Spring is finally here! The grass is green once again. The dogwoods and cherry blossoms are all in bloom. It’s gorgeous!
All this new foliage reminds me of Spring at the Vineyard. It’s that time of year when the vines are once again in bud break. They awake from hibernation and baby green shoots and leaves begin to emerge. It’s one of my favorite times of year at the vineyard. It may seem small to many, but it represents a reawakening and new life to me.
During the winter, the vines lay dormant. Leaves are gone and the vines look like deciduous trees when they lose their leaves. They are brown and barren. In fact, I once had a guest at an event at the vineyard in December ask me what was wrong with our vines. I still laugh when I remember this, because he was certain our entire vineyard had been hit with some sort of blight. Even when I explained the vines are always bare during the winter, he thought I wasn’t telling him the truth.
The cycle of the vineyard is fascinating to me. Each month brings something new and beautiful. Once the vines go through bud break, it only gets better and better. They begin to flower and then the berries start to form. By the time summer is in full swing, the grape clusters change color and they are round and juicy. Finally, in the fall, the grapes are harvested.
Or, at least, that’s how the cycle is supposed to be.
With the California draught over the last few years, the cycle has shortened. Bud break came early this year. When I visited in February, the vines were already green. This normally doesn’t happen until March or April in Southern California. Last year, the vineyard was harvested in August. It had never been harvested so early, but the sugar in the grapes was at the correct levels. They were ready to be plucked.
When giving tours at the Vineyard, I have often been asked what the draught means for the California Wine Industry. The shortened vineyard cycle is just one consequence of the heat and lack of water from the draught.
Grape vines do well when they struggle. The more they struggle, the better the wine…to a point. Like all vegetation, grapes do need water. However, they do very well on a drip irrigation system that drops water where the vine needs it and when the vine needs it.
With less water, the vine puts its energy into the grape clusters. Sugars are more condensed and the grapes have more robust flavors. This makes for some bold, delicious wine! The 2015 vintage for the winery I work for are some of the most complex and luscious wines we’ve created to date.
However, because the water is limited, there are not as many grapes as usual. Less water equals fewer grapes. Vineyards throughout California had lower yields in 2015, some reporting as much as 80% less.
For many vineyards, less water can mean a buildup of salt in the soil. Salt kills the vines. The only way to get rid of the salt is to have water flush it from the soil. So, even with the increased rain from El Niño this year, California still needs a few more years of good rain.
Some vineyards have started dry farming, where vines only get the water that comes naturally. There are plusses and minuses to this technique. These vines are adept at surviving draught since the roots grow deeper to find more water. The wine produced is also rich and complex since the roots are influenced by the deeper soil, rather than the topsoil. However, the yields of the grapes are smaller and sometimes the wine can taste “raisiny.”
I had the opportunity to taste a 2012 Syrah that had been dry farmed at Foxen Canyon Tinaquaic Vinyard. It was not the typical Syrah I know and love, but it was something surprisingly richer. The tasting notes describe is as “laced with rose petal, white flowers, mint, blood orange and spices with gorgeous aromatics.” I remember the taste of the blood orange in that Syrah. It was unexpected and made me want to try more dry farmed wines.
Dry farming is not a new concept. This technique has been used for hundreds of years in the Mediterranean and was the only way California vintners grew grapes until the 1970s. If you’ve seen “Bottleshock,” the wine that won the “Judgement of Paris” and put California wines on the International map, was dry farmed. Currently, only a handful of California wineries dry farm, mostly along the coast and in the foothills. The vineyards that are known for dry farming, like Tablas Creek, have reported good yields and great fruit in the last few years. However, since they have been dry farming for years, the vines are used to these conditions.
I don’t want to say the outlook for the California Wine Industry is bleak. California has survived draughts in years past. It just might be a time for vintners to get creative about the way the grapes are grown and resurrect some techniques from the past.