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Basic Vineyard Management Principles

by Staff Writer - B. Shaughnessy | February 06, 2012

The quality of wine is determined by the conditions in which grapes are grown. Now more than ever, the old adage "Fine wine is created in the vineyard" cannot be understated. This is logical in that the grape is the source of the juice used in winemaking. If winemaking grapes are inferior as a result of their growth, then the wine produced from these grapes will be inferior as well. It is therefore critical that present day vintners utilize accepted vineyard management practices to promote superior grape yields. Vintners must also keep up with technological and scientific developments concerning vineyard management.

One of the first elements to review with respect to vineyard management is the grape vine itself. The grape vine used for winemaking is a member of a large family of climbing plants. This family is known as the Vitaceae family. The Vitaceae family is a family of crawling and sprawling vine type plants with several species confined to it. Only one of the species of the Vitaceae family is responsible for the majority of the world's winemaking endeavors. This species is the European grape vine that is also known as V. vinifera.

It is important to realize that other varieties of the Vitaceae family are used to produce wine. Varieties such as V. labrusca, V. riparia, V. aestivalis serve niche markets in the winemaking community. However the use of these varieties for the production of wine is significantly dwarfed by the use of V. vinifera.

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Under the species of vinifera exists a multitude of varieties available for wine production. These varieties include such famous names as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling to name a few. The breakdown of varieties is defined by a further subset of different strains of a specific variety. Within plant growth and reproduction, plants do not reproduce identically when grown from seed. Grape vines are no exception to this rule. Over the long history of grape growing in Europe, different strains of V. vinifera varieties naturally developed. Natural criteria for the development of these strains could be different soil conditions found at different vineyards as well as different climactic conditions found at different vineyards. The notion of strains found within varieties is an important concept with respect to modern grape growing. This can be seen in the modern clone programs used for grape propagation. Toward the end of the twentieth century, agencies began to document the various strains found within the varieties of V. vinifera. By documenting these strains, a clearinghouse of information was created that vintners could turn to for finding specific strains suitable for their localized growing conditions. As grape cuttings can be easily encouraged to root, clones of the various strains of V. vinifera were easily created. The end result is that vineyard creation and expansion today is accomplished by the use of clone programs.

As important as the selection of the proper grape variety is to winemaking, the selection of a site-specific rootstock is just as important. Plant life is fascinating with the various ways in which reproduction occurs. Additional methods for the propagation of plants exist outside the germination of a seed. One such method is the concept of grafting a scion onto a rootstock. Grafting was known to the ancients but did not come into widespread use with respect to V. vinifera until the onslaught of the Phylloxera louse. Grafting V. vinifera scions onto hybridized Native American rootstocks was the eventual solution to the Phylloxera problem. It was soon discovered that additional benefits were obtained by utilizing a rootstock propagation program with grape vines. The main benefit outside of combating Phylloxera was that vintners could now select rootstock tailored to grow in site-specific conditions. Today all newly planted vineyards feature scions grafted onto rootstock selected for near compatibility with local soil and climactic conditions.

When it comes to the management of vineyard soils and water, the vintner is at some point confined to the mercy of Mother Nature. Technologies and techniques do exist today for the optimization of local growing conditions. However in the end there is only so much one can do with local conditions. When considering the development of a vineyard, one must choose land conducive for successful growing of wine grapes. Even with this prerequisite, differences found in soil types and water quantities must be compensated for. In terms of the earth, soils that are too rich in nutrients result in vines not developing a complex root system. This leads to a lack of absorption of essential minerals and eventually results in grapes that have no character. The same holds true for soils that are too weak. In this scenario, the grape vine may develop a large root system but never be able to absorb essential nutrients and minerals. In the case of water, well-drained land always lends itself to the best agricultural yields. If too much water is left standing then the vines may have a difficult time in growing to maturity. In situations where a lack of water exists, vines may suffer from retarded fruit production. With regards to growing techniques, vintners have many different options. In rich soils vines can be planted much more densely than in weaker soil types. Concerning water, field tiling can be utilized to aid natural drainage mechanisms. Also, in areas where a lack of ground water exists, irrigation can be used to supplement rain.

Soil types and water conditions are not the only areas where vintners are limited in their control. Local climates present the greatest challenge to vintners with respect to growing grapes acceptable for winemaking. Weather patterns are essential for agricultural success but are outside anyone's control. Therefore, vintners must recognize local climatic conditions and design the vineyard around these conditions. Growing conditions such as sunlight affect the sugars and acids found within the grape. Too much sunlight can result in a grape with high sugars and not enough acids. This would produce a dull and alcoholic wine. On the reverse side not enough sunlight would result in grapes with a low sugar lever. Wines made with grapes of a low sugar level would have a very low alcoholic level. To control the effects of local microclimates on grapes, vintners design their vineyards around the conditions of the microclimates. In areas where sunlight must be captured, vines can be planted on slopes that are angled to maximize sunlight exposure. Vines can also be trained to form a specific leaf pattern based on climactic conditions. This leaf pattern is known as a canopy. In areas where climactic conditions are problematic, the resulting canopy is trained into a bush and encouraged to grow lower to the ground. In this canopy design the resulting grapes are kept close to rocks radiating heat absorbed from the sun. In climates where conditions are on the hotter side, the grape canopy is trained to grow into a high Pergola. In a pergola canopy, grapes are allowed to remain in the shade created by the canopy.

In growing grapes conducive to excellent winemaking, understanding the parameters concerning grape varieties, rootstock programs, soil and climactic conditions are all important. Just as important however are the actions taken to care for the vines as they grow and bear fruit. The vineyard must be continually monitored and have any issues dealt with before they become serious problems. For example, grape growth must be monitored and controlled. In the instance of grape growth, some vintners will trim back the bunches of grapes so that the vine concentrates the storage of sugars and nutrients into a fewer amount of grapes. Pruning is also important in this respect. Based on the conditions found in a canopy, leaves will be pruned back to adjust the proper exposure of the grapes to the sun. Also of concern is adequate rainfall. In areas where a lack of water is a problem vintners have turned to irrigation systems. Irrigation can be the saving grace for a winery if a region is hit by a dry spell. It should be noted that not all regions allow for irrigation to be used in vineyards. Finally, there are several different systematic approaches used when dealing with the vineyard as a whole. Systems such as Viticulture Raisonee, Organic Viticulture and Biodynamic Viticulture exist. Within these systems, various grape growing techniques are standardized and promote working with the environment for high quality grape growth.

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