Hedging Our Bets
Ah, growth. We like it in the sales part of our business, but at this time of the year in the vineyard, we actually find ourselves combatting it. There are several things our vineyard crew does to manage the growth of the vines, all ultimately aimed at promoting grape quality.
The trellis structure in most of our vineyards is comprised of 8' posts, each of which is pounded 2' into the ground, and a series of wires, from the low wire to the fruiting wire (where grape growth is optimal) to upper wires, the highest of which is about 6' tall. All growth (leaves, rogue rootstock tendrils) below the low wire is "suckered" off, and the canes growing above the fruit are all tucked into the wires, to keep a clear tractor corridor and, in effect, to shape the vines into a kind of "solar panel" of exposed leaves which will do the vital job of collecting sunlight, energy which will be used to ripen the grapes.
Once the vines are suckered and tucked, the next step is hedging. During this process, using a hedge trimmer implement attached to our tractor, the sides of the vines are shaved by a series of four blades while the top of the vines are cut off at a height of 7'. It's actually rather mesmerizing to watch:
We purchased our particular hedger--a 2007 Italian Rinieri model--in 2017, and it definitely makes this part of vineyard management much easier.
Combatting vine growth enables us to control the canopy, better protect against disease (through spray penetration), promote air movement, and maximize the amount of light that gets to each leaf. The healthier the leaves, the better their ability to maximize the ripening of the grapes. Ripening growth trumps vegetative growth.
Of course, an ancillary benefit to all of the crew's vine management is the pleasing aesthetic result. Hedged vines remind me of cultivated European gardens, beautifully uniform pathways.
So far, it's been a pretty good grapegrowing year. The vines like the heat and the sun, and we'll pray for more of it. Beautiful sights like this remind us how lucky we are to manage the potential of the next vintage, in such a lovely place.
*Pix and video courtesy of Carl Helrich (the younger).
Here's an entomological quiz: Of the four insects seen above (and photographed on our property in The Brogue this month), which one will have the biggest impact on our vineyards this year?
We can review the candidates one by one:
Upper Left: Here, the surprisingly colorful metallic Fiery Searcher Caterpillar Hunter!
This ground beetle, relatively uncommon in our neck of the woods, was a startling find for our younger son, who unearthed it while working to build a new patio. Its metallic greens, golds, and purples were really quite mind-blowing, and we initially had absolutely no idea about an ID. It turns out that these beetles are usually considered friends to gardeners--while they can pinch, they aren't poisonous, and their main goal (clearly stated in their name) is to find and devour the kind of caterpillars which might prove to be threats to garden favorites such as tomato plants. Is this beetle worrisome to us in the vineyards? Negatory.
Lower Right: May I introduce: the Eastern Eyed Click Beetle!
This strange-looking beetle caught our younger son's eye while it climbed on the boat trailer he was getting ready to repaint. Again, we had to do some research in order to find out more about it. Its false "eyes" make sense to me; it's hoping to forecast to potential predators that it has its eyes peeled, ready to see all incoming threats. Despite its rather impressive appearance, it poses no threat to grapevines.
OK. Our next insect to discuss (from the Upper Right) is the one dominating the entomology news from our corner of the world this spring: Yup--it's the Brood X Cicada!
These periodical cicadas have emerged this year after a 17-year hiatus. At this point, in early June, we are in the middle of the adult cicada emergence, and our woods hum daily with their music. Just listen!
Carl has fielded many questions about how these so-very-present insects will affect our grape-growing and harvest this year. Interestingly, although these insects may dominate our current soundscape and inhabit all of the wooded areas around the vineyards, they will only have an indirect effect on the vines themselves. Yes--there is noise--and yes--their casings are basically everywhere at this point--but the main effect comes because the predators of a real insect pest to our vine leaves--Japanese beetles--will be snacking this year on cicadas rather than on those beetles, and that's not great. Japanese beetles turn grape leaves into skeletons every year, and so they actually are a major pest. We can spray insecticide to mitigate their damage, but would much rather rely on natural predators to take them out. This year, those predators may instead have bellies full of cicadas.
What wine do we recommend for Allegro customers adventurous enough to be pairing wine with cicada recipes? Um...seriously, any of them. We aren't going there.
So...it must be clear by now that the tiniest insect pictured above is the one we have the most trepidation about, and that's true. Here, in a picture taken in Block Seven (our varietal white block in the vineyards in The Brogue), we show the dreaded Spotted Lanternfly in its "first instar" phase:
I've referred earlier to our unhappy discovery last fall of a couple of adult Spotted Lanternflies in our vineyards. This invasive species of planthopper has proven to be incredibly devastating to grapevines. Their modus operandi is to hang around until the fall, when later stages of the insect bore into the trunks of grapevines and suck out vital sap (carbohydrates) which the vines need to survive the winter and make it through until new leaves become "solar panels" for the plant.
We. Hate. Spotted. Lanternflies. Their targeting of grapevines has led to devastation in our industry, and we know others who have lost whole vineyards to their destruction. There are lots of debates around, about when and how to best apply insecticides to mitigate the horrible effects of this insect, which seems to have first appeared in the U.S. through a landscaping operation in Pennsylvania's Berks County in 2014. We are part of the discussion. We want these things gone.
So, to recap: We see a lot of cool critters on our properties, including a wide range of insect life. Lots of the scurrying and flying insects we see are harbingers of the health of our region, where local species thrive, each finding its natural place in the web of life. Beetles crawl. Cicadas hum, even in huge symphonies.
When invasive insect species such as the Spotted Lanternfly show up, we realize anew that we're part of a whole web of researchers and industry insiders who share a common goal of saving healthy grapevines so that they can produce wine-worthy fruit in the fall. We're here and we're vigilant, and that, in the end, may end up meaning everything.
Vicissitudes. That's the word that popped into my head this morning. It's a pretty great word, but comes to mind for a not-so-great reason: Our vineyards in The Brogue and Stewartstown are under a freeze warning for tonight, and possibly for Thursday night as well. Vicissitudes can be positive or negative things befalling us by chance. There's usually nothing we can do about them. In the case of viticulture, this is certainly true. Ish.
Growing grapes in a temperate climate (as opposed to in more predictable warmer climates such as Australia or Napa) means that we have to do more vineyard management to deal with things like rainfall and cold. The cold can threaten our vines during the dead of winter, when below-zero temperatures can literally kill the vines, and during two other vulnerable times: in late harvest time, when the grapes are hanging ripely on the vines, and in early- to mid-spring. Here in April and early May, our grapevines experience bud-break (also thrillingly called bud-burst). It's an exciting time of the year, when the leaves push up and out through the vines, one variety at a time, turning the vineyard a wonderfully hopeful shade of spring green. It's also the time of no return.
Once the sap is running and bud-break has occurred, below-freezing temperatures (anything below 32°) can cause real damage. If the new buds are killed by cold, our only hope is that the vine will develop secondary growth, later and significantly less fruitful than the growth we'd like to see in as long of a growing season as possible.
From recent devastating news, we've heard that late spring frosts have absolutely decimated French vineyards in the past weeks. Vineyards in all of the growing regions of France have sustained significant damage, as noted in sympathetic articles from all around the world. Vineyards with a lot of money can implement frost mitigation strategies, including helicopters, windmills, and smudge pots designed to move warm air into vineyards and cool air out. Sprinklers can also be used; if buds are continually coated with water, the water will freeze and keep the interior at the magical 32°. Many places (such as ours) cannot afford these kinds of technologies. French growers are anticipating the partial or complete loss of grapes from the 2021 vintage. For many already this year, it's over before it's even gotten started.
At this point in our growing season in The Brogue, we've experienced bud-break at some places in our Merlot and Chardonnay blocks, as well as in a few Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc vines. Other varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, which develop a bit later in the season, are not as vulnerable right now. It's the early-bloomers who are the canaries in our coal mine, so to speak.
Not in all of the growing years here from the vineyard's first planting in 1973 through 2009 was there any kind of spring frost damage. Climate change, however, has meant that in the past dozen years, we've been under potentially dangerous freeze warnings several times. The most damage we've ever sustained was actually last year, when cold nights in early May caused the loss of a significant (25%) number of Chambourcin grapevine buds at our Stewartstown vineyard and less significant (about 10%) number from our upper Chardonnay and Cabernet here in The Brogue.
There is one trick Carl has up his sleeve, when it comes to spring frost mitigation. It's called KDL. KDL is a potassium fertilizer designed to be sprayed on grapevine buds to lower their freezing point and increase freeze resistance. When we get a warning such as the one for tonight, he can apply KDL on susceptible grapevines with the hopes of getting another degree or two of cold protection.
In farming, of course, there's a lot that we can't control. (Those darn vicissitudes and all.) I've sometimes noted that our lack of control over things like climate and climate change can make me feel humble. We can also feel helpless, frustrated, as humans do when feeling powerless. It feels better to be able to predict and to act. We stand vigilant. We hope. And, yeah...I even cross my fingers sometimes. Carl straps on his backpack sprayer.
Days and nights like these do connect us to all of those in our region--and over there in France, and all over the world, for that matter--whose livelihood also depends on growing conditions and the weather. Isolated as we may be on this plot of land as the climate changes and temperatures get more wild, at least we're all still in it together.
End-of-April Update: After about a week of warmer weather and vineyard growth, Carl was able to assess that we did in fact lose about 20% of the buds in our early-breaking varieties (lower Chardonnay, upper Merlot in our vineyards in The Brogue) and lesser damage in a few other places. This will affect our yields this year, but not as significantly as last vintage.
During the time of the growing season when the vines are dormant, their care is of the utmost importance. There's basically no more important process to determine grape quality and vine health than pruning: the process by which the grapevines are balanced. This process runs between November and March of each year and involves long and careful sessions in the winter vineyard.
Pruning following the VSP (vertical shoot positioning) model, the one we use in our vineyards in The Brogue, basically happens in four stages:
The various vines at our Stewartstown vineyard have, in the past, been pruned following different methods, including these 3:
Last year's growth on each vine determines this year's buds, the potential for the whole upcoming growing season. If unprotected buds are killed by spring frosts, it's unlikely that the vines will produce many useful winegrapes at all; secondary shoots ripen later than primary ones. So the frost mitigation aspect of pruning is really important.
The pruner in the vineyard is an important decision-maker. Sometimes growth from previous years needs to be beaten down, and other times growth needs to be encouraged from a newer location, possibly from further down on the vine. Carl likens grape-growing year to a tightrope walk: A lot needs to go right, in order for the highest-quality fruit to result. There's a lot riding on these taut wires. But, like the tightrope walker, we're also always looking ahead, eager to keep the balance which will bring success for the vintage ahead.
As of today, our grapes are all in! Today's picking of Petit Verdot in Cadenza Vineyards in The Brogue marked the end of the growing season.
All of the grapes from our Stewartstown vineyards were already in, three weeks ago. Since the grapes there are hybrid varieties such as Vidal and Chambourcin, they ripen more quickly and are harvested earlier than the European-style vinifera grapes, which sometimes hang on the vines until November. Since this was a rebuilding and retraining year for those vines, and because of a spring frost which singed some of the vines, our Stewartstown yields were down significantly from a typical year there. But, while the grape yields were down 30%-50%, their quality this year was solid.
This has, on balance, been quite a short growing season. Due to a cold springtime, we had the latest budbreak ever this year, six days later than ever before. In our Cadenza Vineyards, we narrowly escaped the spring frost. The white grapes (Chardonnay, Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Semillon) from the 2020 harvest came in looking fine, though Carl hasn't yet noted a potential stand-out wine among them.
By contrast, Carl is pretty excited by the Cadenza Vineyards red grapes from this harvest, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and today's Petit Verdot. He deems himself "extremely satisfied" with their character and quality, and our yields from this vineyard were actually quite a bit higher than in the past.
Cheers and thanks to our vineyard crew for their good work this year: Nelson, Jason, Flo, Grace, Matt, and Ryan!
Bringing in the Chambourcin
We don't grow the hybrid red grape Chambourcin in our vineyards in The Brogue, but it's a grape we've worked with since our days back at Happy Valley's Mount Nittany Winery. It's grown for quite a while over at our Stewartstown location, where we currently cultivate over an acre and a half. When that property was home to Naylor Wine Cellars, Chambourcin was certainly a versatile favorite.
Chambourcin is dependable. It does reliably well in the vineyard and imparts wonderful deep red color to Chambourcin wines and red blends.
In my 9/17 post "Ripening," I described our trip to Stewartstown last month to collect grapes and sample for sweetness/ripening.
Two-thirds of our Chambourcin this year is being picked and pressed, destined to become a future Allegro Prelude (dry rosé); the rest will become part of a dry red wine. This has been a "compressed harvest," which means that lots of varieties are coming in within a short period of time. Many moving parts.
Dylan and I got to document the grape harvest in the morning, followed by the afternoon pressing back at The Brogue. Here's a look:
I particularly like this shot of the Chambourcin grape bins at the loading dock, with their vines in the background. Such beautiful blue globes!
The grape bins were brought back to The Brogue on our truck, where they were unloaded and, one by one, emptied into our crusher/destemmer, with Dwayne running the forklift. The crushed grapes then headed to the press, where they (with Dave's re-addition of a few of the stems) were pressed. The juice flows down from the press to a settling tank, and then the clean juice is pumped into a temperature-controlled fermentation tank.
Chambourcin's deep color tends to dye everything it touches with dark purple remainders, and the stained juice will be perfect for our Prelude rosé. Many thanks to all who are working so hard to ensure the quality of our 2020 harvest!
Last week, from Block 7 of our vineyards in The Brogue, our harvesters brought in a promising white grape variety: the centuries-old Spanish/Portuguese grape called Albariño.
Our friends Ed Boyce and Sarah O'Herron of Black Ankle Vineyards in Maryland pioneered the planting of this grape on the East Coast in the early 2000s, and they currently grow five acres of it.
The Bordeaux-style white grapes (Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc) planted at The Brogue can all prove a bit "cantankerous" in the vineyard, honestly, and the Rhône variety Viognier often isn't much better. By contrast, Albariño is what Carl calls "bullet-proof," bringing consistent yields and rot resistance.
Carl planted one acre (16 rows) of Albariño here in 2016. The first grapes were harvested in 2018, making their way into an Allegro Albariño. Last year, in 2019, we had wonderful yields: 4 tons in all. The 2019 grapes received "the Cadenza treatment" and were put in barrels.
Our 2019 Cadenza Albariño is currently in bottles, in anticipation of a December release. Carl's recent tasting notes include its "aromas of Asian pears and seashores" and "silky round mouthfeel with just a hint of acidity." It should pair wonderfully with light seafood dishes including shrimp and scallops.
Today I joined Carl on a trip over to the Stewartstown vineyards. He wanted to get grape samples to test for sugar levels, and I wanted to travel. Yep--even a destination 20 minutes away is a treat some days!
The three varieties from which he got samples are:
-Petit Verdot: This classic red Bordeaux vinifera has become one of Carl's favorites in recent years. Between our two vineyard locations, we have over an acre and a half of PV vines; the vines at The Brogue were planted in 2015.
Some of the reasons that Carl is a fan of this grape are its consistency and hardiness. He cites as a rather heartbreaking contrast what happened over the 2018/19 winter to our estate vines of Merlot, another favorite Bordeaux variety (He used to call himself a "Merlot fanatic."). A wet late 2018 growing season meant that the Merlot grapes went into the winter with "wet feet," so when a cold snap hit in the early winter of 2018, the vines started cracking and sustained freeze damage. Coupled with another cold snap in early 2019 which claimed some of the early buds, this situation meant incredible losses to both vines (a third of our total Merlot acreage) and yields. From the 2019 Merlot harvest only two barrels of wine resulted, rather than the usual yields of eight barrels or more.
What damage did the Petit Verdot sustain that same winter? Virtually none. It has survived both freezes and frosts like a champion.
The main challenge with Petit Verdot, both here and in definitely in Bordeaux, is getting the grapes to fully ripen before harvest. Its name ("little green one") gives a clue about its often-green character. In France, the Petit Verdot becomes fully ripe perhaps only one or two years out of ten. Here, we're able to choose the right clones and locations to get it ripe much more often.
In our cellar, Petit Verdot has real potential as a serious grape, providing structure and backbone to Cadenza reds, including our 2017 Cadenza Vineyards Cadenza, of which it comprises 41%. The Petit Verdot from last year's harvest was considered the best red of the year.
While the grape color is looking good right now, tasting them is quite an adventure in tartness. At both vineyard sites, the Petit Verdot grapes have quite a ways to go before they'll be ripe and developed enough to pick. If the Stewartstown PV needs to be picked early, Carl says it'll likely be put into a rosé.
-Vidal Blanc: This hybrid white winter-hardy grape grows on high trellis wires in the Stewartstown vineyard. It's a variety originally developed for French Cognac and now particularly enjoyed in cool climates such as Ontario and New York's Finger Lakes.
Compared to the PV, these grapes seem huge. I love the way they glow golden. They are getting close to ripeness (currently measuring 17 Brix out of an ideal 21 or 22) and will likely be picked in about two weeks. They will become part of our varietal Vidal Blanc wine.
-Chambourcin: This red hybrid grape was a real favorite of Dick Naylor's, whose vineyard property this used to be. Chambourcin is a versatile variety which has been produced for about six decades. The grape variety is a bit unusual because it is a tenteurier, which means that the juice inside the grapes is colored pink. (Usually the juice for all other grape varieties, including red grapes, is clear or golden. Red wines get their color from skin contact during fermentation.) It, like Vidal, is a pretty "bullet-proof" grape in the vineyard, hardly and predictable.
Chambourcin can be used in a variety of wine styles, from deeper dry red to juicy dry rosé. Carl's planning to pick some of it pretty soon--within two weeks--for use in our Prelude, where the color from the juice will really shine. More Chambourcin will be picked later, destined for a red blend or possibly our ruby-style port, Forté.
Today these grapes tasted quite nice! Their day is coming...
So, as smog from the west coast wildfires coats our sky white and potential hurricanes swirl in waters to the south, the grapes keep plugging along. At this time, we're grateful for every drop of sunlight which will continue the process of making the 2020 harvest just a little sweeter.
Harvest starts this week. All of the work in the vineyard, from winter's pruning to summer's hedging, leads up to this final push of ripening and the decision-making around when to pick each variety of grapes.
By my count, Allegro grows about 17 different varieties of grapes, between our vineyards in The Brogue and those in Stewartstown. But there is only one place where we grow my favorite red variety: Cabernet Sauvignon. It was first planted in The Brogue's vineyards, in what we now call "Block 3," in 1973. These old vines have many stories to tell.
Most of the Cabernet grapes have now undergone verasion, having turned the deep blue which indicates that grape-growing has finished and grape-ripening has begun. I love to see the grapes at this stage and have always thought that they resemble little worlds.
These Cabernet globes makes me think of two specific (but quite different) references: Horton Hears a Who!, and Men in Black. In the Dr. Seuss book, Horton the Elephant has to convince the world to save the tiny planet Whoville, which is so small it is carried on a piece of dust. In the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones movie, they discover a marble-sized galaxy hanging on the collar of a cat. In both of these imaginings, tiny worlds are discovered to be in need of protection. While we certainly do a lot to take care of our grapes in the course of a year, they are also out there on their own, vulnerable to whatever weather comes our way during the weeks of ripening.
I'm not suggesting that the blue grapes, born from an unlikely cross between parents Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, contain alien worlds, but they certainly do have mystery within them. How ripe will they get this year? How much flavor development will occur? (When) Will late-season hurricane remnants blow through, or early frosts come, which will preemptively end their season?
In the very best year, the grapes can hang out until their seeds are like grape nuts and their Brix (sugar content) reaches at least 22. The harvest photo here was taken on the first day of November, 2005--the longest we've ever left them hanging! (The grapes are being held by our then-five-year-old son, who is now a college junior.)
In the very best vintages, the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are allowed to become so successfully ripe that they get the true "king" treatment in the cellar, being put in the best oak barrels for up to two years, after which they are bottled as our finest--and most ageable--flagship Cadenza wines. I have tasted Allegro Cabernets bottled long before our time here--wines more than thirty-five years old--and the long history is a tasty one.
So we watch and we wait, vigilant as Horton and Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones. With sun and luck and thoughtful tending, this mess of a year could still result in a beautiful world of a wine.
At Allegro's vineyards in The Brogue, we have often experienced the ways that bad weather systems sometimes seem to dissolve or break up, rather than score a direct hit on us. (Here's a pic of the thunderstorm on Tuesday, which would seem to corroborate this impression.) This can perhaps give us a sense of false security, as we come to imagine that maybe bad weather and bad news are willing to stay away from this little fortunate corner of the world. Wednesday our vineyard employee Matt shared horrible news with us which burst into our reality: He saw 4 spotted lanternflies in our vineyard block of Albariño, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier. They're here.
Carl has been anticipating the arrival of these devastating invasive insects for several years. The spotted lanternflies, indigenous to China and Vietnam, first showed up in the U.S. in 2014, in Berks County, PA. Their numbers and territory have expanded exponentially since then, posing a major threat to hardwoods, fruit trees, and grapevines. Carl knows growers whose vineyards have been absolutely wiped out by the lanternflies, including a grower in PA who lost his entire 50-acre vineyard. The planthoppers feed on the sap of the trees and plants, pulling out carbohydrates necessary for future growth. Grapevines are particularly vulnerable to this kind of loss in the fall, when the accumulation of sugars converts to starches which will fuel the following season's vital early-season growth.
So they're here; we aren't somehow immune to these awful critters. We'd been hoping, of course, that they would pass us by, and news that they have been spotted in California led to our hoping that those in the U.S. wine industry with deep pockets will become motivated to throw lots of money into mitigation research, finding ways--fungi? spiders?--to stop the invasion. In an awful way, it sort of feels like it mimics the COVID pandemic, where the whole world is racing for a vaccine. The whole world may not care about our vines, but for us these vines--some of which have been growing here in York County since 1973--mean everything. As Carl so delicately puts it, "We're scared shitless."
So far, only a few individual insects have been seen here, but sometimes, in other places, we've seen one minor infestation one year develop into a full-scale invasion the following year. The PA Department of Ag has put out lots of educational material about the insects, instructing people who see the flies to report and kill them. Carl's truck bears the sticker showing he has a permit indicating he has received Department of Ag training. (It looks like he has, instead, the right to hunt and kill the lanternflies, which of course we all do.)
If you see spotted lanternflies in PA, please report them online or call 1-888-4BADFLY.
As a photographer I can't help but notice how interesting the spotted lanternflies look, but I've seen enough terrifying photo and video evidence of how awful infestations are that I know I'll shiver when I see my first ones in person. For now, this is the one picture I have, taken by Carl's phone. Let's hope that targeted vineyard sprays can help us keep them at bay.
2020: You were already officially the worst. We would have loved to be spared from this targeted pest. But, after all, as Red Green used to say, "Remember I'm pullin' for ya -- we're all in this together."