It's A Vine Life...from vine to wine (part IV)
by Konrad Ejbich
January, February and March are the vineyard’s time to sleep.
In exceptional vintages like the most recent one, a few wineries may have netted several rows of grapes for icewine. If they haven’t been picked yet, these grapes will have lost more than 50% of their juice and are likely to produce a concentrated, thick and possibly, cloying wine.
For wine tourists, visits at this time of year are typically limited to the tank room and barrel cellar because what goes on in the fields is, simply put, boring. Although the vineyard is still alive and may require maintenance to posts or wires, the plant itself is dormant.
If you’re a grape grower, this might be a good time to book a Caribbean vacation.
“We like to have everything done by mid-December so we can start winterizing the equipment,” says Huff Estates Winery’s vineyard manager Alex Hunter. He has worked in these vineyards since the day they were planted.
Once he’s completed his outdoor chores, Hunter is ready to look at travel brochures.
Meanwhile, for Huff’s winemaker Frederic Picard, time off is the last thing on his mind. He must prepare a new checklist of duties to carry out through the winter months in the winery’s lab, barrel cellar, bottling room and even, on the road.
Most of the winter, Hunter will help in the winery or retail shop and maintain the grounds around the Huff’s Inn, the art gallery and other public areas. Hunter also attends seminars to learn more about his profession and annually meets with growers in Quebec, sharing information, experiences and new ideas. “And yes, I like to get away somewhere south in early March,” he admits.
Over at Casa-Dea Estates, vineyard manager and winemaker Paul Batillana agrees. “After it’s hilled up in December,” he says, “we don’t even look at the vineyard until April.”
Batillana explains that in the Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore, and almost every other region on the planet, once harvest is done, growers can walk away from the vineyard until it’s time to start pruning late in January and through their winter. But in Prince Edward County, as soon as the grapes are off the vines growers race to prepare the vineyard for a more severe winter than other regions can reasonably expect.
Soon after harvest, County growers will choose the best canes to wire down at ground level, then cover them completely by plowing earth over the row. Some growers will then prune what’s left above ground; others leave the canes till spring.
“We prune early,” says Keith Tyers, head winemaker and vineyard manager at Closson Chase Vineyards.
One week after the first frost, his vineyards will be fully hilled up. A couple of weeks after that, Tyers will send in a crew to begin pruning vines. The cuttings are gathered up, piled neatly at the end of each row and left for pick-up. Early in March, the crew will remove the detritus. It may be the only action the two Closson Chase vineyards will see until spring.
While his vineyard team works outdoors, Tyers spends the quiet winter months in the cellar and lab, tasting through barrels, selecting which lots will go into each blend.
“By the beginning of April,” he says, “we’re ready to grow grapes again.”
“You might see an occasional tractor re-hilling elsewhere,” says John Rode, co-owner and winemaker at Harwood Estate, “but more likely, I’ll be out plowing the snow off our roads.”
The Harwood Estate property comprises a narrow strip of land almost a mile long and 1000 feet wide. The patchwork of vineyards blocks is connected by many internal vineyard lanes which Rode likes to keep clear.
Road cleaning aside, the end of December brings him time to move into the cellar and focus on his serious commitment to winemaking.
As winter draws to a close, growers start taking cuttings from various sections of their vineyards and bring them indoors to warm up in buckets of water. Within a few days, they will learn how well or how badly the plants have survived the deepest cold of the season.
Critical decisions need to be made as warm weather approaches inducing new bouts of excitement and anxiety among wine producers.
They all agree on one thing: spring brings with it new hopes, new plans, new dreams.