First in a series of posts about the 2013 vintage at three New England wineries that will will run through the fall.
PORTSMOUTH, R.I. The early April skies are gray, the midday light feeble, and temperatures in the vineyard on the banks of the Sakonnet River feel much colder than the low 40s the thermometer registers. Field workers (above) at Greenvale Vineyards are bundled against the chill and damp as they move from one cabernet franc vine to the next patiently positioning and tying off the year-old canes that will bear fruit here later in the season. The vines have already had a first pruning (you can see the clipped branches awaiting collection in the foreground) aimed at clearing away last year’s growth.
Tidying up the vines in preparation for a season of active growth and fruit production is typically the first work undertaken at the outset of each new vintage, and in New England where testy weather often lasts well into April, the work, which is hard and tedious everywhere, is also cold and raw.
I’m in southern Rhode Island to begin a series of posts that will chronicle the 2013 vintage at three New England wine properties as it unfolds from early April, when the buds first begin to swell, to late October or even November when the new wine is vatted and the vines retreat into their annual dormancy. The properties we’ll be following are Greenvale, whose well-tended vineyards in Portsmouth, R.I. are just a few miles from the Newport mansions; Turtle Creek Winery in Lincoln, Mass., 20 miles west of from Boston; and La garagista in Barnard, Vt. in the mountains above the village of Woodstock.
The three properties lie roughly along an axis running north-northwest. The distance from southernmost to northernmost is about 165 miles as the crow flies and spans about three degrees of latitude. Each is family-run. In each case, the ownership is intelligent, passionate, and articulate; serious about the wine they make and with the arrival of every new vintage determined to make more of it than they did the year before.
It’s easy to forget that at one time the celebrated vineyards of northern Europe were nothing more than wooded hillsides. The Romans, who generally took the long view of things, planted vines wherever they thought there was a chance they would thrive. The further north they moved, the more challenging viticulture became. In high northern latitudes the cold can be severe enough to winter-kill vines; sunlight so meager grapes do not ripen sufficiently to make a stable, palatable wine.
The marginal conditions of the northeastern U.S. confront winemaker with a similar set of problems. One solution has come in the form of hybrid grape varieties that attempt to marry the cold-hardiness of native American species vitis labrusca and vitis riparia with the finer qualities of vitis vinifiera — the more familiar Eurasian version of the vine and the source of popular varieties like chardonnay and merlot.
Another approach has been to identify those relatively few areas where vinifera grapes have a fighting chance and to select clones of noble grape varieties known to thrive in higher latitudes.
In New England, wineries often hedge their bets by planting both hybrid and vinifera species, but perhaps because the expectations for wines made with hybrid grapes are so much lower, the real test of a winemaker lies in how competently she can execute a classically-proportioned vinifera table wine in the European tradition under these very challenging conditions.
From a biological point of view, each new vintage begins as vines — whether hybrid or vinifera — wake from their long winter sleep under the influence of warming soils and a lengthening day. From the perspective of the vineyard manager and his team, the vintage gets its start as snow retreats from the ground and workers can get into the rows to start trimming and shaping the vines. In this part of the world, work needs to start early enough so that a first pruning can be completed by the end of April.
On April 11, the bud on the cabernet franc cane above at Greenvale Vineyards (see property profile) is already swelling, but dry — at least several weeks away from sprouting its tiny leaves in the moment known as bud break. Pruning has been going on for about two weeks at this date.
Workers here trim each individual plant back to four canes that will be laid down on and tied to horizontally strung wires, two canes at a lower level and two a little higher up, each stretching out horizontally on either side of the vine trunk.
Shoots emerge from these canes and head skyward, so that eventually each vine will look a bit like a double-decker menorah, with four arms instead of two. You can see the shape in the photo at left, although here the canes have not yet been bent down and tied to the horizontal fruiting wires. Click on the photo for a closer look.
Pruning is necessary partly to ensure that the vine’s energy is directed to productive ends, partly to create avenues for sunlight and air to penetrate the foliage and deliver their beneficial effects to the ripening fruit, and partly to limit the bunches per vine to a number each vine can adequately support.
The same week and 50 miles further north, Matt Bombassaro (left) enjoys unseasonably fine weather as he snips and clips vines at Turtle Creek (property profile here) into shape. Owner Kip Kumler maintains around 4000 pinot noir, cab franc, chardonnay, and riesling vines at his Conservation Hill vineyard and immediately around the winery, an appendage of his handsome home on nearby Beaver Pond Rd. in Lincoln, Mass.
At Turtle Creek, vine trunks (the vertical, permanent part of the plant) are tall, rising five feet or so before reaching the point where second-year canes emerge in the tangle of woody growth that needs to be cleared away each spring.
This raised architecture creates an elevated fruit zone that protects delicate growth from late frosts. Kumler cherishes the notion that since perennial wood is the only source of carbohydrates before photosynthesis kicks in with the development of a leaf canopy, his vines are also better nourished with these long, sturdy trunks. It may also position the fruit more advantageously for ripening in New England’s short growing season.
Some vines here are spur-pruned, others cane-trained (view a demonstration of the different techniques from the Oregon State Agricultural Extension Service here and here) and tailleur Bombassaro stresses the need to assess each vine individually before removing any wood. The idea is to leave 10-20 buds per vine.
As at Greenvale, each plant gets a rough cut early on and a finish cut a few weeks later. Kumler says the 2012-2013 winter was unusually mild here. This is the first year he and Bombassaro decided not to “hill up” the vines with earth and straw as winter protection.
Further north still, at La garagista (property profile here) in Barnard, Vt, winemaker Deirdre Heekin is wary of starting vine clean-up and shaping too early. Since initial warming can alternate with damaging blasts of frost here in the hilly country abutting the Chateauguay, Heekin fears sending “early wake-up calls” to the plants by premature pruning.
Heekin also prefers at least two rounds of trimming. She notes that since leafing-out starts before the danger of frost is past and occurs sequentially starting with the tips of the canes and moving toward the trunk, leaving some extra length means that if a killing frost does occur it will likely affect only the extra buds at the extremity of the canes. The buds closer to the trunk, which have not yet burst, will not be affected. In a second round of tailoring the now extraneous outer buds can be nipped off.
Heekin and her husband Caleb Barber (the couple own restaurant Pane e Salute in Woodstock village) have additional reasons for the careful pruning they undertake each spring. They make cuttings of the prunings and use them to propagate their best-performing vines (left) and so extend their vineyard with high-quality vinestock already acclimated to their micro-terroir.
La garagista has been organic from the outset and prefers to take the most natural approach to winemaking that’s practical. They also follow biodynamic principles, which means, in part, scheduling their work to coincide with the fruit, root, leaf, and flower days identified on the biodynamic calendar – each of which is considered particularly suitable for accomplishing certain tasks.
Biodynamic practice adds a layer of complication to the work that the larger properties needn’t contend with (La garagista is about half the size of Turtle Creek in vineyard acreage and scarcely a thirtieth that of Greenvale). On this, more later in the series.
With a first round of pruning behind them, canes trimmed and tied, vineyards tidied up, there’s not much more to do except await the bursting forth of new vegetation known as bud-break – the first critical moment in the annual cycle of a New England vintage.