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Getting Dirty

As I was walking through the vineyards, fixing the irrigation and trellising the new growth, I noticed the rich, black earth that the vines were growing in. Soil composition dramatically impacts the finished wine and is a key reason that only certain regions are suited to growing wine grapes, which have very different needs than many crops. Most farmers would be envious of a land owner whose soil is nutrient-rich and fertile. Yet farmers that cultivate the land for the production of wine grapes know that quality wines are produced by the vine's struggle to create the seeds it needs to reproduce. If the vines are too well accommodated they will instead produce grapes that are large and have less flavor, appropriate for the table but not for the bottle. It is crucial for the soil to retain water adequately but also be extremely well drained. It is helpful if the topsoil can retain and reflect heat, aiding the ripening process. Most grapevines do well with a pH between 5 to 6 but some varietals do well in more balanced soils from about 6 to 8. Calcium, iron and magnesium are minerals that are essential to the life of the vine, as well as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium which are requisite to most plant life. However, grapevines are a remarkably tolerant and robust plant and can flourish in many different types of soils. Deerfield's vineyards, like much of Sonoma County, are composed of recent volcanic soil. The trace elements that the plant absorbs through its roots can dramatically impact the flavor of the grapes, although the idea that a wine contains the flavors of the minerals is somewhat of a myth. The famed wines produced from the slate soils of Germany's Mosel Valley are often described as possessing mineral flavors, but while soils can be accurately attributed to creating flavors ubiquitous to a specific terrior it is somewhat more difficult to pin down what exactly slate smells like. The field of soil science is one of the most extensively studied aspects of viticulture at oenological institutions around the world. But there is far more to a perfect bunch of Pinot Noir grapes than just the soil that the vines roots live in. Next time I'll describe the elements that make up terroir.

What Is Terroir Anyway?

Let's start this article with a definition of the word terroir (pronounced tare-wah, or tare-wahr depending on how French you want to be). I was extremely surprised when I found that no such simple definition exists. It is a French loanword that when translated literally refers to “soil” but can also mean “local”. I did find one apt translation that interpreted it as “a sense of place”. As it has entered the English lexicon it has taken on the denotation used by the international wine community: Terroir refers to, in this case, the unique convergence of every minute environmental factor that the vines are exposed to. You can think of the grape as the sum of all those parts and all of those parts combined are terroir – the concept is that the harvested grape is  a crystal-clear reflection of the environment that produced it. The composition and drainage of the soil, the temperature throughout the day, the slope of the hill and the amount of direct sunlight it receives, the amount and timing of rainfall. Anything, however miniscule, that in some way impacts the development of the fruit can be said to be an aspect of terroir. These are components of terroir but so too is a lone eucalyptus tree in the vineyard, or a particularly crafty murder of crows. A skilled winemaker makes wine with respect to the terroir, capturing the flavor of the vineyard. It struck me as I watched Deerfield's vines beginning to bud in late April that certain blocks of grapes seemed to be on a slightly different schedule than those adjacent to them. There is a great deal of talk in the wine industry about micro-climates, those tiny pockets of geography where there are significantly different environmental factors that can have a dramatic impact on the grapes. It is possible for there to even be several different terroirs in one vineyard. Maybe one part of the vineyard receives early morning sunlight while the rest does not. Therein lies the winemaker’s challenge, to perceive these differences and create a wine that embodies them. I think that is why tasting wines at the winery is such an amazing experience – it connects you to the land. Every time I open a bottle of Deerfield's estate syrah I am transported to the vineyard, with the black soil beneath my feet and the smell of freshly cut straw and the warmth of the sun on my neck.

Not only is every place that grapes are grown unique, but each year offers new variables that can change the equation. That is why wine is beloved like no other food or drink - because each bottle is a reflection of a specific time and place. Next week I’ll talk about why each vintage is unique.

Vineyard Voodoo

One of the questions that I’m most frequently asked is “What’s the difference between biodynamic and organic farming and what the heck does biodynamic mean anyway?” It’s a fair question that is increasingly relevant to the consumer as biodynamic wines garner more attention in the media. You may know that organic farming basically requires that no synthetic chemicals are used and that the system is sustainable, meaning it is self-contained and endlessly renewable. Biodynamic agriculture is an extension of those ideals and a philosophy that has some pretty New Age sounding ideas but actually dates back to 1924 when Rudolph Steiner gave a series of lectures to German farmers who had noticed that the health of their crops had deteriorated with the use of chemical fertilizers. His central idea was that the farm is an organism and that each of its parts is interdependent, including the farmer.

Biodynamic agriculture focuses on promoting soil health which proponents claim is the key to everything from minimizing the impact of pests and weeds to maximizing quality. Additionally, the farm is believed to be best served by being self-sustaining. Soil health is achieved mainly by creating organic compost using 7 “preparations” which Steiner proposed and can be found here. Two field preparations are outlined as well, including stuffing a cow horn with manure and burying it, and spraying a solution of crushed quartz and water over the field.

Animals are integral to biodynamic farming and ideally the manure should come from animals living on the farm itself. Astrology also figures heavily into the philosophy, and the position of heavenly bodies governs the timing of planting, fertilization and the harvest. If you’re the pragmatic type who scoffs when somebody asks you what your sign is, consider that the term “harvest moon” is deeply ingrained into our culture. The practice continues to evolve and include new ideas: In Deerfield’s vineyard there are several large boulders placed strategically (if not conveniently) to “anchor” the energy of the vineyard and prevent it from escaping.

To ensure that agricultural producers meet the stringent requirements that the philosophy espouses, Demeter International has certified farmers in the practice of biodynamic agriculture in over 50 countries since 1928. Organic and bio dynamic farming have significant benefits over conventional farming, including higher quality produce, more efficient, sustainable crops, and improved soil conditions. A high-profile blind tasting hosted by Fortune had top judges picking wines produced from biodynamically grown grapes 9 times out of 10. Personally I believe that ecological systems work best in the long term when modeled after natural systems and for that reason the core principles of biodynamic agriculture seem like a common sense approach.

Gotcha Sucker!

It’s spring time in the valley and the vines everywhere have erupted. The heat hasn’t yet begun to brown the grasses so the hills are rolling shades of green. In every vineyard an important job is being done now that the vines have sprouted shoots. There are many different trellising techniques and I’ve talked about a few of them employed in the area in this post, as well as different philosophies of how to best manage vines. All these different systems share the same goal, however, which is to channel as much of the vine’s energy and nutrients as possible to the development of the fruit that we use to make into wine. The winegrower’s  job is to coax the vine into only producing structures that directly assist in helping form intensely flavored, delicious grapes – everything else the vine tries to produce should be removed.

Deerfield’s vineyards use the double cordon training system that is commonly employed in California. In this system the vertical vine is split into two horizontally trained arms called “cordons”. Each cordon is then pruned every year so that it has four growth nodes called “spurs”. The vine is trimmed back to this state every year and these parts lignify (become wooden) and grow thicker with each passing year. Every year new shoots called “canes” sprout from the spurs and it is these green shoots that bear the fruit. Each cane is supposed to bear only one or two bunches of grapes.

No matter how your vines are trained they will always sprout some shoots in the wrong places. If left unchecked these shoots will suck up valuable resources and may even try to produce some unproductive grapes of their own. These “suckers” need to be removed as soon as possible, before the vine starts producing the buds that will become the clusters of grapes. Vineyard crews spend much of spring visiting each vine and making sure it’s behaving properly by snapping off extra shoots or sometimes shoots that just aren’t where they’re supposed to be. At the end of the day, for vineyards using the double cordon system, each vine should have just 16 new canes growing. It’s a much easier job then pruning in the winter because the young shoots can just be snapped off easily by hand, as opposed to when they become partially lignified and need to be clipped with powerful shears.

I’ve been paying close attention to one vine in particular this year, watching its growth and documenting it. I take great pleasure in watching it progress a little more each day. The rate of growth is truly fantastic. Yesterday the buds that would become grape clusters were barely perceivable and today they’ve burst into the tiny calyptra that will blossom into the flowers. The shoots grow almost an inch daily! Of course the real excitement begins when the grapes start to ripen…

Global Warming? Not In Northern California Wine Country…

Controversy about climate change has swept the entire nation, with California wine country in tow. While record high temperatures have been searing cities across the country, Californians are complaining about another unseasonably cool summer. As these changes in temperature evolve into what seems to be a pattern, wine analysts and pundits are wondering if the esteemed growing regions of Northern California, like the Sonoma and Napa Valley, will be equally idyllic in the future. A report found in the journal, Environmental Research Letters, posited that as much as 50% of the North Coast and Central Coast growing regions would become unsuitable for winegrape production by the year 2039 due to higher temperatures. A myriad of publications including the L.A. Times, The Press Democrat and The Huffington Post wrote articles citing the report, prompting backlash from other journalists refuting the report’s claims. Notable wineblogger Steve Heimoff pointed out in this article that, in fact, this is the seventh year of cooling temperatures in Northern California. Deerfield’s winemaker, Robert Rex, asserts that the warming temperatures in the middle of North America are drawing the cool marine air further inland, across California. The unprecedented amount of fog in the valley for this time of year is a good indicator that he’s right. Global warming doesn’t mean that every area on the planet is getting warmer – some places actually get colder as other places get hotter.

As the end of August approaches, the buzz in the Sonoma Valley continues to revolve around the unusually cool summer. The record amounts of late rainfall and low temperatures probably would be more shocking if the previous two harvests had been any different. The reality is that what seemed like an anomaly in 2009 has developed into a steady pattern. Both the ’09 and the ’10 harvest in Northern California were among the most challenging years that growers and producers have seen in decades. Both years bore the same hallmarks: Cold nights, few days above 80 degrees and heavy rainfall before most grapes were optimally ripe, which then brought mold and mildew. Top that off with some erratic one-day heat waves that burnt the sensitive, normally sun-tanned, grape skins and you’ve got the Perfect Storm of poor growing conditions.

I’ve talked before about how these are the years when skilled winemakers stand out; these are the years when being selective about every single bunch of grapes is the key to producing quality wine. Now that the 2011 season is shaping up to be a repeat of the last two years, grape growers in Sonoma County are adapting to the shift in weather patterns. Growers were heavily culling formative grape clusters before fruitset even occurred, hoping to channel every ounce of captured sunlight into the remaining grapes. Last year many farmers cut most of the leaves off the vines, thinning the canopy to expose the grapes to more sunlight. That backfired when over two days in late August, a blistering heatwave scorched the rows of unprotected grapes. This year, the canopy is being left thicker, particularly on the sunny side and the plan is to lower the wires that hold the canes upright to provide emergency shade in case history repeats itself. Even though most grapes are as much 20 days behind, 2011 could be an ideal year if the sun continues to break through the fog and the fall doesn’t come early. The cooler, longer summer will produce great flavors at lower potential alcohol levels. Cautious optimism seems to be the prevailing sentiment, which is typical of growers and winemakers.

I believe that whatever the cause, climate change poses tremendous risk to our environment, yet our culture will shift with the weather. Winegrowing regions are quite diverse throughout the world; the arid plains of Spain are nothing like the chilly slopes of the Mosel Valley. It is possible that due to changing ecosystems, the terroir of renowned growing regions will be dramatically altered. Winemaker Robert Rex believes that the shift towards a cooler growing season is here to stay in the California North Coast. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop growing grapes or making world-class wine. No – it means that we’ll adapt to our new environment by producing wine that reflects the changing terroir. Only time will tell what the landscape will look like in 50 years, but whatever the outcome I’m sure that Sonoma will be famous for its wines for centuries to come. Perhaps Napa Valley will become famous for Pinot Noir instead of Cabernet.

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