The life of the grapevine
Vitis vinifera, the mother of all wines, has ancient origins (Mesopotamia circa 8,000 B.C). Its very first cultivation dates back to 5.000 B.C. Records indicate that the grapevine appeared in the Langhe/Monferrato area during the Middle Ages. The italian grapevine is a climbing, deciduous plant, usually composed of two sections grafted together before planting. The bottom section (from vitis Americana) is the graft-carrier, the top section is the graft or grape variety. The bottom section provides the root system suitable to the soil of a specific area and protects the vine roots from the Philloxera bacteria, while the top section defines the individual traits and variety of the grapevine. The two distinct sections are easily identified by the callus that separates them. Once planted, the young vine does not produce grapes during the first two years and becomes productive during the third year. A grapevine is productive up to 50 years of age or more,depending on environmental conditions and grape variety.
November - December - January
The grapevine is in its dormant phase. In November, the plant drops its leaves and withdraws its lymph from the shoots into the roots to protect them. Shoots and branches dry up and harden. The vegetative activities of the plants slow down considerably. The farmer, during this period, carries on the very important Pruning operation. Pruning can be done right before (November) or right after (February) the frost period. All grapevines tend to produce an overabundance of fruit and leaves. The purpose of pruning is to regulate production of grapes and balance the ratio pf grapes, leaves and vine shoots. The residues from pruning are burned or grinded, and left in the vineyard to enrich the soil of organic material. Another important activity during the dormant period is the Tying of the vine. Trunk and shoots are secured to the supporting structures with wires, clips, or ropes.
February - March - April
During the month of February the grapevine awakens and begins to “weep”. This is the Weeping Phase. It is the first signal that the plant’s vegetative activities are resuming after the winter dormancy. As soon as the soil begins warming up, roots start collecting water and lymph begins circulating. When the lymph reaches the extremities of the shoots that were cut during pruning, clear drops appear at the end of the shoots. In March, 20-30 days after weeping, the plant enters the Germination or Budding period. The first buds appear. Immediately they begin breaking off at different intervals, depending on the grape variety and the type of soil. In April, after all buds have broken, leaves and shoots start developing. In mid-April, after the 4th and 5th leaf have developed, the Embryonic grape bunches begin to appear. After Blossoming, they will develop into full grapes. The number of embryonic grape bunches is the first indicator of the kind of grape harvest to expect in the Fall. Even though the grapevine is not a very demanding plant and it is capable of capturing water and nutrients at a considerable depth, proper nutrition is essential during its developmental stage. During this period, the farmer provides the vineyard with needed nutritional elements, such as Nitrogen and Potassium and fertilizes the soil both manually and mechanically. Beside giving nutrients, the farmer protects the vine against harmful fungi, bacteria and molds using for the most part Sulfur and Copper.
May - June- July
This is the period of major vegetative activities and major operations in the vineyard. In the May-June period, the embryonic grape bunches begin blossoming, usually right after the plant has developed the 15th and 16th leaf, eight weeks after budding. The blossoming period is very rapid and not so noticeable. After blossoming, Pollination occurs. It lasts about ten days. Soil and air temperature are critical factors during this delicate phase. Once pollination is completed, fertilized ovaries begin transforming into fruit. Embryonic grape bunches turn rapidly into real grapes. The number of new grapes and the number of grapes per bunch varies according to the grape variety. Veraison and Maturation are the final stages of development of the grapes. Once the internal pulp of the grape is fully formed, the color of the skin begin to change (Veraison). This is the peak of maturation: the sugar content increases significantly, malic acid decreases rapidly while tartaric acid, the most important acid in the grape, becomes more stable. Tannins gradually hydrolize: this is a crucial phase because only hydrolyzed tannins will confer smoothness to the mature wines. This is a very busy time for the farmer. Beside watching over the vegetative development of the vine by providing all the needed protective treatments, he must ensure its balanced development. One important activity during this period is the so called Green Pruning. There are several operations that fall under the heading of Green Pruning: the removal of unwanted buds from the base of the vine (Suckering); the removal of unwanted buds from the upper trunk of the plant (Disbudding); the removal of unwanted shoots from the top of the vine ( Thinning); the shortening of the crest of the vine (Topping); the removal of excess leaves to promote aeration (Peeling). Another operation caused by the vine’s excessive production is the removal of some grape bunches to promote better growth of others (Grape Thinning).
August- September - October
This is the most rewarding period for the farmer. After 9-10 months of hard work, the gratifying task of harvesting the mature grapes (The Vendemmia) finally arrives. The time for the “Vendemmia” can run from late August to Mid-October. The exact time is determined by weather conditions, grape variety and cellar timing. Generally, white grapes mature and are picked before red grapes. White grapes are picked early to preserve their high level of acidity. Moscato grapes in the Langhe and Monferrato area are picked in late August, early September. The Vendemmia can be done manually, as is the case in most of the Piemonte area, or mechanically, as is the case in the Veneto, Friuli and Toscana areas. In some regions, vendemmia is done at night in order to ensure that the temperature of the mature grapes is not too high. The right timing for the Vendemmia and when to begin crushing the grapes is a very crucial
decision. The key factors in making this decision are the grapes’ sugar content, their acidity and polyphenolic content. Sophisticated instruments are available to assess and measure these factors. In some varieties, like Pinot Noir, Barbera and Moscato some small grape bunches mature late in the season. They are the fruit of secondary vine shoots that grow back after pruning. They tend to ripen much after the regular harvest season is over. They are usually left in the vineyard or picked late to make a rather “poor” wine. “Rapulin” is the term that indicates these “late” small grape bunches. The same word indicates the process of picking them and the poor wine that is produced from them. The tradition of passing through the vineyards to collect the late Rapulin grapes is celebrated every year with the annual festival in Calosso, called “Rapule”. In late October, thousand of visitors descend on the town of Calosso for the enogastronomical night walk from crotin to crotin (old home cellar). Each house in Calosso offers home made dishes and wine, making the walk an unforgettable pilgrimage of flavors from this land.
“There is nothing better than a vineyard that is well cared for, with the right leaves and the odor of the dry soil cooking in the August sun. A vineyard well cared for is like a healthy body, living, breathing and sweating”.
Cesare Pavese in “La luna e il falò”