Unionville Grapevine

Spring at Unionville

Our unpredictable winter was followed by a spring of the same. All the great warm spring days we had just a month ago allowed the vines to wake up from their winter slumber and start to bud. Unfortunately, we just had a few serious cold snaps that can kill those delicate buds. According to our vineyard manager, Roni, we made it through the winter virtually unscathed.
Budbreak at Unionville VineyardsBuds are actually formed on last year’s crop. They are tiny shoots that are dormant over winter on the vines’ canes. Roni and his crew cut back the excess cane earlier in the year. Now that the temperatures in the vineyard are starting to get above 50 degrees, these tiny shoots or buds emerge from nodes in the vines’ remaining canes. This is known as bud break. This is the most critical time of the year in the vineyard, a late frost now can reduce, if not ruin, our crop for the year.

When I was in class in Washington last month, one of our assignments was to examine frost damaged buds. Not easy. We had to use razor blades and carefully slice half of the tiny bud off. The remaining half was placed under a microscope. If the primary bud (the bud has actually three parts - primary, secondary and tertiary) is still green, we’re looking good. If the primary bud is brown, then the crops for that year are in danger. The secondary and tertiary buds can be a slight insurance for the crop, but harvest and grape quality are greatly diminished. A few years ago when I was living in Texas, a few portions of the High Plains area had three consecutive late frosts. Strike one, two and three. No crop for that year.

Luckily, we were spared that plight, and now in the vineyard we are starting to see the emergence of little leaves. Until this point the buds are pulling up carbohydrates from the plant for energy. With the development of leaves, photosynthesis can begin. The plant can start taking energy directly from the sun and accelerate the pace of additional growth. In my viticulture class this is discussed as Sources and Sinks. Until the leaves appear and start bringing in energy from the photosynthesis, the buds are all sinks, as they withdraw energy from the plant. When the photosynthesis occurs, this reverses the process and are now called Sources. Kind of like when your kids get out of college and start paying off their student loans.

We’re still not out of the woods yet. Actually, not until the grapes are harvested, are we actually out of the woods, but more on that later. For now, we can breathe a little easier that we’ve made it through the late frosts and onto the next challenge. I’ll discuss more in the next blog.



Vine Camp

I just returned from Vine Camp in Prosser, Washington.    For those of you that don’t know, I am currently enrolled in the Viticulture Program (growing grapes) at Washington State University.  The program is 18 months long with three “camps” required.  The camps are two days of study where students fly in from all over the country-actually one woman flies in from the Netherlands.  This latest camp discussed various diseases to be found in vineyards, with specific emphasis on Powdery Mildew and Botrytis Bunch Rot; both or which can wreak havoc on a vineyard. 

Unionville Sommelier Stephen Ruffin checks Chardonnay vines for bud damagePowdery Mildew is a fungal disease that affects the grapevine. The mildew attaches itself on leaves of the grapevines, seriously hindering the photosynthesis of the plant and therefore reducing yield.  Botyrtis Bunch Rot infects the berries of the plant, sucking the moisture out of the grape and if left unattended, will destroy the entire bunch, vine and eventually large portions of a vineyard.  Botrytis is a fungus on grapes when wet moist conditions prevail.  Viticulturists will fight against this by opening up the canopy (removing leaves) to get better air circulation within the canopy.  They will also add a host of fungicides to fight its spread.

Now, my class is on Viticulture, so the focus is on fighting diseases of the plant; but, Botrytis isn’t always a bad thing.  As an Oenologist and a Sommelier, I know that Botrytis also has its good side.  If you have ever had a Sauternes you will understand how Botrytis, when kept in check, is a good thing, though my professors at camp would never agree.

When Botrytis infects a grape, it sends finger like tentacles inside the grape to drink up the moisture inside.  This reduces the water in the grape and concentrates the juice.  Even better, it also imparts a honey like flavor inside the grape that is delicious.

When you are actually encouraging Botrytis, the trick for the growers is to find the balance between perfect infestation of the fungus and horrible blight.  You see, Botrytis is only a good thing when you want it.  If you are trying to make a dry Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon for example, you want zero.  The French however, specifically in their Semillons in the southern portions of Bordeaux want it.

Washington State is the second largest wine producer in the US.  They are growing by leaps and bounds.  Our class trip included a visit to Inland Desert Nursery, a family owned nursery that supplies the cleanest and healthiest grapevines available to growers across North America. Inland Desert Nursery works closely with Washington State virologists, and are leading proponents of certified clean and disease-free grapevines. This effort is key to building profitable, sustainable vineyards.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that each day’s agenda didn’t end with drinking Washington wines. All for the sake of study.

Stephen