A Year in the Life of a Grapevine
The grapevine is a a perennial plant that human beings have selected for millennia. It is a plant that requires nurturing and attention, and if healthy, can live for hundreds of years. Every year will bring different climatic challenges, but the vine retains its special cycle, year after year...
The Winter Snooze
After harvest, which can take place any time between August-November in the Northern Hemisphere, or January-May in the Southern Hemisphere, the vine has essentially completed what it set out to do that year. As such, when the weather cools, it drops its leaves and goes into a period of dormancy, not dissimilar to a hedgehog’s hibernation period. During this time, it stores carbohydrates reserves in its trunk, arms and roots until it is ready to turn them into growth for the next season.
Vines are very hardy. They can withstand extreme temperatures (some varieties more than others), and this makes it possible to cultivate vines in areas that you might assume too cold in winter, for example Canada. Sometimes, in extreme cases, human intervention is needed in the form of creating banks to protect them from brutal temperatures, but snow in itself tends to be a surprisingly good insulator.
The human hand has a crucial role to play during this dormant period: pruning. This is when the vine’s prior growth is cut back, and certain “arms” of the vine are chosen for the next season. There are many types of pruning, predominantly according to what suits the place where the vine is grown, and it makes an enormous difference to the grapevine’s life and fruit production. There has been an important movement towards gentle pruning; where each vine is treated as its own entity and work is done to ensure that prune wounds are kept small and the sap flow is respected. This has a direct impact on the strength and health of the vine and its immune system.
Springtime: Shoots, Leaves and Buds
Just as we all get well and truly sick of winter, the grapevine reminds us that Spring is coming, and so our hope for warmer weather returns. As the weather warms, sap flow recommences, and the first sign of life are shoots and leaves appearing from little buds. This is known as budburst, and these baby shoots are extremely fragile. This is the moment that winemakers across the globe check the weather nail-bitingly with bated breath. If there is particularly high rainfall, coulure - poor fruit set - can limit yields drastically.
After these shoots have been growing for a while, flowers start to appear. Again, the grower waits anxiously, as weather can cause problems here too: particularly rain, which can result in "millerendage" - creating berries of varying sizes - meaning yields are smaller, or worse still, "coulure" - the failure to make grapes at all.
The grapevine is a hermaphrodite. This means that it has both male and female parts, thus is self-pollinating, so it does not rely on the transmission of pollen from plant to plant via insects.
When Spring meets Summer
Not every single flower’s destiny is to become a grape, but hopefully if Mother Nature is kind, most turn into tiny berries.
Summer: Berry Growth & “Véraison” = colour change
The tiny berries grow and become big berries. At this stage, all grape berries are bright green; whether white, pink, red or black. At some stage in mid summer, the berries turn colour. This is known as véraison, and happens berry-by-berry, as opposed to bunch-by-bunch. The process takes a couple of weeks, culminating in whole bunches showing off of the grape variety’s natural colour. This natural colour is nature’s marvellous way of telling birds where the fruit is, to attract them and hence spread the seed. Today, with our ways of cultivating vines, this is not necessary, but certain winemakers are experimenting with seeds to try to return to nature’s way with the belief that we may be able to strengthen grape DNA.
Before we had machines, devices and technology, the old farmers’ saying was one month after véraison, we harvest. This is still often the case, and many almost swear by it. There are many other climatic and stylistic influences that have an impact, but the general timeframe would fall between 25 days and 50 days, post-véraison. This of course alters in the case of late harvest, sweet or ice wines, for which the fruit may remain on the vine for many months.
Vines do not typically produce any fruit until their second, third, or even fourth year. Depending on the type of plant and where it is grown, they can live for an extremely long time. In Southwest France, there is a vineyard named Sarragachies, proudly guarded by Plaimont Producteurs, that dates back to its notation on the Carte de Cassini of 1810, but it is likely it was planted even prior to this, and thus may be from the 1700s. It is so old that it contains varieties that are not even registered in the French catalogue of grape varieties, meaning that if this plot had not survived, those varieties were likely to have become extinct.
In Rias Baixas, Spain, Bodegas Fulcro has a 220-year-old vineyard of the little-known indigenous variety, Caino. In Amador County, California, lies a Pais vineyard planted in 1854. These ancient vineyards are key to safeguarding vine genetics, and when tended with care are still capable of producing bountiful quantities.
Every year, after harvest, the vine will think its seeds have been taken by birds and spread; and thus it will have completed its procreational tasks and return to dormancy… until next year, when the same procedure starts all over again.