A Vineyard After Winter
On the second warm and sunny day of spring my wine class set out to learn how to trim the vines. There’s a lot to learn, and it’s actually fairly daunting, since every cut affects the summer’s production. First up, trim away any remaining dried grapes that have somehow managed to hang on through the winter’s storms.
In this vineyard, as in most of the vineyards in the south, the initial pruning is done by machines, which lumber down the aisles between the rows of vines, whacking and lopping them all to a set height. It’s a crude cut, but it saves a lot of hand labor. People with giant pruning shears follow, performing the annual spring ritual of taille des vignes, which in this case translates to pruning done by students with more equipment than skill, making the final decisions about the shape of the vine to come.
All vines here are grown by grafting the French varietal vines onto native American rootstock, since it’s the American vines that are resistant to the phyloxera bugs that almost wiped out the winemaking industry in the 1870’s. You can see the graft at the bottom of the vine.
These vines are 25 years old and have been through a lot, but their American roots have kept them healthy. I like that. This guy, showing the scars of many seasons of pruning, will produce gamay grapes, fewer and fewer each year as the vine ages. Fewer is better in wine grapes, as the vine concentrates all of its efforts on the flavor and color of the chosen few.
And when I say chosen, well, that’s because the vine needs a human touch. Here a classmate learns how to select the number and location of what will become this summer’s fruit-bearing branches.
These vines are being converted from an old-style pruning, in a goblet shape that resisted even the fiercest mistral winds without outside supports but had to be entirely hand trimmed, to a shape that lies flat along the support wires and can be trimmed mechanically. It takes years to change the plant’s habits, just as over the years the wine drinking habits of the French have been changing. The French drink less wine now than in the past, and the government is encouraging them to drink even less, to the general outrage and disgust of the growers and winemakers
The amount of wine produced from a vineyard is also affected by the amount of water the vines get during the summer. So while it’s esthetically pleasing to plant grasses and flowers between the vines, they’re more than just pretty faces. When there’s too much rain, the grasses thrive and suck up the excess moisture, providing the vines with the necessary amount of water deprivation. Vines like to suffer for their art. But in years of severe drought, the grasses and flowers are removed so that the vines get every drop of rainfall. And those red rose bushes that you see so often at the ends of vine rows in Provence? They’re there to indicate the presence of the oidium mildew. Flowers at work, I like that too.
It’s a long road from last year’s dried grapes to this year’s new wine.
And an even longer road to reach something you actually want to drink. But no matter how modern, no matter how mechanized and sanitized and standardized many parts of the wine business have become, it all starts, each and every year, with a pair of hands and a set of clippers. And I like that a lot.