Mother Nature: Friend or Foe?

As previously mentioned, I often conduct tours of the Luckett Vineyards winery with customers who want to learn a bit more about what we do. One of the areas I talk about is nature.

Nature is everything when it comes to wine production, as we wouldn’t be anywhere without it. However, sometimes it feels as though the elements are doing their best to fuck you over.

When enjoying a good bottle of wine, we often overlook the hard work that it took to get to that moment. Producing wine is a labour of love and you have to be dedicated but, most importantly, you need to have a good understanding of the grapes, climate and terrain around you. You also need to be able to find a way to cope with whatever shit Mother Nature throws at you. With this in mind I wanted to write about wine production when it comes to the elements, highlighting the perils as well as the successes.

We wouldn’t be able to produce wine without nature, that’s just a given. Vines are plants and we need sunlight for them to grow. However, it’s not as simple as just planting a vine and then leaving it to do its thing. A brand new vine will take at least two years before it starts producing any grapes. We have just planted brand new Chardonnay and Riesling vines and are forecasting that it’ll be three years at the earliest before we can start using the grapes from them… and that’s being optimistic!

When a young vine starts to produce, it will produce a very high yield of grapes, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. The concentration of the juice, and therefore sugar, in the grapes won’t be as strong and this is due to the fact that the nutrients from the soil will have been dispersed and therefore diluted between the high number of individual grapes. There are ways around this, and you can prune the vines to concentrate the growth in one area of the vine, making each grape richer in juice.

The older a vine gets, the lower the yield of grapes produced and it is regarded by many that a vine will hit its peak production time at about 40 years. This is when the number of grapes produced and the concentration of juices have a natural balance.

So, nature is this complicated beast and it takes time to truly understand what you are dealing with. Each place has its own ‘terroir’ (read our guide to explaining wine terms here) and when making wine you have to take this into account in order to tailor the winemaking process to match the terroir of a place. The factors that make up terroir include the climate, soil qualities, terrain, humidity, wildlife native to the area and many more things.

To give you an example of this, here in Nova Scotia and at Luckett Vineyards in particular we have soil that is rich in acidity and affects the qualities of the grapes that we use. So, in order to balance this, we will perhaps add more sugar to the wine to create a balance of sweetness and acidity.

The direction of the vines also makes a difference. Typically vines will be south facing so that they’re exposed to more sunlight however, at Luckett’s, ours are north facing. I was at a global wine fair a few months ago and was talking to a producer from a vineyard in Corsica called Clos Marfisi and he let me try two of his wines, both made from the same grape varietal, same vintage year and the same fermentation method. The two wines tasted totally different because one wine used grapes harvested from vines that were facing north and the others were harvested from vines that were facing south. That difference in itself was amazing.

In terms of grape production and understanding the terroir of an area, it is good to know and understand which grapes grow well in the particular climate that you are producing in. For example, in Nova Scotia a lot of French hybrid grapes are used. These varietals were originally cultivated in Alsace, a region on the border of France and Germany known for its white wine production. NS shares a similar climate to Alsace and those who know about NS wine will know it for its white wine production.

Nova Scotia partly has global warming to thank for making the area more suited to wine production and the same can be said for the English wine industry. Experts are even suggesting that, by the end of the century, Britain’s climate will be perfect for producing world class wines from all different grape varietals. Right now NS, Alsace and the UK are classed as cool climate regions and there are certain grape varietals that grow well there. Cool climate regions, like the aforementioned places, are usually known for their white and lighter red wines because they provide the optimum conditions for the grapes needed to make wines of those styles.

In order to produce a full bodied red wine that is full of tannin and rich in alcohol content, a hot climate region is ideal. ‘Big reds’ from Australia or southern Italy normally use grapes like Shiraz, Primitivo and Negroamaro. These grapes have thicker skins and will take longer to ripen than a thin skinned red grape like Pinot Noir, so a hot climate with more heat and sun is ideal. However times may change; in an emerging wine region like Nova Scotia we are pushing the boundaries of what was originally thought to be impossible. As the planet gets warmer, there will be more possibilities and different grapes to explore.

As I said before; nature can be your best friend and your worst enemy. Winemaking involves a huge amount of hard work and a lot can go wrong when you are at the mercy of Mother Nature.

When you understand an area’s typical climate, you can make assumptions and estimates as to when the grape harvest will be, however that will never be the same year on year. Grape harvest in Nova Scotia runs from late September, throughout October and sometimes may run into the first week of November. You can estimate all you like but an unexpected heatwave might result in a rise in temperature for an extended period of time, which would mean re-evaluating and bringing the harvest forward because the grapes would ripen quicker than normal. An example of this is Vouvray 2011.

Vouvray is a place in the Loire region of France and typically produces off-dry/semi-sweet Chenin Blanc. However, the springtime that year was particularly hotter than normal and the harvest was therefore brought forward.They had to harvest before the grapes spoiled and, as a result, the sugar content in the grapes was considerably less than normal, so the 2011 vintage was actually a dry white wine.

It works the other way too, I was talking to a friend from Ontario who works for Constellation Brands (a large beverage company which owns a number of wineries). He was telling me about the bad weather they have had in Ontario recently; they have had a lot of rain and there is concern that, if they have much more, the grapes won’t ripen fully. The higher water content of the grapes would mean that they wouldn’t make a good red wine, so the brand would have to look into using those grapes to make a rosé instead.

We can’t control nature, it’s just something that we have to monitor and deal with. The thing is though, sometimes weather can have a destructive and devastating effect on grape production. Burgundy, the French wine producing region has been blighted by hail stones for years and, in some cases, producers have lost between 90 and 100 percent of their crops. I touched on this subject in a previous post and will reiterate that this is financially crippling for producers, not to mention the emotional torment they must go through to see all of their hard work destroyed by something that they have no control over… until now.

Producers in Burgundy are now trying to take back control. The entire area (42,000 hectares) has been covered with generators that fire particles of silver iodide into the air which prevents hail forming. They will monitor the risk of hail and, when it reaches 40%, an alert will be sent out to turn the generators on. This practice has been performed before in Bordeaux but not on this scale. The amazing thing about this technology is that it is relatively cheap, costing around €8 per hectare. It’s such a bargain if you take into account the fact that this technology will provide them with the certainty that their crops won’t be destroyed.

Having been to Burgundy, and just generally as an oenophile, I applaud these initiatives. This development is going to ensure that people aren’t at as high a risk of losing their livelihoods, without having to cover the vines and mask their aesthetic beauty.

Vines are beautiful things and they are so natural. When I go to work I ride my bike past orchards, pear groves, corn fields and other fruit patches but, in my opinion, they don’t come close to the beauty and elegance of a grape vine. We have nature to thank for providing us with the vines that produce grapes so that we can make wine, which (to me) is one of the most magical things on this planet.

All of the hard work, all of the turmoil that a season can throw at you is ultimately worth it when the bottle ends up on the table for you to share and create your own memories over.

– James

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