.
Many winemakers contract for the number of clusters to be reduced to concentrate flavors in less fruit per acre. Where most varieties of vines are capable of producing four tons of grapes per acre, a winemaker may specify that he wants the contracted vineyard block to produce only one ton per acre. Even if winemakers do not specify a reduction in tonnage, viticulturists may reduce the number of clusters to prevent overcropping.
This helps you to understand just some of the major considerations that go into growing the fruit that should become quality wine in the hands of a competent winemaker.