A viticulture-related question was recently posed to me during a Darn Good Winemakers session, and I thought the question was so thought provoking that it required pause and attention as a blog post. It gave me a good opportunity to think about science, how commercial operations use scientific findings, and how easily viticulture and enology guidance can be confused.
For clarification, this was the extent of the full question:
This question crosses between both viticulture and enology. It is predicated on the studies out of MSU, PSU, and most recently, UGA on leaf removal to change the microclimate of the cluster zone in grapevines. When I talk with winemakers, they express that the primary chemistry and metrics of the fruit remains unchanged with 4 to 6 leaves removed from the cluster zones of Chardonnay vines. However, they feel that from a sensory or aromatic standpoint, the more “cooked” or “baked” aromas prevail (i.e., baked apple and cooked cabbage). They do not want that many leaves removed, especially on the western side of the Chardonnay canopies. It seems as if the pendulum swings from ‘naked clusters’ to east side removal with minimum west side removal. What has been your experience? And, what cluster zone leaf removal recommendations do you make for growers that you work with, in particular when working with Chardonnay in the Eastern U.S. to achieve the desired aromatics and flavor which are characteristic of this varietal? Specifically, to make a Chablis-style Chardonnay.
So much is within in that question!
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve dived into this question and retained insight from some of the researchers and a viticulture consultant on their recommendations that I wanted to share with my whole audience. However, there was too much to cover in one post. For the next 3 weeks, I’ll cover the following:
- Why I don’t make viticulture recommendations as an enologist.
- How to separate research findings and commercial application.
- Finally, getting three viticulture expert opinions on cluster zone leaf removal techniques, and closing winemaker thoughts.
Hoping you’ll join us for all three posts!
Why I Don’t Make Viticulture Recommendations
First, I want to express that I do not make grape growing recommendations for growers. While I may help winemakers and growers determine picking decisions during harvest, I have a strong opinion that winemakers should not direct specific vineyard management decisions just as much as viticulturists should not direct specific winemaking decisions. Let me explain.
Just in this year (2019) I attended a conference in which a well-respected viticulture consultant gave a talk regarding specific vineyard management practices and recommendations for the region. While I support their perspective and recommendations that were presented, I was shocked to find the last few slides were focused on winemaking operations and/or outcomes that growers or winemakers could expect affiliated with those vineyard management recommendations. Some of the content was focused on how to make the wine to best express the vineyard management techniques. Quite frankly, I felt this was a bit overarching on the part of the viticulture expert. But, even worse is that I disagreed with most of the winemaking recommendations that were made during that presentation.
It occurred to me in that moment, how often viticulture and enology expertise dance around this line. It’s often at this boundary that I find a wide use of myths, simplifications, and exaggerations are discussed (at least when a viticulture expert is talking about wine).
I tend to think this is a result of two phenomena:
- Experts used to address both sides of wine production, the grape growing and winemaking practices, over previous decades of time. At one point, I think “wine experts” did consult for other growers or winemakers cohesively. Today, these two fields have diverged and become more specialized. We now have experts that focus in one of those fields as opposed to both.
- Whether a grower or a winemaker, we both can taste wine and have an opinion about it. Therefore, it’s really easy for growers to make wine “recommendations” based on what they hear a winemaker say. The opposite, however, is also true. If a winemaker knows a specific vineyard management technique is applied to one of the blocks of grapes that they make the wine for, it’s easy to assume that technique should be applied, well, anywhere.
Is this to say that enologists know nothing about grape growing and viticulturists know nothing about winemaking? No. But I do think that a winemaker/enologist will look at a wine and how it’s made very differently from a grower/viticulturist. I believe expertise is something we should all consider when discussions surround a specific topic related to wine.
Enology and viticulture both have nuanced detail behind them
I’ll use myself as an example.
My earliest years and introduction to the industry were focused on grape growing. I spent a few years working in the vineyards, applying recommended grape growing techniques to commercial vineyards and learning the jargon associated with grape growing principals. However, at some point in my career, I pivoted into food science and focused further into the field of enology.
While I took a course in post-harvest physiology, six years of my education was focused on the science of food, beverages, and wine. I know that those six years cannot be replaced through observations and discussions among the grape growing experts in terms of understanding the scientific decisions associated with wine production. The nuance associated with winemaking decisions is complex.
Here’s an easy example of that: the perception that a wine needs to be aged in barrel for 6 to 12 months of time.
You get a group of viticulturists and enologists together to talk about wine, and barrel aging (type and time) always comes up while tasting the red wines. It’s ingrained into all of us that barrel aging makes the most superior red wines. And the longer, the better, right?
I can definitely argue that not only have I seen a TON of wine flaws result from improper barrel aging, but I also don’t think every red wine needs barrel aging (in the finest French oak) to be A) great or B) delicious. (Maybe we should also add, and C) cost effective so consumers buy it.)
Nonetheless, many general tasting discussions will focus around this centralized recommendation. This doesn’t even cover the type of barrels people should use, the toasting levels, or age of the barrel. And to be fair, even as a winemaker and enologist, I still get input from barrel companies that work with barrels and taste wine from barrels every day because oak selections are complex.
In contrast, I know I can no longer look at a vineyard site and see the same things that a viticulture professor, vineyard management consultant, or a vineyard manager would see. Sure, I can tell a well-managed vineyard from a neglected vineyard. Every once and awhile, I can also identify a disease. But, I don’t know which spray to apply, when to apply it, how to apply it, and if it’s the best recommendation for a grower. Nor do I know when to apply other vineyard management techniques to a site.
My point is this: Value input from the right experts.
There is something valuable to the education, regular exposure, and experience associated in one field. Individuals that focus in an area tend to make specific recommendations with more depth behind them. Yes, those recommendations are likely complex. Assume there is a reason.
“What cluster zone leaf removal recommendations do you make for growers?”
Thus, out of respect for my viticulture colleagues and their expertise, I do not make vineyard recommendations for my clients or audience. But I will get to how I address this question in the third blog post of this 3-part series. Hope you’ll join us next week for part 2!