The Ancient Study of Viticulture
Winemaking has been around for millennia, and contemporary vintners still use many of the same techniques and processes as their counterparts from the ancient world. Viticulturalists are the men and women who study grapes and grape production. The science of viticulture has grown with advances in agriculture but still requires an appreciation for the earliest winemaking techniques, some of which are over 7,000 years old.
A viticulturist is thus charged with the task of growing grapes and handling all the happenings of a vineyard from how the planting occurs to the picking process and the following vinification processes. Viticulturists must exhibit the highest level of respect for tradition, and proper attention must be allocated to the various varieties of grapes, which gives the end product a sense of identity and character. Viticulturists (or growers) must work all year round to make the decisions that affect the quality of wine produced each year. To make the long story short, every decision made by a grower affects the development of the wine.
Location & Soil: The Perfect Union
Although vineyards can be found anywhere between the 30th and 50th parallel in each hemisphere, the actual location and micro-climate of the site matters significantly. Vines require adequate sunshine to mature and sufficient rainfall to produce a healthy crop. The perfect union of weather that is not too cold or hot and the location’s soil determines the quality of wine. Vineyards located near rivers and steep slopes tend to prosper because rivers supply a warm effect while slopes ensure that the crop is well exposed to the sun. South facing slopes are preferable in the northern hemisphere as they receive more hours of sunlight. In the southern hemisphere, the reverse applies.
Grapevines require healthy soil that has sufficient amounts of nutrients, minerals, and water to thrive. When vines grow well without any struggles, the fruit is higher in quality, and it produces in excess resulting in an enhanced taste. The best quality of soil for growing grapes is one that retains the right amount of water, has good aeration and can be penetrated easily to promote drainage.
Key Success Factors for Land Owners
Healthy soil is literally the foundation of sound vineyard management. Soil provides not only mechanical support for the vines, but more importantly, the soil supplies water and nutrients that influence the vigor of the vine, the balance between vegetative growth and fruit, the yield of grape berries, and berry quality. Maintaining the soil in good condition physically (soil structure), chemically (adequate nutrients and no toxicities), and biologically (organic matter turnover and biodiversity) is important for sustained yield and vine longevity. They all have a major influence on the growth of grapevines and ultimately on the long term sustainability and success of a vineyard.
The way that a vine is pruned and shaped refers to vine management. The management of vines is necessary as it affects the yield that is produced. Green harvest is when viticulturalists remove bunches of immature green grapes for the purpose of lowering yield. This allows the vine to focus energy and resources on the remaining grapes, producing a lower yield with higher quality grapes. Vine management also involves caring for all the elements of a vine that are seen above the ground, which is known as canopy management.
Wine grape production is labor intensive. Labor costs today represent about 60% of annual variable costs for grape producers. Labor inputs for an acre of vertical shoot-positioned (VSP) vinifera grapes are estimated at between 90 and 100 hours per acre. About one third of this number is for dormant pruning, another one-third is for canopy management (shoot thinning, shoot positioning, cluster thinning, leaf removal and summer shoot-tipping), and about 20% for tying and suckering. All of these tasks involve hand labor. Only about 20% of labor costs involve skilled workers using tractor-driven equipment & other machinery.
Seasonal Worker Availability
The U.S. provides for a foreign guest worker program, known as H-2A, which allows agricultural employers who cannot find enough local labor to bring in temporary workers from another country. As land owners struggle to find domestic labor, the H-2A program has grown dramatically in recent years. According to information from the U.S. Department of Labor the number of agricultural guest worker positions certified in the U.S. increased from 200,049 in 2017 to 242,762 in 2018, that’s a 21% increase.
Mechanization & Technological Breakthroughs
As labor becomes more scarce & wages raise, remaining competitive increasingly requires methods that automate repetitive processes.
Strategic investments in leading-edge technologies can reduce the amount of hand labor required to develop and manage the vineyard. Some of these technologies include Precision Agriculture, global positioning systems (GPS) , meteorologic stations, satellite and airborne remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS), digital elevation models (DEM), high resolution soil survey, wireless and distributed sensor networks, & decision support systems.
Common Wine Grape Types
It’s hard to believe, but there are now more than 10,000 wine grape varieties in the world. Only a few dozen, however, have achieved widespread popularity and acclaim. Some grapes, like primitivo/zinfandel and syrah/shiraz, have different names depending on where they are grown. The most popular grapes, including cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, are easy to grow in various climates, and can be made in a variety of styles to fit a broad range of consumer tastes. Following are the most important wine grapes of the world.
RED WINE GRAPES
Pinot Noir: This red wine grape is the only grape allowed in the esteemed red wines of Burgundy, France. Pinot noir is notoriously difficult to grow, but wine drinkers are willing to pay a high price for its delicate red cherry, pomegranate, and cedar flavors. Blanc de noirs Champagne can be made from pinot noir grapes. Pinot noir is also made in the Willamette Valley in Oregon; in Baden, Germany; and in New Zealand.
Cabernet Franc: This red wine grape grows in France’s Loire Valley and Bordeaux, as well as in New York’s Finger Lakes region. Wines made from cabernet franc have medium body, with moderately high acidity and tannin, and are less likely to have new oak aging. They have flavors of red cherry, graphite, and bell pepper.
Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabernet Sauvignon is the main grape in France’s Bordeaux wines, where it is often blended with merlot and cabernet franc. Cabernet sauvignon shines in varietal wines from our own Napa Valley. In both areas, the grape’s bold tannins are often softened by aging in new oak barrels. Cabernet sauvignon wines are full-bodied, with flavors of black currant, mint, and bell pepper, along with cocoa and baking spice from oak aging.
Carménère: Carménère is another grape in the cabernet family. Its green pepper aroma is even stronger than the similar note in cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. Carménère was once a part of Bordeaux blends in France, but is now significantly more popular in Chile’s versions of Bordeaux-style wines. Carménère is herbal and spicy, with ripe red fruit aromas and mocha tones when aged in oak.
Merlot: This red wine grape gained fame as the key grape in Bordeaux wines from the region’s Right Bank, where it is blended with cabernet franc. It is now grown throughout the world, including in Italy (where it is part of some Super Tuscan blends) and the US states of California and Washington. Merlot has a velvety texture, and fruit flavors of plum and blueberry.
Malbec: This red wine grape originated in southern France, but is now better known as the main grape grown in Mendoza, Argentina. Malbec is most often a varietal wine that is deep purple in color with a vibrant magenta rim in the glass. It is full of dark fruit flavors like black cherry, blueberry, and prune, with coffee and chocolate overtones. Malbec is smooth and drinkable because of its natural acidity and moderate tannins. If you like Malbec, try wines made from Piedmont, Italy’s barbera grape.
Petit Verdot: This red wine grape is a minor blending grape in Bordeaux, and a more important blending grape in New World Bordeaux-style blends. It produces dense, tannic wines with flavors of blackberry, licorice, pepper, and dark chocolate. Petit verdot wines are best paired with smoky, meaty cuisine.
Grenache: This red wine grape is best known as the main grape of the Southern Rhône wine region in France, where it is often blended with syrah and mourvèdre grapes. Grenache ripens easily, making high alcohol, violet-scented wines full of candied red fruit flavors. Grenache is also grown in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, northern Spain, South Australia, and in California’s Central Valley. Grenache blanc and grenache gris are less commonly planted mutations of grenache.
Tempranillo: This red wine grape is the main grape of Spain’s most famous wine, Rioja. Tempranillo produces medium-bodied wines with moderate tannins and lower acidity. Spanish tempranillo has notes of red plum, cherry, tobacco leaf, and earth. It is usually aged in American oak barrels, which contribute coconut and herbal aromas.
Primitivo: This red wine grape is called primitivo in southern Italy and zinfandel when it is grown in the US, where it is identified strongly with California. Italian primitivo wines have denser tannins than their American counterparts. They tend to be rustic and high in alcohol, with a sweet finish. Recent improvements in the wine industry in southern Italy have lead to more high quality wine being produced.
Sangiovese: This red wine grape is the main grape in central Italy’s best wines, Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. It produces medium- to full-bodied wines with high acidity and moderately high tannins. Sangiovese wines have red and black cherry, tobacco, herb, and leather notes.
Syrah/Shiraz: This red wine grape goes by the name syrah in France, and shiraz in Australia. It has no relation to the similarly named petite sirah grape. French syrah has moderate to high acidity and tannin, and is rarely aged in oak barrels. Australian shiraz has riper fruit, more robust tannin, and higher alcohol than its European cousins. In both places, the grape shows notes of olive, smoked meat, violet, and boysenberry.
Zinfandel: Zinfandel is a red wine grape variety that is the second-most planted red grape in California. The grape makes robust, aromatic, juicy wines that are high in alcohol. Zinfandel was the wine of miners during the Gold Rush, gaining a reputation as the “Bordeaux of California,” but it declined in popularity following Prohibition. Zinfandel is not grown with the zeal that it once was, but the few examples on the market are high quality wines that showcase the grape’s exuberant fruit profile and complexity from being grown on old vines.
WHITE WINE GRAPES
Chardonnay: This white wine grape is grown the world over, from Burgundy and Champagne in France, to California, to southern hemisphere countries like Australia and South Africa. It can be citrusy and floral, but because it has relatively little aroma on its own, chardonnay is especially good at reflecting terroir and winemaking techniques. Chardonnays range from steely and acidic to lush, buttery, and spicy, depending on climate and vinification.
Pinot Grigio: This white wine grape is grown in the Veneto region in northern Italy, where it is made into crisp, citrusy, dry, white wines that are often a good value. The grape is known as pinot gris in Alsace, France, or in other places when it is made in the French style, which has riper fruit, higher alcohol, and sometimes a touch of sweetness.
Riesling: This white wine grape, native to Germany, makes some of the world’s most age-worthy white wines. Riesling has very high acidity, and can be made in a range of styles, including sparkling wines, from dry to sweet. Tasting notes often include honeysuckle, lime, slate, and petrol. Australia’s Eden and Clare Valleys make zippy, lime scented examples.
Sauvignon Blanc: This white wine grape produces powerfully aromatic, crisply acidic varietal wines in New Zealand and in France’s Loire Valley. Aromas of grass, grapefruit, and gooseberry abound. Most are aged in stainless steel to retain their freshness; one exception is California’s oak-aged style known as Fumé Blanc.