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Viticulture (Quality Grapes)

As you no doubt already know (if you have ventured this far into this webpage), I grow my grapes organically (without using chemicals that pollute the environment and affect people's health) and in addition, I create/maintain bio-diversity in the vineyard, and improve the fertility and quality of the soil.

This is a form of 'sustainable viticulture'. There are a lot of definitions of this available on the internet.

However, at the present time, I can't do ALL of the things that are called for to be truly 'sustainable' yet.

Basically, for me, it’s a long road that I'm travelling down; at each step, whenever I can (ie resources and time permitting) I implement a new practice, or invest in some new material or equipment, and so come closer to my ideal destination, ie 100% happy sustainability. In the meantime, I do what I can.

These are the things that I actually DO do in the vineyard:


Ground Cover

The usual practice locally for conventional vineyards is to plough around the vines 2 or 3 times a year in order to remove all weeds and plants. The justification for this is that 1) these plants compete for water with the vines and 2) it aerates the topsoil and allows rainwater and moisture to penetrate. However, I don’t do that.

I want to create biodiversity in my vineyards and I prefer to let the spontaneous wild flowers and grasses in the vineyard grow. I like my vineyards to be alive with life! ... flora, fauna and micro-life. Instead of ploughing up the vineyard several times a year and leaving the soil naked and unprotected, I allow all the wild grasses, plants and flowers to live. I only cut back the highest ones and the ones nearest the vines.

This is actually an excellent form of insect control, because all the different species predate on each other and no one species gets out of control and becomes a problem. If you plough up your vineyard, you destroy the habitat of many different species of insect, except for the one that actually lives on and eats the vine, which multiplies and becomes a problem, and the only way to deal with it now is to spray it with pesticide, because you’ve destroyed the habitat of its natural predators.

Another reason for leaving all the grasses, flowers, thistles, plants with all their associated insects, polens, yeasts, etc is that they contribute to making the aromas and tastes of our wines richer and more complex.

Yet another reason for not ploughing up is that the cover protects the topsoil from erosion from rain and wind.

And lastly, the remains of all this vegetation (both the ones I cut back and the ones that wither away and die) all decomposes and goes back into the soil, and improves its fertility and structure.

I also chop up the canes from pruning into tiny pieces and spread them about the vineyard. Same with the skins, pips and stems of the grapes.

Do the grasses and plants compete for water against the vines? Well, obviously they do. The question is "How much do they compete?" Well, I believe not very much. Grasses and plants have very short roots and so can only take up water when it's on or near the surface, whereas vines can find water way down underground down to depths of 2 or 3 meters or more. Also, vines in general are quite drought resistant compared to grasses and plants and flowers, and the native varieties are especially drought-resistant.


Pruning

I do all the pruning by hand.

My main criterion is the health and shape of each vine. I don't force them to produce too many bunches in any given year.



Wild Yeast 

I don't buy in cultured industrially produced yeast. I just use the wild yeast(s) that are in the vineyard and winery.

There's an interesting ongoing debate in the blogosphere about the use of wild or cultured yeasts. My opinion on this is basically as follows:

I want my wines to express the terroir as much as possible, so it's fundamental for me to use the natural yeast(s) and not buy a cultured product from a factory.

I've read that the 'natural' yeasts floating around in vineyards and wineries are in fact the exact same as the cultured ones. Well, that's fine by me! The species may be the same (ie Sacchoramydes Cervesiae) but the strains will all be locally different. So I believe.

I've also read that it's 'risky' to use natural, wild yeasts because there are some undesired species of yeasts out there that can give off-flavours to the wine or even spoil it. The only thing I can say to that is that I've been making wine this way for 12 years now and I've never come across that problem. Touch wood! Basically, I suspect that sterilizing the grapes with sulphites and then inoculating with cultured yeasts is just an excuse for bad grape-growing practices and/or for using bad quality grapes.

What I believe happens is that during the first few days of fermentation, there are lots of different strains of strange (and possibly undesirable) yeasts active; but then good old Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (the 'good' yeast) takes over and dominates totally and completes the fermentation till the end. Well, I believe that those first few days are important, as those strange yeasts provide flavours and aromas that contribute to the expression of the terroir in the wine. If you kill them off with sulfites and inoculate with Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, well, you'll get a clean, simpler wine that may well comply with a whole load of technical criteria, but it will be less expressive of the terroir.

Use of Chemicals

I don’t use any! There's no need to! If your soil is healthy and balanced, your vines will be too, and they'll provide healthy, balanced, complex, terroir-expressing grapes and must. If you spray chemicals on your vineyard, you kill the micro-organisms, the soil becomes unbalanced, the vines suffer and give unbalanced grapes, and your chances of expressing the terroir are reduced.

Well, sulphur powder is a chemical, and I dust the vines once or twice a year, some years, depending on the weather, some years not. My attitude to the use of chemicals is not a dogmatic or ideological one - I like to think it's a sensible one! And respectful of the environment!

Use of Natural Products

I use the following:

Cola de caballo (some years)
sulphur powder (some years)
organic manure (some years)

'Cola de caballo' strengthens the vines and help them ward off pests without upsetting the natural ecological balance of the vineyard.

  Pending: insert info and photos on these 3 products

“Grapes grown in harmony with nature produce the best wine” (pending: who said that?)

Here are some photos of the flowers and grasses that grow naturally in our vineyard. I haven’t been able to identify some of them yet; if anyone knows what they are, please drop me a line!

   (pending photos of flowers and plants)

Insects are more difficult to photograph, but here are a few photos:
 
     (pending photos of insects)

I’ve seen ladybirds, spiders, and lizards

     (pending photos of spiders, etc)

Birds: not many birds, really but I’ve seen a few hawks or eagles and cranes soaring high above the vineyard on occasions.

Small animals: I’ve seen many, many rabbits, that for the last two years have been eating about 20 - 30% of the grapes in the Carabaña vineyard!

Occasionally I see a large lizard/iguana type beast (which perhaps eats the spiders!)


QUALITY GRAPES

I believe that using quality grapes is essential to the goal of producing quality wine.

Everyone harps on about quality these days! There’s not a website in the entire internet which doesn’t express the producer’s “commitment to quality”, even purveyors of fast-food, who confuse quality with compliance with health and safety legislation. (Compliance with H&S legislation is fine, of course, but not the same thing as producing quality grapes and wines!)

Clearly the word ‘quality’ has become devalued and is just something that a lot of people feel they have to be committed to for the sake of political and/or marketing correctness.

However, the quality of grapes really is important if you intend to produce top quality wines. I believe that if you can bring clean, healthy, ripe, non-contaminated grapes to your winery, over half the battle is won.

This is obvious and intuitive really and I don’t think you have to have a university degree to realize the truth of this approach. No-one likes to eat a damaged grape because it tastes horrible and is probably infected with unpleasant bacteria; so what do you think will happen if you make wine with such grapes? The same applies to twigs, stems, leaves, insects, dirt, etc… these things do not taste nice, they are bitter and horrible, and harbour bacteria and yeasts that could start off-fermentations, therefore don’t put them in your wine! The same applies when you crush your grapes too much or too many times. If you try to extract the very last drop of juice you will also crush the pips and stems, which are bitter and horrible. I think that this is why cheap table wine tastes the way it tastes, ie lacking complexity and subtle tastes/smells and drinkable only because of the addition of sweeteners, taste-enhancers and massive doses of sulphur!

To ensure that I only use the best quality grapes to make my wines, I do the following:

  1. Firstly, there are all the practices described above in the vineyard section of this website. All those practices described combine to produce a tastier, healthier grape. I believe that all the different pollens, aromas, yeasts, saps, etc present in all the different plants in the vineyard contribute to the taste and aroma of the must and the wine. A biologically rich and complex environment will lead naturally to a more rich and complex wine
  2. I check on the vines regularly throughout the year
  3. When pruning, I ensure that the pruning shears are scrupulously clean and sharp. Diseases can be spread to the vines if an implement has been lying unused for a long time, so I clean everything I use before entering the vineyard. The shears need to be sharp because a neat clean cut heals better and faster than a ragged cut and there is less chance of infection
  4. Similarly, at harvest time, I clean everything I use: scissors or knives to cut the bunches, the cases, the van, the receiving equipment, etc
  5. When picking the grapes, the pickers are instructed to pick only ripe bunches. Unripe bunches are left on the vine, possibly to be picked at a later date. Rotten or damaged bunches are not picked. No leaves, twigs, dirt, etc go into the cases. This is the first stage of quality control. There is a second stage at the winery when the grapes are received, and they are all checked for unripe, overripe, rotten, damage, foreign matter, etc before the grapes are crushed
Like I said above, using quality grapes is essential if you want to make quality wine. But that's only half the battle! Once you have your quality grapes in the winery, you have to ... read on here (Vinification - Quality Wine)
 
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