Vintage 2019 is already in the history books and has made the Bluestone hall of fame. A vintage that can be called very good in many cases and in some, I think many vignerons would say that this year could have separated the boys from the men, or to satisfy those who are not boys, the girls from the women.
2019 was very noticeably trickier in terms of weather conditions, especially towards the back end of the year. The weather at the beginning of the year was very good and at all the right times. We are regularly experiencing these warm spells pre-Spring. If I recall correctly that we have had some high 20’s at the end of February and the beginning of March. This has meant that the vines have emerged from their winter dormancy slightly earlier than usual. The soils warm, which triggers hormone production in the vine’s roots signalling for sap to start flowing from the roots through the trunk and the wood above ground. The sap slowly fills the dormant buds on the fruiting canes, causing them to swell signalling cell elongation. When the buds start to take on sap they become vulnerable to frosts. As we know, liquids once frozen, expand. Plant cells have cell walls that act as a physical protective barrier to the surrounding environment, pathogens and give structure to its overall form. If the liquid (sap) inside these cell walls freezes it expands and can potentially rupture the cell wall and therefore killing it. As seen in the photo you can see the bud on the upper side of the fruiting cane looking fairly dishevelled and orange with the bud on the underside of the cane looking plump, pink in colour and healthy.
Enough doom and gloom! I can’t take it. This is one of the major factors affecting all types of crop farming all over the globe. Even though I thought we got hit quite severely by the spring frosts, my estimates were 70% frosted... I think I must have miscounted as the numbers would contradict this. Some areas of the vineyard were noticeably struggling in comparison to other parts and those of you who came on a tour this year would have listened to me banging on about that. Forecasting the crop potential is something that will come with experience.
The weather through flowering and was near perfect. Though, there was some inconsistent nighttime/ daytime temperatures, perhaps contributing to what is called “hen and chick”. This is where you get the formation of small and large berries on the same bunch. Quite often the small berries do not ripen. They remain green and full of high levels of malic acid and don’t develop full flavour components. This could negatively impact the final wine if occurring on a large scale. We only had a handful of vines that suffered from this. This is not a huge issue and can be managed both in the vineyard and in the winery.
The vines looked stuffed with fruit. Everywhere you looked there were clusters of flowers ready for pollination to undergo their transformation into teeny tiny berries. Only being in our second fruiting year it was really tough to gauge whether this was a lot of fruit or a regular amount of fruit. A few visits from other people in the industry we quickly realised that what we had a lot of it. The vines are still only young so we need to be careful not to over-crop and throw them out of kilter for following seasons. It’s all about balance. Toby and I proceeded to carry out a yield estimate. At this point, with flowering over, we had a better chance of estimating yield. As previously stated, the success of flowering is one of the major variables of yield. In order to make our estimation we have to take a small sample that is representative of the whole grapevine population.
Given that we have 4 sites that have up to three different varieties and even then still, have up to three different clones of each variety. So lots of individual samples to be made. We break down the site by variety and clone. Let’s say for example, we have Three Acre and we want to sample clone 121 of our Chardonnay grapevines. We would walk up and down the alleyways so we have a row of vines on either side. We would count the number of clusters on 10 vines in our sample area and as we go through we randomly select and cut off a random cluster.
We usually take anywhere between 10 and 20 clusters for one sample. From each cluster we then pick off the tiny undeveloped berries, count them and record the number of berries. We now understand how many berries per bunch of grapes we might have in our sample population.
Now we know the average number of clusters per vine and the average berry number per cluster. Using historical data of berry weights from other growers we can now work out an estimate per vine.
Berry weight x number of berries per cluster x number of clusters = Yield per vine
Yield per vine x total number vines = Total yield
Our yield estimate came out at around 24 tonnes. The split was heavily weighted on the Pinots. Given that they make up less than half of our total planting we decided that there was a danger of over-cropping. So we carried out a green harvest or as the French would say “vendange en vert”. This is the removal of clusters of grapes before ripening begins. The idea is to allow the vine to focus its energy and resources into ripening fewer bunches of grapes so producing even ripeness and perhaps even higher physiological ripeness than the vines would have had they had more fruit to ripen.
We removed about 4 tonnes of fruit so our estimate was down at around the 20 tonne mark. The removal of fruit at this level was the first time that we had performed such a task. Like many things thus far, we just took it in our stride and completed the task on a vine by vine basis. No hard or fast rules. It was a matter of analysing each vine by eye and cutting off bunches based on trunk thickness, vine location, shoot vigour, shoot number, vine fertility and so on. Many many variables to consider and as quickly and as carefully as possible.
It just so happened, as some of you very well know, that we hauled in 19.3 tonnes. So not far off out yield estimate after our green harvest. Very good stuff indeed. We were pretty chuffed with ourselves.
Ripening or veraison (A la France…) didn’t kick off until the end of August. Ripening is when in red grape varieties, the berries skin colour starts to go from green to red as seen above. veraison in white grape varieties is less obvious at the beginning. Berry skins turn translucent and from bright green to a yellowy colour.
The weather was pretty decent for August and the first half of September. It wasn’t until the end of September through to harvest at the end of October that things got pretty tricky. The weather was awful. It was relatively warm and just super rainy, therefore humidity was also high. These conditions meant for the perfect conditions for mildew development as well as botrytis in the bunches of grapes. Mildews and botrytis can be devastating. You can lose entire crops if left to its own devices and not kept on top of. I know of growers that didn’t harvest a thing because of it, which is a real shame and harsh reality of grape growing. However, we were able to deal with it very well. Visual monitoring of the vineyard is the best way to manage and there is no better substitute. Saying that, there are already lots of very cool automated machines and drones that can do some incredible work. The thing is, they are either still in development and/or super expensive, which makes it extremely uneconomical for our 10 acre vineyard.
It was a bit of a battle as we crept closer to harvest. The weather as previously mentioned was terribly unhelpful. Not only was disease pressure high, we were seeing slow ripening in the grapes. Together with the rain in between samples being sent to the winery we actually saw decreases in sugar because of dilution in the berries. We were, or at least I was, getting quite worried. Things just weren’t moving along the way we wanted them to. Constantly flicking between multiple weather apps trying to formulate a plan in the vineyard was interesting. For those of you who were geared up to help with the harvest, you may have been bored by the relentless delaying of picking dates via Facebook.
We wanted ripe grapes, we wanted dry days for picking and we needed to do it with volunteers. All highly variable conditions, everything needed to be perfect. Lo and behold, it just so happened that it was as close to perfect as we were ever going to get. We picked over 7 days or so, picked by variety bringing in the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier first with Chardonnay the last coming into the winery. We picked the lot with our rag tag in house team and varying numbers of fantastic and willing volunteers who all worked extremely hard to bring the fruit in. We had an absolutely brilliant “volunteer harvest day” where we put on more of a spread with wine and plenty of food and snacks throughout the day to keep everyone going. I cannot thank these brilliant people enough. A very enjoyable experience indeed and I hope to welcome them all back in 2020 together with many new faces.
The fruit was flawless and given the ripening conditions, it was also in very good nick from a physiological ripeness point of view.
Happy grapes + happy growers + happy pickers = happy wines
Thank you Shelley Hills aka Henge_Photography for all of her fantastic images. Absolutely gorgeous photos.