Texas Terroir, Part 4, Getting Practical

If you are not familiar with this series of posts, you can read parts I, II and III by clicking here (I), here (II) and/or here (III).  Also, if you still have patience and time you can have a look to our 2014 harvest report here.

While the first three parts theorize about what happens in the Texas Hill Country, this post focuses on a practical summary of the previous ones by following the life of a vine during the growing season, from pruning to harvest, combining pictures of its cycle in order to save some 10,000 words!1 Pre pruning 3-18

To begin, I could have coded this plant like “1R24” but instead I called it Cabrilla (little kid).  So, Cabrilla was, one day last   winter, just waiting for its final pruning.  Since it is a Tempranillo vine the usual gauge is to wait as long as possible to prune it because this   causes bud break to be delayed a few days, which gives the vine a chance to escape eventual early spring freezes.   So here it is shown, at the right on a cold March 18th day this last winter.  It was already pre-pruned which helps to make the final pruning a bit easier for the worker.

In the left hand p2 Bud break 3-31 Lowicture Cabrilla can be seen on March 31st already showing its first shoot tips coming out of the buds.  Also, the definitive pruning can be seen and compared with the previous picture.  It’s interesting to note that this date is not that far apart from what happens in cooler regions. As a matter of fact, there are places in California that have an even earlier bud break date.  So this means that plants lie dormant just like anywhere else during our winter.

Now, on April 11th, shoots were already some 5 inches3 Shoot growth 4-11 Low long on average and at this stage it’s possible to see in the picture to the right small tight bunches with inflorescences at the base of each shoot.  Believe or not, we are able to have an early evaluation of the yield by counting bunches.  But since it’s early in the season and so many things can happen we just can’t bet on this count.  Having that said, it gives us an indication of how fruitful shoots are in the current season, which is the result of how balanced the plant was during the previous season.  So, you ask, the conditions of one season can affect the following one?  Absolutely, but that explanation will have to wait for another post.

4 Bunches visible 4-16 LowFive days later shoots and leaves grew longer and thicker adding another inch and a half in length.  At this point it’s been 16 days to grow some 7 inches which means almost half an inch per day.  For any standard, this is fast and it’s going to get faster, being THE one aspect that is totally different from other regions.  While in other cooler regions viticulturists can have a long window of a few days, even weeks depending on the issue, to organize farming maneuvers; in Texas, we just don’t have that luxury.

The picture to the right is from May 3rd.5 Flowering 5-3 Low  It’s been a little over a month since Cabrilla woke up and it’s already flowering.  And no wonder, the average temperature (Tºmax + Tºmin divided by 2) in April was 67.3ºF (19.6ºC) which is the June average temperature for Napa Valley, CA.  At flowering, warm temperatures are known to be beneficial for fruit setting, so we can rest assured about this fact.  I would love to see some poor fruit setting varieties here, because productivity would increase as a result of the temperature.

Then, on May 13th Cabrilla is already showing pea size berries, using the viticulturists jargon (sorry about the clouds in the sky 6 Pea size 5-13 Lowruining the sequence and the picture).  This development is a good month ahead from other areas.

At this point, we can certainly have a more precise approach of the yield by counting bunches per vine or yard (assuming there are no gaps between plants for the later) because there is no risk of freezes anymore, and the fruit set is done.  We only need to use some previous vintages bunch weights to estimate the block’s production.7 Pre verison 5-28 Low

Two weeks later on May 28th it is filling out its growing space.  Some shoots are grabbing the upper wire using their tendrils.   As you can see, we can’t let the vines escape from us.  For example, if we want some more sun exposure on the clusters some leaf removal should be practiced soon.  Other than that, we are waiting for the grape color change or “veraison”.

8 Leaf removal 6-20 LowIn the picture to the left, from June 20th, some leaf removal can be observed.  This date marked the beginning of veraison in some other areas of the block, but not in Cabrilla though, as seen on the picture below right, taken that same day.Veraison Low

I normally took these pictures before 9 am when it is fairly common to have clouds that usually break up later just before noon.  Temperatures during this time of the year average some 80ºF (27ºC) and the oscillation (max – min temps) can be 20ºF.

The trained eye can realize we are facing a good site because all we see is a balanced plant that doesn’t need to be trimmed even though there were few buds left after the pruning, which is no surprise because this is in fact where our acclaimed Tempranillo comes from.

In this one, from July 2nd, veraison is almost finished and since the 9 Veraison 7-2 Lowberries become more visible and “tasty”, a net needs to be put in place in order to keep all sorts of critters out.  These include but are not limited to raccoons, deer, opossum, rabbits, birds and even some eventual vegetarian foxes.

It has been three months since plants started growing, and we have accumulated enough temperature to situate us in Region I on the Winkler scale (more about it on our harvest report), which takes April to October as the growing period.  This is the first sign that temperature alone cannot be the sole basis when assessing a region.

10 Ripening 7-29 LowFinally, the ripening period has arrived, and so a lot of berry tasting needs to be done to assess the ripening development.  As pointed out above, due to the speed grapes are progressing, tasting needs to be done on a daily basis particularly when approaching the desired ripeness.  Another important point, not to mention that harvest crews and logistical plans ought to be ready at the starting line waiting for the call, because vines show a remarkable small time frame in which they need to be picked and beyond which we can easily go into the state of over ripeness.  The picture on the left was taken on July 29th when we had had enough heat to be in Region III on the Winkler scale.

Harvest of Cabrilla occurred on August 11th, just a few days later than previous years.  They reached 24.6º Brix, a pH of 3.81 and an acidity of 4.35 (in tartaric).  Back then, I thought a day earlier might have been better but that was a Sunday when there is practically no chance to harvest.  Today, it seems like it was picked within the right time window, to tell from the amazing quality wine that is already ageing at the winery.

This last picture was taken on August 12th, a day11 Post harvest 8-12 Low after harvest. Again, the trained vine dresser would applaud the way the plant reached maturity.  The complete canopy shows an active green color and no shoot growth which means all of the plant’s efforts were destined to the clusters.  Now, Cabrilla can easily concentrate on making and saving reserves for the winter during the next two and a half months.

Forgive me if I bring this up too often, but by the end of August we had reached enough heat to be in Region V on the Winkler scale (the last and warmest level) and if we add September and October, according what the scale says, we would fall into level VIII, which doesn’t exist.  Moreover, recently published scientific work affirms that our temperature accumulation is just too much to grow grapes!

My point with this post is to show everybody that this is another example of nature surprising us.  Who would have thought that we can make world class wines here?  The fact is we can, and we have made them.  So, come and taste these wines yourself, so the wines can do the talking!

Sergio Cuadra
Director of Winemaking
Fall Creek Vineyards

Wine o’Clock News – Texas Terroir, Part 1

As a winemaker for 20 years in Chile, I was on my way last August to become the Director of Winemaking for Fall Creek Vineyards.  The minute I got off the plane in Austin, I immediately thought Texas weather was just too hot for growing high quality wine grapes;  it was something like 100ºF. Continue reading

Pruning fundamentals

It’s good to remember that vines have been growing by themselves a very long time before man discovered how wonderful fermented berry juice tasted.  Long before the trellising of poles and wires the vines made use of other trees and their branches to climb their way to the sun lighted perimeter of the forests where they could get more energy than in the shade.  Continue reading