News from the Vineyard: A June Update

The Bordelais say that the quantity of the vintage is determined in June and its quality is determined in September. That’s not quite true, but now that we’ve finished bloom and the fruit has set, we have a good sense that that the 2016 vintage will be on the small side. It started with the early bud break at the end of a very warm March, followed by two hard freezes in early April, and then cool, wet weather through the rest of April and most of May. The necessary handwork in the vineyard was unpleasant, and managing the tractors was tricky and sometimes dangerous.

Despite our best efforts, there was a great deal of bud loss during the freezes, especially in the Merlot blocks, that reduced the overall size of the crop by 30-50%. Keeping these vines balanced will be a challenge for the rest of the year. The cool stretch in April and May compounded the problem by inhibiting fruit set. This year, most of our clusters are tiny. The silver lining is that tiny clusters tend to be loose, reducing mildew pressure on each berry. And we’ve had fantastic weather during bloom, which reduces the likelihood of botrytis as harvest approaches.

But here is where June can influence quality as well as quantity. Each node in a grapevine has three buds. In good conditions, the primary develops into a mature shoot, sets two to four clusters depending on the variety, and results in uniform ripening. If for some reason the primary buds don’t develop, the secondary buds mature and set one or two clusters that ripen a week or two after the clusters on primary buds. Tertiary buds only mature when the others do not, and they do not produce fruitful shoots. Because of the cold weather, many of our vines have a mix of primary and secondary shoots, which means that ripening will not be uniform come harvest.

There are several approaches that we can take to minimize the challenges to quality in this situation. One is to drop the secondary clusters now, just after fruit set, when it is easy to distinguish primary from secondary shoots, but this risks excess vigor in the canopy. Foliage that is not balanced by the proper amount fruit results in methoxypyrazines that in turn lead to vegetal flavors, such as green pepper or asparagus, in the wine. The next option, the most likely, is to drop clusters that are slow to ripen at veraison. The third is to harvest from each vine twice, selecting only those clusters that are fully ripe each time. The fourth is to allow the clusters on the secondary clusters to “catch-up,” which usually happens very late in the year if we can let the fruit hang long enough. These last two options preserve the quantity of fruit harvested but are difficult to implement well.

We’ll have to keep a watchful eye out all season to see how things develop. As our friend Claude Bourguignon said, our challenge and our opportunity rests on our ability to be clever in the vineyard.