European grape varieties Pinot Noir and Chardonnay comprise the largest part of our plantings. Mediterranean in origin, they’re vulnerable to the coldest part of our winters. Although Winter was gentle this year, in February there were still a couple of days where temperatures plunged close to -30 degrees. So most of the buds above ground will have been damaged by the cold.
Fortunately, we went to great expense and effort to bury four canes underground for every single vine. A protective blanket of soil is remarkably effective at providing the critical extra degrees of warmth to protect the vines from the ravages of winter. The buds on the buried vines will be undamaged. Just a couple of degrees difference means the difference between having a crop, and not.
“Budbreak” is when the vines start their new growing season. In Prince Edward County at our site, budbreak typically starts at the beginning of May. Before budbreak, we have a huge amount of work to do. All the old canes that weren’t buried have to be pruned off, hauled out of the vineyard, and burned. Then we fire up the tractor, reverse the blades of our hiller plow so now it’s a de-hiller plow, and drive up and down the rows, tearing down the hills of soil. Next step is to use the grape hoe attachment on the tractor to pass within centimeters of each vine pushing soil away. In the end, there is almost no soil left over the buried vines.
We used thousands of twist ties to tie last year’s canes to a low wire. So now the back-breaking labour begins — we reach down with our gloved fingers through the soft soil, grab the wire, and shake the dirt off the canes. Then we carefully snip the twist ties to loosen the canes.
Tieing up begins. The canes need to be tied up onto the trellis, so when the buds push green shoots, it’s easier for us to arrange them into a nice, tidy hedge. A crew gets out in the field and carefully arranges the canes in an orderly system on the trellis.
All this preparation happens under time pressure. If budbreak occurs before we’re done and shoots start growing, everything gets more difficult. The infant shoots are incredibly delicate and easy to knock off the cane — each shoot that gets knocked off means less wine at the end of the season. And in buds that start to grow underground, shoots think they’re roots, and come out looking like white worms. Do they turn back into shoots if you pull them up into the light, or do they shrivel off when they hit the air to be replaced by a new shoot? I’ve never been quite sure.
Ideally, we’d finish all our pruning and tieing up by budbreak. But there’s a tricky balancing act of hiring just enough help but not more than we absolutely need. Combined with delays from the occasional Spring rain we’ve never been able to get the timing quite right. Quite often we find ourselves still tieing up well into May and finishing the final touches in early June!
Meanwhile, there’s lots happening in the winery, making wine, planning events, and getting ready for the summer season…but that’s another story.
Winter is such a great time to rest and dream and plan. Spring is the time to put the dreams into action!