Rare Green Growth in Syrah Vines in November

We planted a grapevine garden in front of the winery this spring. One day, this vineyard garden will showcase all the different types of grape vines that can be found in this part of France. People will be able to tell the difference between Syrah and Grenache and Merlot and Cabernet by seeing the vines right beside each other.

But for now, the vines are tiny and all pretty much look the same. So this year, we’ve been using them to show visitors and tourists how grape vines look when they’re first planted.

It’s an interesting process since we rarely plant from seed anymore. Instead we use bench grafts that connect the variety we want to grow to a rootstock suited for that soil and rainfall.

When young, the graft is sealed in wax.  We show everybody this waxy bit and get to use the young vines to illustrate the notion of grafting and rootstock. This can naturally lead into conversations about how deep roots go, why virtually all French vines are planted on American rootstock, and so on.

Photos of young grape vines

Click on any of the photos below for a larger view:

Every year the producers of Chateauneuf du Pape have a blind tasting of their new vintage and they vote on who has the best cuvée of the year.  This St Marc competition results in a spectacular gala dinner where people get awards all night long and I could hardly hear all the speeches and thank yous over the clinking of glasses and joyous laughter.

The Freeze of February 2012

Despite the gorgeous weather in the final days of April and the warm welcome of the winemakers, the evidence of the coldest February since 1956 were well-displayed in the Chateauneuf vineyards.

In 1956, the freeze was enough to devastate the olive trees in Provence and the Rhone.  But even that dreadful winter spared most of the vines.  This year, two weeks of 14 below freezing temperatures coupled with an unrelenting Mistral (often measured up to 100 kilometers per hour) actually caused many old vines to split open.

Here is a detail photo that shows the damage on a porteur gobelet of 50+ year old grenache in the Domaine de Marcou.  See where the wood is split open?  That’s not supposed to happen.

grenache vine damaged by freeze in february 2012

What’s more, the damage isn’t always visible.  If this happened at the extremities on occasion, it was also happening in the souche (trunk).   And so this spring, when all the plants were supposed to leap into action, many revealed that they had been done in by the cold winter.  There is debate amongst the locals, some of whom think they should replant immediately and others who think that the old vines may yet come back from the brink.  Often, it’s just one or two porteurs that are affected and some think that even vines with no buds in 2012 might be able to heal themselves for 2013 or 2014.

Anyway, this was one of the first things I saw on my arrival.  And it was hard to see so many of these old plants suffering.  But the winemakers around here are level-headed and patient.  They wait to see what should be done and focus their energy on making the most out of 2012.

The first days of sunshine bring out the St Chamonds!

There had been some light rains to soften up the soil and a couple days of sunshine after light rain inspire all the winemakers to head out with their tractors to work the soil.   A lot of the time, the older vines in Chateauneuf are planted so close together that modern equipment can’t pass through the rows, and the galets roulés that cover the ground make it very hard for enjambeurs to pass so almost everybody with old parcels uses the st chamond, a treaded tractor from the 1950’s.

There are lots of great photos and memories from the trip, so we’ll post more about that later.  Especially have to remember to post about the rabbit hidden in that last photo! ;D

 

Just a few miles outside of Carcassonne, you can see a collection of different grape varieties like Syrah, Grenache, Macabeu, Mauzac, Picquepoul, Terret, Vermentino, and more!   Just before budbreak 2012, dad planted the ampelographic garden at O’Vineyards.

A big thanks to the Chambre d’Agriculture who helped us find the best grape varieties, choosing the right clones to demonstrate varietal typicity on our terroir at O’Vineyards.

What is an Ampelographic Garden?

Ampelography is a big word used to describe the visual study and identification of grape vines.   And that’s basically what you can do here.  Wander down a row of vines and see if you can tell the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.  Or can you tell Clairette from Picquepoul?  Which plants have leaves split into three parts and which have leaves with five parts?  Which varieties have the most ample fruit clusters?  The most leaf growth?  And so on.

Why is this fun and not just for wine nerds?

It’s just a few dozen plants, and it seems pretty nerdy, but we think it’ll be very fun.

A lot of the folks who visit O’Vineyards ask what the difference is between Merlot and Shiraz.  So it’s great to have a simple visual demonstration of how each of these varieties are unique and specially adapted to different conditions.  It’s much more exciting to show people some examples of differences than just saying “Well they’re all genetically different which results in having varying amount, shape, size and placement of leaves and fruit.”

Varietial wine are very popular in many countries.  Often times, people will just ask me “what type of wine is this?” meaning what varieties is it made up of?  Wine drinkers in the US and UK are always keen to learn the difference between grape varieties.

Planting the Grape Vines:

Some photos of Joe O’Connell planting his young vines and Jean Heritier, director at the Chambre d’Agriculture de l’Aude, helping out.

Here’s a full list of the grape varieties (and their clones and rootstocks) in our ampelographic garden… before anybody yells at me, I know some of these aren’t mediterranean.  But they should be fun to look at and they might exemplify the special climate we have in the Cabardes north of Carcassonne that allows us to grow some grape varieties like Merlot, Cot, and Cabernet

Reds:

  • Cabernet Franc – 332 CALMET / 110 R
  • Cabernet Sauvignon – 15 / 161 49 C
  • Syrah – 524 / 161 49 C
  • Terret – CONS / 1103 P
  • Carignan – 274 / 333 EM
  • Cinsault – BED PLAI / 110 R
  • Cot (Malbec) – 594/ 140 RU
  • Grenache Noir – 433 / FERCAL
  • Marselan – 980 / SO4
  • Merlot – 184 CAL / FERCAL
  • Mourvedre – 360 / 110 R
  • Pinot Noir – 375 / 140 RU
Whites:
  • Chardonnay – 96/ SO4
  • Chenin – 220/ SO4
  • Grenache Blanc – 143 / 110 R
  • Macabeu – CONS MAC PR / 110 R
  • Marsanne – 574 / FERCAL
  • Mauzac – 740 / 140 RU
  • Roussanne – 468 / 333 EM
  • Sauvignon – 108 / SO4
  • Vermentino – 795 / 140 RU
  • Clairette (gris) – CONS / 1103 P
  • Picquepoul (gris) – CONS / 1103 P

 

I keep finding beer containers positioned on top of my vines in the first row of the Merlot parcel closest to the village.  I figure a simple “Don’t litter, you idiot” would fall on deaf ears.  That message is already everywhere and I’m clearly dealing with an exceptional individual here…. so here’s an open letter to the person who keeps throwing their beer away in my vines.

Dear artistically-minded litterbug,

Stop leaving empty beer containers on my vines.  I’m not sure of your name (yet) but I know that there will be no confusion when you read this letter.  While many people litter, you are the only one who specifically places your empties on top of my vines rather than just throwing them on the ground.

Obviously, I admire your ambition.  You’ve taken littering to the next level.  Most of the slobs who throw their rubbish on the ground do it wherever they happen to be standing.  Presumably because it would take too much of their valuable time to find a trash bin somewhere.  But you don’t do it for the sake of convenience.  On the contrary!  You seem to go very far out of your way to litter in a specific row of my vineyard and with such style (dare I say panache).

beer bottle on merlot vine

"symbol of the intoxicating penetration of today's globalized consumer"

I see that you’re not simply dumping out empty beer bottles.  Rather, you’re creating artistic installations that speak to the deepest problems troubling me in this day and age.  In the photo above, I hope to have captured the courson inserted into the oversized beer bottle, symbol of the intoxicating penetration of today’s globalized consumerism.

Simple photos can’t display the emotional significance of your work.  After all, a photo is only two dimensions and your art works knows no limits.  Your pieces are at once sculpture and performance art, evolving over decades, polluting the environment around the installation as time erodes the label and glass, and as the bottle itself hampers the growth of the vine underneath.

empty beer can in the vineyard

"a subtle nod to the Danube School"

Even the choice of beer brands was inspired in this week’s installation. Switching from a domestic brew like Jenlain in the first week to a foreign beer like Bavaria 8.6 was the perfect way to bring attention to contemporary worries about European economics and the balance of power within the EU.  The way the can is crushed and wrapped around the vine’s supporting wire, as if to strangle it and replace its natural fruit with the product of foreign alcohol, acts as a powerful reminder of the commoditization of French culture.

And the choice of the “Bavaria” brand was also a clever wink to the Danube School and the deterioration of the European landscape immortalized in the work of those Bavarian-commissioned painters like Huber and Hirschvogel.

Indeed, your work can be seen as the new marriage of landscape and street art.  As street artists gain credibility in the contemporary art community, their work is no longer unsanctioned.  Even as museums and art galleries are desanctified and toppled as monolithic authorities on beauty, the new temple of art is the natural world.  You won’t stand for this sort of unfettered “official” narrative of beauty.  You will tear it down and show nature that it doesn’t know the first thing about beauty.

And suffice it to say that the irony of leaving beer containers in a place where we make wine has not escaped me.  You are a wit, sir.

But I’m not writing simply to commend you.  Sadly, I have to ask you to stop your art.  Because it’s simply too powerful.  Too moving.  I know I’m just a peasant, a simple farmer growing grapes.  My work is not as romantic or as important as yours.  But my family’s simple efforts won’t raise any commotion.  Your life-altering master pieces are a potential threat to the way people function in that they will incite people toward revolution.  And so I hope that the humanitarian in you can overcome the artistic urge to desecrate my vines with empty beer containers.

Humbly,

Ryan.

In September 2011, we did a special harvest and micro vinification with part of the Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah. It was a natural, extended whole cluster carbonic maceration.

The experimental fermentation

Natural means nothing added.  We counted on wild yeasts and used no sulfites.

Extended means that I let the maceration run for about six weeks.  That’s a long time.  Especially for a carbonic.

Whole cluster means I left the grapes on the stems.

Carbonic maceration means the tank was completely sealed throughout the maceration so there was virtually no oxygen.  The chemical reactions during fermentation result in totally different flavors when there is no oxygen in the environment.  Lots of candy like, bubblegummy flavors (often associated with beaujolais nouveau).

Harvest

I previously posted about harvesting the grapes for this micro vinification experiment.

Decuvage

After the six weeks were up, we opened the tank and checked on the grapes.  I really had no idea what to expect.

It smelled great and looked like most of the grapes had stayed intact.

whole grape clusters on top of fermentation tank

We drained juice from the bottom of the tank and took density measurements to see how much sugar was left.  It turns out that we had almost finished fermentation on the free running juice.  It was at .999 the density of water.  Almost! Tasted great.  This was definitely killer wine.  The grapes also tasted delicious.  I froze some for use in cooking recipes later this winter.

density measurement on o'blivion

Once we drained all the free running juice, it was time to tip the tank over and scoop out all the remaining grapes into a vertical wooden press.  So many of the grapes were still intact, the entire fermentation happening INSIDE the grape.  When I would reach in with the bucket, I would hear lots of popping noises as my fingers pressed into the grapes.  It was like wine-scented bubble wrap. PS somebody should make wine scented bubble wrap.

decuvage into vertical press

I pressed the grapes.  This juice was slightly sweeter/denser.  It’s clear the fermentation stuck.  Such is life.  I guess I’m supposed to restart it with a tete de cuve (when you make a little bit of the juice ferment and then double it in size after a day and double it in size again after another day and so on until you get the whole container).  But the amount of juice we got is pathetically small (maybe 2 hectoliters / not even a barrel).  So a tete de cuve on this would be like a glass of wine.  And then the next day a bottle.  And then maybe a jug.  :D

manual vertical press

We’ll see.

All the photos of our decuvage

 

In September 2011, we did a special harvest and micro vinification with part of the Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah. Two of the WWOOFers (volunteers learning about farming) staying at O’Vineyards spent a couple days hand-harvesting grapes for a small project of mine.

Harvesting O’Blivion

We brought the harvest in and did a natural, whole-cluster extended carbonic maceration in a small stainless steel tank I have. No sulfites added. No yeast added. No air. No nothing. We just put a bunch of grapes in an airtight container and sealed the lid for six weeks. And the results are impressive!

The codename for the cuve has been O’Blivion because the WWOOFers were Cronenberg fans and we watched Videodrome a couple nights before starting this project. (There’s a character in Videodrome named Brian O’Blivion.)

It was a late harvest and it had its complications. At that point, we were already seeing a lot of shriveling and a bit of rot too so we had to be pretty selective in the hand harvest. Only picking the best grape bunches that seemed least affected by the adverse conditions of late harvesting, we managed to get about 5 hectoliters (500 liters) of grapes.

Photos of harvest

Help and credit

We should give a shout out to Matt and Erica, the WWOOFers who contributed so much to this little tank of wine. And Laurent and Alexandra from Tonton Marcel also helped out on the day they were at O’Vineyards.  A lot of the photos above were taken by them.

Normally, this is the time of year when the whole vineyard goes dormant.  The leaves change color and fall off as the green vines turn into wood.  But this year we’re seeing a lot of unusual behavior in the Syrah vines where many plants are actually growing new leaves!

How vines usually behave

This is a picture of a row of Merlot vines just a few hundred yards away from the Syrah.  You can see that these vines are already dormant.  They have lost almost all their leaves and have hardened to wood.  Although there are a couple traces of green on one of the plants in the far left of the photo, most of the vines are ready to be pruned.

merlot is pretty dormant

In the detail below, you really see that the vines have hardened to wood and that there is no new growth.

close up dormant vine branches

The Syrah’s Unusual Green Growth

Compare that detail of the Merlot to this close up from the Syrah:

new buds on dormant syrah

Lots of green growth! New buds!  And it’s not  just that the wood hardens progressively and hasn’t reached the ends of the branches yet.  Normally, those are newly grown leaves.  In the photo below, you see the clear juxtaposition of a new green bud on a hardened wooden branch.  Highly unusual stuff!

new growth on dormant vines

And these young buds aren’t isolated to a plant here and there.  The whole parcel is showing new leaves as displayed in the photo below.

bigger picture to show overall growth

More photos of the vines in november

Why a November spring?

You’re probably wondering why this is happening.  I know I was.

The Chamber of Agriculture supplied a simple answer a couple weeks ago: it doesn’t feel like winter yet!   The temperatures have been so mild.  Yesterday was balmy 18 degrees outside.  We opened all the doors and windows.  As a result of the temperature, sunshine and so on, the vines think they have enough energy to start growing new leaves again.   I’ve heard that grapevines in Florida give two crops a year for this very reason.  There is no winter season there!

In nature, this would benefit them because they could continue to grow through an indian summer.  However we need them to take a break and build up their reserves for next spring!

What will we do?

Just wait.  In all likelihood the winter temperatures will set in and the vines will take the hint and fall asleep.  It’s just an interesting phenomenon and we’ll only know how it affects next year’s crop a year from now.  :)

2011 has been a very strang vintage and the viticultural anomalies are continuing even after harvest.  This is normally the most predictable time of year.  Once you harvest the grapes, the leaves all turn fall colors and they fall off.  The stems all harden into sturdy wood.  And then you prune back before the next spring.  But this year, some of the syrah vines got confused and started growing new green growth in October/November!

How to find us

Domaine O’Vineyards is just a few kilometres north of Carcassonne. GPS coordinates: 43.259622, 2.340387

Domaine O’Vineyards
885 Avenue de la Montagne Noire
11620 Villemoustaussou, France
Tel: +33(0) 630 189 910

  1. Follow the signs to Mazamet/ Villemoustaussou until the D118 (the last straight road) and the Dyneff gas station on the roundabout.
  2. Take the exit towards Pennautier. Continue 500m to a small roundabout and go straight over.
  3. Look out for the second road on your right, Avenue des Cévennes which goes up hill (about 1km) to Avenue de la Montagne Noire.
  4. At the last juction, bear left at the road sign “Ave de la Montagne Noire” (confusing as it seems to show a right turn)
  5. After another 500m you will see our red brick color building in the middle of the vines.