Spring in the Vineyard

Spring time in the vineyard
Grapevines and mustard growing in California's Napa Valley

Grapevines and mustard growing in California’s Napa Valley

Spring arrived a week or so ago, and much of the country has finally seen flowers start to bloom and things start to green up.  I have kept track of spring in California, as vineyards in many areas saw early an early warm spell, which actually caused an early bud break for some white varietals in Napa Valley.  This was followed by cold spells that had vineyard managers seeing sleepless nights as they monitored for frost.  Then they got rain and clouds, that turned early spring breakers away from the coast.  Now the warm temps are back and bud break has begun in many areas.

Now I am seeing beautiful photos on my Instagram feed of vineyards carpeted in green, dotted with flowers and the dormant vines spouting plumps ends, that are starting to open and leaf out.  So it seems appropriate to dive into a little of what happens in spring in the vineyards.

Spring

Perfect spring conditions have the weather warming gradually. The barren vines become dotted with bright green buds. Bud break when the tiny buds of green burst forward with those vividly bright green leaves. The vines coming back to life after being dormant all winter is a time for celebration right?

Sadly, with spring comes spring frosts, and those are a nightmare for those who work in the vineyards.

Paso Robles vineyard in the Central Coast Wine Country

A beautiful West Side Paso Vineyard in the hills, green with spring.

Frost & frost protection

If you have ever driven by a citrus grove in winter, you might see the big barrels for fire (smudge pots) and fans to spread around the warm air. This can be used in vineyards also.

Fans

Large fans or wind machines are used in vineyards to move the air around. This directs the warmer air from above down toward the vines and displaces the colder air on the ground away from the vines. You need one of these machines for every 10 to 12 acres of vineyard.

Heaters

Heaters or smudge pots can be used to heat the air in the vineyards. These heaters typically burn about a gallon of diesel oil per hour and give off a thick warm smoke that the vineyard fans then circulate to keep the vines from freezing. Mind you, this is not just about the heat from the smudge pots, it is also about the smoke, particulates, carbon dioxide and water vapor. This “smog” is a layer blocking out infrared light which prevents radiant cooling. This method requires about 25 smudge pots per acre, which are typically at the edges of the vineyard.

Balleto Winery, Sprinkler head in Vineayrd

Balletto Winery, Sprinkler head in Vineyard

Overhead sprinklers

Now most vineyards now also have an overhead sprinkler system. When it gets to freezing a fine mist is turned on, it coats the buds and keeps them from freezing. Here’s the magic of this, as the water changes to ice, it releases a small amount of heat and that is what protects the vines. Of course this depends on the water continuing to flow and continuing to freeze and give off this latent heat. Of course this leaves you at the mercy of the amount of water in a vineyard. During times of drought this kind of frost protection becomes difficult.

Preventative mowing

Vineyards will also mow down the cover crops to allow for airflow down off of hillsides and into valleys. This protects the hillside vines. Also they do not till or cultivate the soil, because that would let out the heat in the soil.

What kind of damage can frost do?

It can completely wipe out the buds on a vine. Vines can re-sprout, they will do this if the primary buds are destroyed. The problem with this is that when your pruned, you set up for where the vine would sprout and the secondary sprouts may not be so conveniently located. It also will severely diminish the amount of grapes for harvest.

This is why many vineyard managers and winemakers spend endless sleepless nights in the spring worrying about frost. Nights are spent tracking temperature patterns hourly and if the temperature drops getting out there and turning on that frost protection equipment and hoping for the best. Okay…enough of the scary part…on to bud break.

Bud break

This is the opening of the buds left behind by pruning. These fuzzy beady little things have all the stuff to grow leaves, shoots, tendrils and berries.

Norton Grape Vine at Chrysalis Tasting Room

Norton Grape Vine at Chrysalis Tasting Room

Flowering

About a month after bud bread the flowers come out. These are tight bunches of tiny flowers, and each flower has the potential to become a grape.

Shatter

Standby for more scary stuff. Wind and frost can wipe out the flowers and that would mean that those bunches of grapes would never form. There is the possibility of a re-sprout, but at this point in the vines season the yield will be considerably smaller.

Fruit Set

This is when the flowers start to take the shape of grapes in the cluster. As the are pollinated the flowers drop their petals and tiny green sphere emerge.

Now things are warming up and we are moving into summer.  When things really get rolling in the vineyard!

You can check out our pages on the seasons in the vineyard at “the seasons”

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Ponte Family Estate Winery, a Tour in Temecula, CA

We visited the winery earlier this year in February (see our previous blog post on Ponte here) and enjoyed lunch on the patio at the restaurant and then Fred gave us an astoundingly informative tour, and then a tasting with Michel in tasting room.  We recently planned a trip to Temecula, which we will be posting on shortly while researching our trip we came upon some lost information that we learned from our tour with Fred, an we though we would share.

Ponte Family Vineyard, Christmas 2012

Ponte Family Vineyard, Christmas 2012

Ponte Winery is in Temecula California, just northeast of San Diego.  The vineyard is located where it directly receives the maritime influences of the coast from the Rainbow Gap.  The soil structure here is coarse and poor.  This is ideal because you can then control exactly which nutrients you feed the vines. This nutrient mix is provided through irrigation once each year in March and the blend is different for each vineyard depending on the variety. With poor soil you don’t have to be concerned with nutrients already in the soil so it doesn’t interfere with the ideal nutrients for each grape.  Grape vines have an aggressive root structure, burrowing deep searching for ground water.  The water table at Ponte sits at 50 feet deep. Falker  (a winery down the road) did measurements to see how deep some of their 25 year old vines roots went and found that they went about 17 feet deep.  On the Ponte property are 10 acres 2 blocks of 5 acres each of Zinfandel and Sangiovese that were planted in 1960.  The roots on these over 50 year old vines go down 30 ft.  Eventually these roots will hit the water table and they will self irrigate.  Irrigation in wine country is not like in farm country, you are not looking for big juicy grapes.  Rather than watering daily they stress the vines by doing one 18 hour drip irrigation session once every 2 to 3 weeks. This keeps the grapes small and intensely concentrated.

While there is frost protection with fans and misters for the citrus groves that surround many of the vineyards, the vineyards are not concerned with frost protection as the season for frost is short enough that the vines are always dormant at that time. Bud break happens in March.  Winemakers and Vineyard Managers can tell which vine is which by the flowers in bud break.  By testing the flowers and leaves they can see how much nickel etc. is in the vine and that in turn helps to determine how to mix the formula for nutrients.

We tasted a Dolcetto that was exclusively Temecula. This juice is being staged for blending with material with Paso and Santa Barbara.  This was a tank tasting from of the stainless steel tanks out on the crush pad. It was still decidedly grape juice and was very tart, but you could taste the potential in it!

At Ponte they harvest during the night.  Sunlight affects the sugar levels of the grapes, causing the brix level to change throughout the day. To avoid this variable and have a uniform brix level you harvest at night.  After the grapes are harvested they go through the destemmer, are crushed twice and then the skin seeds and all are put into the large stainless steel tanks.  At Ponte they only process one type of grape at a time. After this comes the settling process where the grape juice settles for 3 to 5 days.  During that time skins rise to the top and seeds sink to the bottom.  The winemaker then checks the acidity etc to see how much yeast to add.  Then yeast is added and here begins the chemical reaction changing sugar to alcohol.  This generally takes 7-10 days for fermentation to be complete.  The winemaker stops at the alcohol level he has predetermined and then pumps off.  All of the skins and seeds sink to the bottom and workers scoop out this “must” which is then put back into the soil.

The barrel room is kept at 60 degrees.  All the red wines are aged here as well as the oaked Chardonnay’s. The Ponte Viognier is not oaked.  95% percent of the barrels Ponte uses are French oak that either come from Vosges near Alsace or Burgundy which is noted for it’s perfect white oak wood.  They have been experimenting with white oak from Hungary and Bulgaria and some American oak.  The difference between French oak and American oak is that the staves in Europe dry for at least 3 years, whereas in America they only dry for about a year and a half.  This creates a coarser product and more intense flavors.  The more aged the staves are the more subtle the flavors.

French barrels are expensive currently running $850 per barrel new.  Each barrel will be used for about 3 agings.  The wine maker earns their pay by also knowing which wines to age in new, medium and late oak to impart the exact flavors they are looking for.  You can tell a late oak barrel in the barrel room by the stain and seepage (angels share).  After the barrels have run their lifespan they are sold at $75 each to wine club members.  Each barrel weighs 100 plus pounds empty because the staves are so thick.  The majority of Ponte’s barrels are done at medium to light toast.  Their Syrah is done with a heavier toast and is probably their smokiest wine. About 80% of their barrels have light toast the rest are at medium toast and then winemaker blends. Each barrel holds 288 bottles or 24 cases of wine.

As the barrel room is kept at 60 degrees people often ask about how they can do events in there? When the barrels are backlit the room is really stunning.  They can warm the room for 1 night to 75 or 80 degrees and it won’t really affect the wine.  If however, it was held at that temperature 4 or 5 days….then you might have a problem.

We tried the 2008 Port out of the barrel.  This will be aged another year and it will release as a reserve port.  It is a Zinfandel port as most of their ports are, but they have made a Cabernet port in the past.  The port had a bit of a bite from the alcohol content, but with an additional year it will be stunning.  A port of this quality should run $85-$90 per bottle. But only their wine club will be lucky enough to get a shot at it!

The reserve room at Ponte is reserved for wine club members and is open on Saturday and Sunday to give wine club members a place to get away from the crowd.  They also do small plates menu.

The restaurant is open Friday and Saturday nights for dinner.  With the Tasting room closed at that time it’s quiet, you can see the stars and enjoy the noise of the romantic frogs.

In addition to the winery, tasting room and restaurant they recently opened the Ponte Vineyard Inn so you can stay in comfort right in the heart of Temecula Wine Country.

Ponte Inn, Temcula in oil

Ponte Inn, Temcula in oil

If you are in Temecula, I highly recommend both lunch and a tour.  Plan ahead and book a room at the Inn!