Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Sucker for Wine (How wine gets made: grape growing in the spring)

I, as a 27 year old man, with an average bathroom usage of 4 times a day, have made roughly 40 thousand trips to the bathroom. This rough guestimation of bathroom usage suggests that I have touched the reproductive organs of a grape vine far more than my own.

The amount of work that goes into producing wine for our consumption is unimaginable. The sheer scale of production would astonish anyone not intimately familiar with the process. A 100 acre vineyard in Niagara would be home to roughly 400 thousand vines, each needing individual care and attention multiple times a year. Very little work is done by machines in the vineyard, in general the only time a vine will be touched by a machine is at harvest, the rest of the year it is human (often Mexican migrant workers') hands that are transforming a grape vine from a wild plant to a neatly trellised vine that will produce quality fruit. My hands serve as a testament to the attention required by each vine. In 4 short weeks my hands went from being the soft hands of an academic, to cracked, cut and permanently dirty, unable to feel the stab of a branch or the bite of a spider.

During the early spring the job that takes the most amount of time is suckering. Suckering is done to ensure that the grapes that are grown are quality grapes. A grower can choose to grow for quality or quantity. Grapes are sold by the tonne; an acre of quality grapes producing anywhere from 2-5 tonnes, less quality grapes for bulk wine will often yield 6 or more tonnes an acre. Suckering brings what would be around 8 tonnes an acre to about 4 tonnes an acres. The less grapes grown on a vine the better quality the grapes will be, the vine will put all its energy into 5 bunches rather than 10 bunches which increases concentration and ripeness it's the difference between this:

Thirty Bench "Triangle Vineyard"- one of the best Rieslings coming out of Niagara

and this:

If you were drinking in the 70's or 80's I think you get the point, to anyone else: this is still sold go pick up a bottle to see the effect of (what I'm guessing is) large tonnage per acre.

There are several practices employed to control yield (tonnage per acre or hectare if you want to be all European about it) one of which is suckering. Keep in mind a vineyard of 100 acres has roughly 400 thousand vines, the crew I'm with is responsible for maintaining roughly 360 acres so about 1.5 million vines. There are 15 of us. 100 000 vines per person. The reason we have to sucker is because vines love growing shoots. In the picture on the left you can see shoots coming out of the cane. The shoots are the light coloured branches that the grapes and leaves are attached to, the cane is the horizontal piece of dark wood the shoots are growing out of.

Without suckering the picture above would look very different, instead of there being 6 or so shoots visible there would be none visible because the foliage and grapes would be so dense. Because god hates wine and vineyard workers he decided it would be appropriate for a vine to produce anywhere from 2-4 shoots (called the secondaries, tertiaries, and quaternaries) from the same location, for good wine we want 1 (the primary shoot). All this is a long rambling way for me to say I have to turn this:

Notice the leaves on the bottom of the stem and in between the two wires.

into this:

No more leave on the bottom or between the wires.

These vines are simple, they are young and the suckers (the shoots that grow in places we don't want them; bottom and between wires in this case) and the secondaries are all easily accessible and visible. On older vines, particularly Pinot Noir, they are neither easily accessible or visible. The labour involved is often back breaking and extremely mundane but there are a mere 100 000 vines I will have to do this to in the span of a few weeks, roughly equivalent to the number of bathroom breaks I will have taken if I make it to the age of 60. It is amazing that any of us can even afford to drink wine, given the amount of labour involved and the risks from disease and insects each bottle of wine should cost about $10 000, '47 Cheval Blanc anyone?

As a final disclaimer: I don't work for either 30 Bench or Mateus but I do think both wines are worth trying.