One way Coastal Vineyard Care Associates stays innovative is by visiting the great wine regions of the world to glean what might be useful for our vineyards in Santa Barbara County. In every conversation I have with Jeff Newton, the same theme arises-if you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing. Jeff, along with Mark Chien, Jim Law, and Rutger de Vink, recently returned from a trip to Italy (read Mark Chien’s summary of the trip here). This group visits a different wine region every few years to observe the wine-growing techniques used there. “Wine trips abroad-whether to France, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, or Argentina-provide an amazing perspective on viticulture and can inform our own practices around grape growing in Santa Barbara County,” explains Jeff. “On this trip it was a privilege to explore two great Italian growing regions: Barolo, where Nebbiolo is king, and Tuscany, where Sangiovese dominates.”
Jeff and company were lucky enough to spend an hour with Angelo Gaja, one of the most famous winemakers in Italy. One of the predominating themes of this trip was global warming and how it is affecting wine growing in Italy. Angelo’s company has been spending money on consultants, trying to counteract the effects of global warming by conducting experiments on soil health as well as biological diversity. “He wasn’t the only one that spoke about global warming and climate change either,” says Jeff, “Everyone we met in Italy talked about it.” There is more hail, frost, and drought than ever before in regions that don’t permit irrigation. Vines are suffering and fruit quality is compromised as a result.
One of the ways they are adapting at Ornellaia, a top producer in Bolgheri, is by changing over their pruning and trellis system from a single guyot to a head trained system. The head trained vines produce fewer clusters than single guyot (cane) pruned vines and thus have a much better chance of maturing. The vines are also planted closer together to compensate for less fruit per vine. In addition, double wires are installed in the fruit zone of the head trained vines to “fluff” up the canopy and provide additional leaves to protect the fruit from sunburn.
For Paolo DeMarchi at Isole e Olena in Tuscany, elevated sugar levels at phenolic ripeness has been one of the impacts of global warming, resulting in higher alcohol wines with acids being thrown out of proportion. This is a problem for many California wineries where sunshine and heat is abundant. Paolo tried several techniques for slowing down sugar accumulation, first, cutting off the top third of the canopy late in the ripening season. This not only reduced sugar accumulation, but also altered the malic to tartaric acid ratio which, in turn, tweaked the wine.
Paolo went on to explain to Jeff that he has been doing some other experiments which he has had very good results with. “He said what you need to do is change the ratio of young leaves to old leaves on the vines. The young leaves are cranking out all of those sugars,” Jeff elaborates, “The old leaves however are capable of producing phenolic ripeness without generating as much sugar.” So the trick, according to Paolo, is to reduce the number of young leaves as the grapes are ripening. When Jeff asked Paolo how he does that, he responded with, “Well, you hedge the upper part of the canopy late in the season, but don’t do anything to the lower part of the canopy.” He also explained that lateral shoots are a huge source of young leaves, so removing laterals helps slow down sugar levels without throwing the acid out of balance.
The lessons learned from Gaja, Ornellaia, and Isole e Elena all have relevance to vineyard management in Santa Barbara County. Being able to interact with other vintners in various wine growing regions helps us hone our skills and often we can find practices that are applicable to the ranches we farm. This to me is the essence of the wine industry and one of the reasons I feel so proud to belong to this business: the camaraderie, the sharing of knowledge, the paradox of innovation within tradition, and, of course, the wine. Let’s hope Jeff takes me along on his next trip.
Heather Daenitz is a Viticulture Generalist with Coastal Vineyard Care Associates. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Viticulture and Enology from Oregon State University and currently resides in Orcutt, in Santa Barbara County.
The featured image is of Gaja Sori in San Lorenzo, Barbaresco.
All photos featured in this post are from Jeff Newton.