April Showers Bring Grape Flowers
Hi everyone and welcome back to the Williams Gap Vineyard Blog! If you came out to the vineyard for opening weekend, you probably noticed that “spring has sprung” at WGV. We had Bud Break earlier this month which means grapes are on the way. The most common question the tasting associates and I are asked in the Tasting Room is, “how is this vintage going to be?” or “how is the vineyard this year?”. So, this month, I wanted to tell you about our vine growing calendar, so you know what you are looking at in the vineyard each time you visit us.
Let’s start with the winter. One of the most important activities in the vineyard at Williams Gap, other than harvest, of course, is winter pruning. Our vineyard crew works incredibly hard to cut back the prior year’s canes and they choose the best canes to grow new shoots. The type of pruning system used is determined during the vineyard design. So, for us at WGV, this is something Jack designed when he planted our vineyard in 2006 and he made the important decision to cane prune rather than spur prune. With that being said, it is possible to change the way vines are trained from season to season if overproduction or underproduction is an issue. How could overproduction be an issue? More grapes = more wine, right?! We will get to that, later.
Jump to spring! During April & May, the first signs of life occur. First, we will see the sap rise and then the beautiful buds or flowers begin to break – this is what we call Bud Break. The buds are extremely delicate during this time, so weather can be an issue, unfortunately. What we see here in Virginia is spring frost or even hailstorms. Both of the mentioned weather threats can destroy the buds or flowers. For example, in 2020, a lot of Central Virginian vineyards lost large percentages of their fruit, if not all, due to the Mother’s Day frost of 2020. So, while Bud Break is very exciting, it is also a bit of a frightening time, as we watch the weather reports and hope for the best.
On to the glorious summer! In June and July, young clusters begin to materialize. These clusters will ultimately become berry bunches. Whether you are looking at a red grape, like Merlot or a white grape, like Petit Manseng, they will look very similar at this time. They are small berries, earthworm green in color and very stiff. But that all changes in mid to late summer. The little green berries start to change color and ripen. Those little earth worm green balls turn into gorgeous yellow, pink, red or purple. The color depends on the varietal, or type of grape. This period is called vérasion and is the most beautiful time of the year at Williams Gap. Just before vérasion begins, some vineyard managers will green harvest their vineyard, or “drop fruit”, as most vineyard managers call this process. We do this at WGV to remove additional weight from the vines. We call this weight the superficial grape bunches and we drop fruit so the vines can put all of their effort into the grapes that will make the best wine when we harvest in the fall. So, less grapes = better wine.
Now onto the busiest time of year for our vineyard manager, vineyard crew and winemaker – the fall! If you have friends and family in the wine industry, you learn very quickly to plan important events way before harvest. The grapes continue to ripen and sugar levels rise through the end of summer and into fall. In Virginia, harvest usually occurs sometime between late August to early October, when the grapes reach their complete ripeness. We measure this ripeness a few different ways including measuring brix (sugar levels) and pH (acid levels), as well as taking a look at the pips (or seeds) of the grape. Green pips = under ripe fruit. Brown pips = ripe fruit. Our vineyard manager and crew work around the clock to pick the grapes in time. Timing is essential with grapes as these lovely, little berries are different than other fruits, in that they do not continue to ripen once picked.
We will finish off the season very drearily in late fall and winter. At this point, the vine has stopped producing carbohydrates from the chlorophyll in the leaves. The leaves then lose their color and fall to the ground, just as most vines, plants and trees do during this time of year. Guests seem to worry when they see bare vines during the cooler months, as they often ask if the vines are dead. Grape vines are similar to other plants – they go dormant in the winter. When this happens each year, our crew gets right back out there and prunes back the vines and the process starts all over again.
Now you have a really good understanding of a year in the life of a vine at Williams Gap Vineyard and a better understanding of why our main focus is our vineyard. With every visit to WGV take a look at the vineyards as you drive up Sexton Farm Lane to the Tasting Room. Each time, you will notice a bit of variation in the vines, leaves, fruit and crew activities.
Cheers everyone and we hope to see you at the vineyard soon!