You’ve heard the winemaking adage, “Great wine begins in the vineyard,” and there are no truer words spoken. To ensure high quality fruit, vineyard managers and winemakers remain on alert year-round to ensure the grape growing process produces optimal quality fruit for the best wines possible. From pruning in the winter to night harvesting in the fall, in this post we outline all the steps we take for the year-round growing season in our vineyards that create the delicious wine in your glass.
Winter in the Vineyards
In the colder months, time seems to stand still when the vines are dormant. Rain falls, gray skies loiter above, and this time of year offers a meditative Zen-like quality. The vines are sleeping. While last year’s leaves remain green on the vine, valuable carbohydrate reserves — developed through photosynthesis — are squirreled away in its woody trunk and roots. This energy source will prove vital in the spring when the vines wake from their winter slumber.
Grape Growing Process: Grapevine Pruning
This dormant period presents the ideal time to prune the vineyard for next year’s harvest, a necessary step for high quality fruit. Like winemaking, grapevine pruning is part science, part art, and doing it right determines the size of the harvest and the quality of the wine. Last year’s canes, which are now surrounded by a layer of wood, are removed to facilitate fresh new growth. The work is laborious and expensive — it takes four people working nine hours a day, six days a week for about three months to prune Jordan’s 120 estate vineyard acres.
Fall to Spring Cover Crops
A key part of our sustainable farming program at Jordan is planting cover crops. Their benefits are vast — promoting beneficial insects in the spring vineyards, allowing us to reintroduce organic nutrients back into the soils, regulating the growth of specific grapevines to enhance vine uniformity, limiting grape size to concentrate flavors, and help naturally control erosion in the vineyards.
Grape Growing Process: Bud Break
One of our favorite periods in the grape growing process, bud break is that magical moment each spring when the vines wake up from their winter nap. In the colder temperatures, grapevines appear lifeless and bare, but as the weather warms and the days lengthen, they come alive with vitality. They pull from the energy stored within their trunks and roots through the winter and push out the first green leaves of a new growth cycle. It’s incredible to see.
While we all want an abundant fall harvest, the stages leading up to this yearly bounty are critical to success. Little grape flowers arrive in late spring, 40-80 days after bud break, depending on the climate. In order to show up to the party, grape flowers need an average daily temperature of 59-68 degrees Fahrenheit, normally sometime in May in Sonoma County. It’s during this stage of a grape’s lifecycle that pollination and fertilization happens, with the results ultimately producing the cluster we all know and love.
Grape Growing Process: Fruit Set
Once the flowers are pollinated in the spring, the grape berries form and begin to grow beginning around June in Sonoma County. This stage of the grape growing process happens at slightly different periods for white and red grape varieties. The growing regions’ microclimates also factor into it. White chardonnay grapes grown in the cooler Russian River Valley tend to flower and experience set fruit in mid-May, around a similar time that our merlot grapes flower in the warmer Alexander Valley. Cabernet sauvignon flowers much later, about 2-4 weeks after early-ripening grapes.
A late spring or early summer activity, shoot thinning or “suckering” represents a crucial step in quality winemaking. This process allows filtered light to reach the inside of the canopy, assisting with the grapes’ flavor development during ripening. This task also facilitates better air movement within the cluster—a natural prevention for fungal diseases, such as botrytis and powdery mildew. Each growing season, our viticulture team makes at least one pass through the vineyards to remove unwanted shoots from the vines by hand. But in some rainy years, the vines require two shoot-thinning passes in order to redirect the vine’s energy toward fewer shoots and thus less clusters of grapes to concentrate flavors.
Grape Cluster Counting
Summer equals math time in the vineyard, when grape cluster counting takes place. This grape growing process of walking through vineyards (literally, with a clipboard) determines the potential crop size for that year’s harvest. If the grapes appear smaller or the clusters are loose, the crop’s weight could be below average and affect how much juice can be pressed from the fruit during harvest. On the flip side, larger clusters indicate more juice inside the grapes.
In mid-summer, grapes begin to change from green to rosy to red in our vineyards, depending on the varietal. At the beginning of ripening, grape veraison represents a period of the vine’s annual lifecycle when the red grapes change from green to purple hues. Veraison, French for the “onset of ripening,” usually begins in July in moderate weather years, but in cooler years, red grapes sometimes don’t begin this grape growing process until August. As a general rule, the time from coloration to harvest is typically about six weeks. But there’s much more to grape veraison than the fascinating color change we can see with our eyes.
Grape Growing Process: Sampling
Perhaps the biggest judgment a winemaker makes each vintage is when to harvest the wine grapes. The acid and sugar levels of the freshly picked grapes heavily influence the potential of a wine’s greatness, as well as the amount of work and attention needed to coax the wine to the desired level of quality. There are many methods of estimating when a vineyard is ready to be harvested, and most wineries start by grape sampling — literally walking each vineyard and picking select clusters to analyze. This process begins roughly four weeks before the expected harvest date.
The Grape Harvest
The real fun begins when harvest finally arrives. Experiencing night harvest is a thrill for anyone who loves wine grapes. You can see your breath, the grapes feel cold and the chilly air is thick with a wet fog. Night harvest of Bordeaux wine varieties like merlot and cabernet sauvignon at night isn’t as common as night harvesting white grapes, such as chardonnay. Cold evening temperatures preserve the chardonnay grape’s crisp acids, ideal sugar levels and bright fruit flavors. With red grapes, we often harvest mid-morning because we want the grapes to arrive at the winery a little warmer, so fermentation begins faster.