Correction to This Article
The Wine column in the Feb. 3 Food section inaccurately stated the location of Glen Manor Vineyards. They are on the western, not eastern, edge of Shenandoah National Park. It has been corrected below.

Wine: It's pruning season in the vineyard

By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Winter is a quiet time for a winery, a chance for winemakers to catch their breath after the frenzy of harvest, get caught up on paperwork, maybe even take a vacation. The transition between vintages has already begun. Last year's wines sleep peacefully in tank or barrel, while vineyard crews begin pruning the dormant vines in the first crucial steps to shape this year's crop.

For Jeff White, who manages 14 1/2 acres of vines at Glen Manor Vineyards on the western edge of Shenandoah National Park south of Front Royal, pruning season is a chance to assess the health of his 24,000 vines. At the same time, he is planning improvements to his fences to protect this year's crop from the Shenandoah Valley's burgeoning deer population. White, who blogs about the 2010 vintage on DonRockwell.com, calls pruning "the most relaxing task I perform . . . my pruners in hand, bundled up in layers of clothing and overalls, looking as round as the Pillsbury Dough Boy and with some hard rock candy in my pocket as a reward at the end of a row. There is no pressure."

In a telephone interview, White explained that he began pruning with his youngest vines, those that will have their second or third leaf this year. That's because these will produce little or no crop, so he is not worried about a cold snap. He will begin pruning his older vines -- planted from 1995 to 1997 -- after the middle of February, when there is less danger of severe cold. "Older vines already have their trunks established, so you're only cutting back spur growth," he said.

White described his vines as if they were children: "They don't talk back, but they can be ornery when they're young. They just want to run, run, run, and you have to cut them back to control their yield. After about eight years, they settle down and seem to use their energy and nutrients more efficiently. And we've learned to manage them with the soils and weather conditions we have."

Pruning is important because it cuts away most of the previous year's growth and is the initial step in controlling the size of the next crop. The winemaker's first important choice for a vintage is how many spurs to leave on each vine in order to limit yields and increase quality. White prefers to leave two spurs per vine, each of which will produce two or three bunches of grapes. Those spurs can be damaged or killed if the temperature drops lower than 8 degrees below zero. "If you suffer 50 percent spur loss and you've already cut back to two, you're not going to have much of a crop," White said. (Once the vines start budding in early April, frost will be a threat to the tender flowers in the early stages of growth.)

Extreme cold can be deadly not just to the crop but also to the vines themselves, especially when it follows an unusually warm stretch. In 2004 and '05, vineyards in New York's Finger Lakes region suffered severe losses when warm temperatures got the sap flowing in the vines, then the mercury fell below zero for several days.

Our recent cold stretch has been kind to vines.

"A slow progression into winter and then a slow ascent out of it is ideal," White said. "Right now our vineyard guys are happy with the weather as long as it doesn't dip to minus 8." After all, there is always winery equipment to repair and last year's wine to sample. White plans to bottle his 2009 sauvignon blanc and his 2008 cabernet franc in early March. For now, he said, "if it gets too cold, we'll find something to do inside."

McIntyre can be reached at food@washpost.com.


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