For all the talk about hope, prayers, and rituals to inspire a good harvest, winemakers and vintners don’t rely soley on Mother Nature’s generosity when it comes to producing great wine every season. In fact, strategies abound for growers and winemakers to hedge their bets against nature’s potential wrath, and that’s a good thing for wine drinkers everywhere. From blending to anti-hail machines, growing grapes well is a bit like counting cards — if you’re good at it, you can almost always win.
Blending both in and out of the cellar is the most traditional strategy used by winemakers across the globe. Historically, small farmers planted field blends to protect against cold spells, heat waves, or late frosts. The theory is that because some grape varieties ripen earlier and others later, a blend ensures something will do well no matter the weather. In fact, planting field blends as an insurance policy made the classic Bordeaux blend so famous. While most winemakers today use blends to add flavor complexities, some still use blends to hedge their bets against Mother Nature’s mood swings.
Viticulturalist Ann Kraemer, who farms over 40 acres in Amador County, California, planted blends for just that reason. At her high-elevation property, Kraemer worried that Tempranillo wouldn’t ripen ideally, so she planted Graciano alongside.
“We knew it gets too hot sometimes, so we did what they do in Spain and planted Graciano,” she explained. “We’ve never needed to blend in more than 10 percent, but we planted 25 percent Graciano just to be safe.”
Instead of blending during planting, some winemakers choose their blends based on the vineyards they farm long before fruit is ripe. Joe Schebl, of Renwood Winery, is one of those winemakers.
Shebl sources his grapes from some of the country’s oldest vineyards in Amador County , California, and those vines are less sensitive to water shortages and temperature fluctuations than newer vineyards, which Schebl compares to teenagers. Normally, grapes ripen steadily over time, but heat spikes can rapidly raise the speed at which grapes ripen, sometimes making them unpalatable or one-noted.
“We know that some of our vineyards are really susceptible to heat waves, but we also know that the older vines will be O.K., so we have those to fall back on for blending if we need,” he said.
While winemakers aim to pick at the perfect balance of ripeness, blending more and less ripe fruit is a strategy that works, especially in a difficult year. Picking in multiple rounds, or “tries,” is another method winemakers use to ensure their completed wines are balanced instead of green and bitter or jammy and overripe.
Tyler Thomas of Dierberg and Star Lane wines in Happy Canyon, California, explained it like this: “We always pick one block at 23 Brix or about two weeks earlier than everything else, just to see what’s happening and if we like it better,” he said. “But it also protects us in case we get a huge heat wave and the rest of the fruit is more ripe than we want.”
In Burgundy, where grape growing has a 500-year history, vintners are embracing technology to defend their vineyards from powerful hail and rainstorms that can destroy a year’s crop in minutes. To safeguard delicate grapes, growers banded together to purchase fancy cloud-seeding generators. These high-tech machines are spaced throughout the region every 10 kilometers and send microscopic, invisible particles of silver iodide into the sky. These particles rise into storm clouds (“seeding” them) and prevent the formation of large hailstones, so precipitation leaves the clouds as water instead of ice. After years of devastating storms that knocked out massive sections of vineyard, these growers were simply done depending on nature.
From historical “insurance” policies to high-tech generators and actual insurance policies, winemakers and growers aren’t just hoping for perfectly sunny skies, they’re stacking the odds in their favor — and topping it off with a harvest dance under the full moon for good measure.