Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Homage to the Vine

   At this time of year, in vineyards around the world, there is an amazing phenomenon taking place. Viticulturists (cultivators of grape vines) everywhere are beginning the early stages of what is known as the seasons of the vine. By now most have completed the first stage in the process leading to harvest called pruning. Pruning is the method of cutting the previous year's dead or overgrown branches and stems to encourage new, healthier growth on the vine. The sections of the vine are the trunk, followed by the cordon or “arm”, then the cane and the shortened cane called the spur. Pruning can start as early as January or February and continues through to harvest and usually after.
   The new growth, known as bud break, is when new shoots begin to push through and we see the first signs of green on the vines. As the buds break, the vines start flowering. This is the stage immediately prior to fertilization when small flower clusters appear on the new growth. Once the fertilized flower develops a seed and a grape berry to protect the seed, this stage is called fruit set. At this point the tiny berries are green, hard and have very little sugar. There is a spike in the sugar levels and the green fruit will begin to turn red. This is known as veraison and so begins the ripening process of the grapes, which takes about 40-50 days.
   All of this ultimately leads to harvest, which is when the grapes are pulled from the vines and go through the winemaking process (a whole other blog entry). In the Northern Hemisphere this takes place between August and October, while in the Southern Hemisphere it occurs between February and April. Harvest is determined mainly by the ripeness of the grapes, but weather and vine disease can help a viticulturist decide when to begin the procedure as well.                          
   Two years ago, I had the pleasure of experiencing pruning first hand at my cousin Lisa's “vineyard” up in Maine. Yes, you heard right, Maine! Lisa first planted in 2006 and now has 42 vines (just under .25 acres) of Frontenac, Marechal Foch and a few Noiret - all red grapes. Because of the colder climate in Maine, she performs a double-pruning process each season. During the first pruning, she leaves four canes with 20 buds untouched and then shortens them (spurs) during the second, leaving about 10 buds and tying back the vines. 
   When I was visiting two years ago in March, we started the first round of pruning in the snow. I was amazed by the care that is taken when cutting away the old growth; it is not done willy-nilly. Before cutting, you must assess the vines; see what has the most potential to produce bud break and survive the possible frost. There is a lot of studying, cutting, and tying back of the vines; whole process is an art.

Before pruning (Lisa's vines, Maine)

After pruning (Lisa's vines, Maine)

   So next time you uncork your favorite bottle of wine, think about where the grapes originate. Most people only visualize the actual winemaking process and what often comes to mind is the classic I Love Lucy episode where Lucy stomps the grapes in the huge vat, making everyone laugh with her impeccable comedic timing. We forget about all the hard work that goes into the growing process and the seasons of the vine.

Cin Cin!

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