Thinning for quality…Part 2.

8 March, 2011

It’s my belief that, after all the things we were taught at Winemaker’s University, there are really only a few things you can control in the end.

I’m starting to think similarly about parenting.
But, with winemaking, we can distil things down to a simple formula: growing grapes, harvesting them, fermenting them, maturing the wine and bottling.


I want to elaborate here about the harvesting step and what happens in the weeks before. I’ll write some more about terroir and The Search i) another time, perhaps when we are planting at Aaron’s place later this year.
Let me state that getting harvesting right is absolutely tantamount to winemaking success and wine quality. Like cooking, like so many things, getting good raw materials is a great starting point. And yet it’s a part of the process which many winemakers overlook, especially in bigger wineries.

Setting things up in the vineyard to ease this process, reduce the “luck” factor and provide reassurance that we are doing everything we can for quality is perhaps what separates “vigneron” from “winemaker”. In the past month we have been really busy fruit thinning and shoot positioning in the vineyard.

It starts with the clear idea of an inverse relationship between yield and quality, and then it breaks down somewhat. It seems simple enough that a vine might make more, and better, flavours if it carries lower crop. This idea is quickly clouded further by considering the relationship between vine vegetative growth and fruitful growth, which we call vine balance (or imbalance). Purists (with no investment in vineyards) may argue that if you are fighting to get the crop down too much, you may have planted the vines in the wrong place (the product of failure in The Search). This thinking stops as soon as you have spent time and money planting a vineyard. Other purists enjoy the somewhat masochistic aspects crop reduction, as a kind of viticultural penance. Through our pains we may be blessed. Financial pains, plus it’s a lot of hard work. Blessed with better wines.

So we set out in the vineyard to reduce crop levels below the magic numbers, which are somewhere between 2.5 tonnes per acre and hardly any at all, depending who you ask. Everyone agrees that low cropping Pinot Noir is a good thing. And we also agree that less wine, but better wine, is a good thing. But how does this idea play out in the execution?
Immediately, we rush off and count some bunches. A quick burst of practical statistics gives us a yield prediction – bunch number per vine, and vines per acre, multiplied by estimated bunch weight equals yield per acre. It’s testament to the looseness of these numbers we are still mostly using the arcane measure of “acre” in our metric world. This prediction tells us how much to chop off.

Standing in the vineyard last week, we knew we wanted to remove half the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to give us the yield of 1.5 tonnes per acre. It has been an unusually wet year, after all. Bunch weights are high.
Pretty quickly the question of “Which bunches?” comes up. So we remove anything green, anything on top of other bunches (for air flow), and try for one bunch per shoot. Some vines are heavier than others, which is hard to explain, but its tedious work so we talk about that ad nauseum. Soil. Water retention. Pruning method. Last year’s crop. Repetitive work and extreme theorizing go hand in hand. All the while, try not to cut off any fingers. The grapes pile up on the ground.

My thinking is that by evening things up, and reducing the crop load, we will hasten the ripening, and produce a more consistently ripe pick on the day. There will be less shrivel, less green berries in the pick.
If you consider the impossible idea of analyzing the ripeness of every berry when we harvest, this would most likely produce some sort of classic “Bell Curve”. By crop thinning, we are removing the tails of the curve, steepening the curve and increasing consistency.

From here forward, we assess flavour and check Baume (sweetness) at least twice a week. Harvesting timing is ultimately driven by taste, but it’s good to know the sugar and acid numbers stack up. Hand harvesting completes the picture, since people have the opportunity to leave behind anything not-so-perfect.

My classmates at Winemaking University told me statistics was a waste of time, and I never really enjoyed studying it. However, it does inform my thinking. There’s a lot of statistics in crop thinning at Hillcrest Vineyard this year. Maybe too much. But in the end it’s the one percenters which will make all the difference.

i The Search is an idea in New World site selection, since up until we own the land and plant the vines, the Search for the perfect spot is unhindered by appellation and regulation. It’s a terroir thing, driven by comparison with the Old World, and by what works here, but with a view to (a) unique-ness and (b) doing it better.
ii Due to the self-flagellation aspect of fruit thinning, crop thinning is not viewed as sinfully as acid addition, although both might be seen as a failure in The Search.

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