Viticulturist: Wild vines now result in smaller crop later

Merlot grapes on East Orchard Mesa are changing colors from green to purple in a process known as veraison. It’s a sign of ripening but also a signal to growers that it’s time to net the vines to protect the berries from marauding birds.

It should be this high, says state viticulturist Horst Caspari, showing where a grapevine would be in a normal year. The shortage is a because of setbacks from last winter’s heavy January freeze and a late-spring frost. Although the vines have some grapes, the crop is light and might not fully ripen in time for harvest.

With an exasperated sigh, state viticulturist Horst Caspari grabbed at yet another untrimmed grapevine hanging from a trellis and wove the emerald fuse between two wires.

“I know there won’t be many grapes this year in most of these places, but that’s no excuse not to be out here taking care of the vines,” said Caspari, midway through a morning tour of several Grand Valley vineyards. “You have to spend time in the vineyards this year so you get a good crop next year.”

Valley grape growers are finding this summer a re-run of 2010, when many vineyards were regrown after being killed to the ground by a December 2009 freeze.

Growers again this year are letting most of their vines go wild, to build vigor and store nutrients and growing, new branches (canes) to replace those lost to winter cold.

While it lessens the time (and money) owners spend this summer in the vineyard, Caspari said effort now means better production in the future.

“In 2011, we did OK but didn’t have (the grape crop) we should have,” he said. “That’s because (grape growers) didn’t do a good job of retraining the vines in 2010.”

He looked at the dense foliage splayed before him. “This is all this year’s growth and next winter you just re-establish the complete framework,” he said, holding up a handful of new shoots. “But you don’t just lay it down and let it go.”

Shortly after January’s freeze sent temperatures as low as minus 21 degrees, Caspari guessed grape growers this year could see a 75-percent grape loss.

The loss may not be that severe, but Friday’s tour still revealed a lot of empty vines.

Caspari said the combination of the January cold and an April frost was too much for many of the favorite grape varieties.

Merlot seems to have been particularly hit hard across the valley, along with Syrah and Gewürztraminer.

“If you can grow Merlot this year, you’ll sell every bit of it,” Caspari said. “Good location is the key.”

Grape and peach grower Neil Guard at Avant Vineyards on East Orchard Mesa said his Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Petit Verdot “look fine, absolutely just a normal year,” but that other varietals are done.

“You try to scientifically get your head around it, but it’s impossible,” said. “You’ll have three plants that have grapes and four that don’t, all within 50 feet.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to the damage we see.”

As Guard noted, Cabernet Franc, a red grape known for its cold-hardiness, came out of the winter in good shape in most places while Riesling leads the white varieties.

Another challenge this year is uneven ripening after a cool spring delayed bud break.

“Look, these won’t ripen,” said Caspari, holding a vine bearing several clusters of immature grapes, each berry tiny and hard, no bigger than a pencil eraser. “They are at least two or three weeks behind now, and all they do is steal nutrients and vigor from the other grapes.

“What’s bad is they will change color so the pickers can’t tell them apart from the ripe grapes,” he said. “But they’re green and they’ll add off-flavors to your wine. They have to go.”

And he started moving vine to vine, tearing away the green berries and throwing them on the ground.

Caspari stopped midway down a row of grapes, looking ahead at the hours of work awaiting some vineyard worker.

“There’s an old saying that the thing you want to see the most in the vineyard is your shadow,” he said. “I don’t think people understand how critical it is to train your vines this year in preparation for next.”

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