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Grapes Don’t Just Grow on Vines!


The starting point for any good wine is in the quality of the grapes, but unfortunately they don't just appear by magic!

Bunch of Grapes 

Assuring the best possible harvest means many hours of labour in the vineyards throughout the year.  There are differences in the tasks carried out and in their timing according to the region, the grape varieties, and climatic differences year to year, but this blog post aims to explain the main steps in cultivating vines.

  

November: Preparation of the Vines for Winter

Before the cold snaps of winter set in, the vines are prepared to protect them from hard frosts, particularly the more northerly vineyards or ones that are more exposed. Often the vineyard staff will build up the level of soil around each vine stock to increase insulation in a process known as "buttage".

During this period, vines that are too old or are in bad health will be uprooted to free up space for new vines to be planted in spring.

 

December to March: Pruning and Training the Vines

Pruning the vines 

The main task is the pruning of the vines.  Left on their own accord, vines are very rampant, so need to be kept strongly in check.  The principal aim of pruning is to reduce the number of shoots to leave just those that will eventually bear fruit for the year's harvest. This practice enables each vine to concentrate its efforts, which will in turn improve the quality and the sugar levels in the grapes at a later stage. It's a long and laborious process, as the vineyard workers snip away with their secateurs vine by vine.  The cut shoots are often then scattered and crushed in between the rows of vines to return natural organic nutrients to the soil.

Posts and training wires are repaired, and the remaining shoots are attached to their support manually to help control the form of the fruit-bearing branches.  "Pliage" is the action of folding the branches to give the desired shape to the cine, and "accolage" is the term given to the act of attaching the shoots to the wires.

At the end of winter, once pruning has finished and as soon as the soil allows, the "débuttage" begins to return the heaped soil from around each vine stock to the middle of the rows.  This soil is then spread, "décavaillonnage", and the soil tilled to aerate it, remove unwanted weeds naturally, and to help with drainage of water.

 

April to May: Debudding

Budding 

In April the vines begin to grow rapidly, and the dark, bleak countryside of the winter begins its transformation to green with the arrival of new life.

The vineyard manager then starts to debud the vines, selecting to keep only the buds that will produce the grapes come harvest time.  Unwanted shoots are also pruned in a process called épamprage, again to limit the number of grapes produced.  It is very important to control the yield, so that each vine can channel its energy into a smaller amount of fruit, but with an improved quality. 

The first treatment of the vines is carried out as a preventative measure against disease.  It's also a favourable time of year to plant new vines.

The weeks between the bursting of the buds and the definitive end of the risk of frost are very worrying for the vine manager, because a cold snap can burn the buds and severely impact the harvest.

 

May to June : Flowering

Flowering 

This is the period when the first flowers on the vines appear and reproduction happens. If it's too humid or cold during the flowering period, the rate of growth slows which can reduce the number and size of the grapes.  After flowering, the first small green grapes are formed. The vine managers closely monitor the vines, and select the necessary treatments to ward off unwanted diseases such as mildew, black rot vines reproduce. 

 

July to August: Leaf Removal and Green Harvest

Ripening Grapes 

As the weather gets warmer, so the bunches of grapes mature and become bigger.  The principal task of the winemaker at this time is to ensure the optimal mix of quality and quantity of grapes.  Too many grapes and the sugar levels will not be high enough to produce a good wine, but by reducing the number of grapes, so the number of bottles that the winemaker can produce and sell also decreases. 

The wine maker first removes some of the leaves from each vine during "effeuillage", so that each bunch of grapes receives the maximum amount of sun to fully ripen, and also to better aerate the grapes, which helps protect against mildew in rainy periods.

Once the grapes have started to grow, the winemaker may choose to conduct a green harvest by removing unwanted bunches of grapes in a process called "éclaircissage".  This helps to improve the quality of the remaining grapes by raising the sugar levels.

 

September TO October : Harvest

Harvest Vines 

This is the most stressful time of the year for the winemakers.  They spend much time walking amongst the vines, inspecting and tasting the grapes to choose the best possible moment to start the harvest.  The key influencing factors are the level of tannins, sugar and acidity, combined with weather forecasts.  The variety of grape, as well as their physical position in different vineyards will determine the order of harvesting of the vineyard plots.

As important as the choice of when to harvest the grapes, is the management of the team of harvesters and the preparation in the winery to receive the harvest.  The harvester need to be trained, supervised, and often lodged and fed, whilst the vats must be sterilised before the fruit is added.  

The annual cycle of cultivating the vines ends with the spreading of the "marc" (skin, seeds, and stalks) amongst the vines to return natural nutrients to the soil.

And then the leaves turn a sea of red, yellow and orange before falling from the vines, as a new cycle begins!

 

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