Since I’ve started to work in the wine industry I’ve been not very happy with people telling me about how to make wine and grow vines, because I knew they had no experience in the vineyards and/or winery at all; some people think they can read hundreds of books and they feel like they know everything. But it doesn’t work that way.
I’ve been reading books about wine for years, not only nice-to-read books but also those difficult-to-read ones, which are the main books at wine universities. The majority of the knowledge I gained by reading those books I simply forgot a few months after finishing the book. I knew about the processes taking place in the vineyard and winery, but I didn’t really understand it.
During my first year of living in France, I made a decision to find someone who knows vines inside out. I wanted this person to show me the life in the vineyard that I couldn’t read about in books. I wanted this person to walk me through the whole year of the vine cycle and let me do some work in the vineyard. I wanted to experience my own year in the vineyard. It may sound ridiculous, but finding a job in the vineyard became my obsession.
In April last year, the same week I came back from my wine adventure in Australia, I heard my friend talking about how much work was in the vineyard at that moment and that he was looking for people to work there.
It took me a half of a second to make a noise: ‘I’m in, no one can stop me’. And this is how ‘my year in the vineyard’ has started.
A vineyard called Perrer
‘My’ vineyard is called Perrer and is located at the border of Sainte Colombe and Saint Magne in the Right Bank of Bordeaux wine region, in moderate maritime climate.
There are Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines planted in about one hectare of vineyard. The older vines had been planted here about 40-50 years when the machines were different than nowadays and needed more space than the modern ones; therefore, it was possible for the owners to plant some new vines.
A few years ago new rows with young vines had been placed in between the old rows on about ¾ of the whole Perrer land. At the moment there are about 80 rows of cane-trained vines, Single Guyot, in general, but on some of the older vines two canes had been retained.
The vineyard is located on a steep, east-facing slope with mostly limestone soil. Machine work may be done there, but there is also plenty of work for humans ;)
I thought I would be working every day for the entire year, but I’ve been taking care of only one hectare of vineyards and it turned out I’ve been working in average max a week per month, 3-4 hours a day. There were months with no work for me to be done as I was not allowed to drive a tractor and ‘do’ the machine work in the vineyard.
Although I hadn’t been working each month of the year, I’ve been visiting Perrer every time something had to be done there to be up to date with all of the processes that take place in the vineyard.
Vincent, my vine-coach, was the best person I could learn from. He specializes in the viticulture in the area; it looks like he knows everything about vines and vineyards in Bordeaux. Before each work he has been going through the row with me, telling me what the job was, why it needed to be done and what impact it had on the whole vineyard and, later on, the wine. Thanks to him my year in the vineyard was one of the most precious experiences I’ve had since moving to France!
My year in the vineyard
I started with the beginning of May 2015, just after coming back from Australia. I remember those spring days being hot and sunny, so I enjoyed the very fresh mornings at work.
First to do: Epamprage. I had to cut off all of the small shoots that were growing on the vine trunk under the level of the main cane. The reason to do so is that the shoots suck the water and minerals that are needed for the proper growth of the whole vine. Cutting them off lets the water goes to the higher parts of the vine, which creates a better emergence of shoots and foliage, and helps to form better bunches of flowers that will develop into grapes.
Also, from the same reason, it was very important to get rid of ‘the doubles’; when two shoots on the main cane are growing from the same bud, they need to share the water and minerals, and both they are quite weak. Cutting off one of them lets the other grow stronger and has a big impact of the flowering and grape forming.
At that time of a year (May/June) in the vineyard, the foliage develop and shoots become longer and stronger. Firstly I needed to lift the wires and place them in the middle or ¾ of the posts (depends whether the vine was old or young and how long the shoots with leaves were). Secondly, the shoots needed to be lifted and woven into the wires just after I lifted the wires. Not easy job to do as it requires lots of strength but at the same time it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it could be ;)
It was the first time I get in touch with the ecosystem of the vineyard; I had the spiders and other insects all over me every day… not very pleasant feeling but I get used to it very quickly ;)
Summer was long and hot, there wasn’t too much work to do, but first time in my life I was a ‘leaf manager’ and I love the sound of that term even more that I did before ;)
Formed bunches of grapes were covered with leaves and it was not a good situation as after the rain the leaves kept the humidity in and, moreover, they shaded the fruits too much. Taking off the leaves that covered the grapes made it better – the wind could go easily through the vines and helped the rain water to evaporate, making drier conditions for the bunches and protecting them from the mildew.
Leaves above the grapes stayed on to protect the grapes from the sunburn and, at the same time, keeping the top leaves on helped the vine to get as much sun as it needed for the photosynthesis. As simultaneously with the proper amount of water and heat, the more light was there, the more glucose the leaves could produce for better growth and ripening of the grapes.
Although there were (again!) thousands of insects all over me, I personally think that leaf management is one of the most pleasant jobs a person can do in a vineyard ;)
Late summer and early autumn were very hot and dry, with just some rain. The veraison was quick – grapes changed their colours during less than a week, while the year before I’d been observing the process for almost three weeks.
The harvest took place in the second week of October. The weather was great, hot and sunny; it was a perfect weather for picking grapes. I’ve been very happy as it was my first harvest ever!
I was a part of a small harvest team and we’d been picking grapes from those parts of different vineyards when it had been impossible for the machine to harvest.
It took us only about 4 hours to pick the grapes that we loaded on the tractor (twice!). From Perrer vineyard we harvested the grapes from the young vines only, as they were too delicate for the machine harvest. After the harvest we had a nice and long lunch with the winemakers, cellar masters and other people that were forming our harvest team.
The harvest had been my last job in the year of 2015, as after the harvest the vines dormant until the following spring.
2016 started with the winter pruning. My job was to take the wood out of wires. The worst and most difficult job I’ve ever done. In case you don’t know, you need a lot of strength to pull the wood out of the wires. The wood very often hit in the face without a reason… and that hurts. When the wire was broken, it took me sometimes an hour to finish one row of vines. I deeply disliked it ;)
It took me about two weeks to finish the job as the weather was terrible (lots of heavy rain) and sometimes I could do only 1-2 hours and had to wait another two days to be able to go to the vineyard again. After finishing tombee de bois, the last thing to do was to bend the spare cane and form the new main cane.
The beginning of April 2016 was quite warm and the first buds appeared during the En Primeur week. Following week, the first time tractors went to spray the vineyards as, although it has been the beginning of a warmer season, it was raining a lot.
Last year at this time I’d been thinking a lot about how it would be to finish that vineyard practice. I wondered how I would feel with the new knowledge and the experience.
Now I know the answer: it has been a great experience and I do not regret any of time I’ve spent in the vineyard. It doesn’t matter how many books I’ve read about the vineyard before; the truth is a year ago I knew nothing about winegrowing. I had to spend time on working in the vineyard to REALLY GET TO KNOW it.
I am not only proud of myself but also very happy for the possibility of learning from such a great person as Vincent and being able to experience on my own skin the entire year of the work that needs to be done in the vineyard each year.
I’ve learned that wellingtons and waterproof clothes can my best friends while working among the vines, even if I don’t look very attractive in them ;) One of my first days I’ve been working in the bikini (c’mon, it was more than 30 degrees and I had my favourite 50+ sun cream on) and flip-flops and I got back home bitten by insects with my feet burned by nettles and thistles. Lesson learned – from that moment I promised myself to always put on the proper clothes while working in the vineyard ;P
I understand now why so many people prefer to start working in the very early morning before the sun is up; working in the summer in the full sun is as difficult as working when it rains cats and dogs. It goes slowly, it is not pleasant and it is more probable to get hurt, especially on a steeply slope. Early mornings are the best.
Now, when I look at the glass of wine, I can taste the weather, the soil and the grapes more than ever before. I understand why hand work in the vineyard is so important; I understand the impact it has on the finished wine.
Yes, I’ve been talking to the vines; I’ve been singing them my favourite songs and asking them if they are cold. Yes, I’ve been dreaming about the vines at night and I could see the vines every time I closed my eyes during the day. It has been a great experience and thanks to that I will never forget the aroma of the vines as I had it on me every day.
I’ve learned that a vineyard is not only about vines, is about the whole bunch of insects and animals that live there too– I’ve never seen so many beautiful insects and spiders (yes, trust me, they can be amazing especially while sitting on the spider web covered with the morning dew), hairs and roe-deer, eagles and quails. I discovered the absolutely beautiful and new life in the vineyard and I was happy to be a part of it.
Each year is different and I am not going to stop observing the world around me, as I am interested in it more than ever before. At least once a week I do a tour around my property to check the vines and be up-to-date. It is unbelievable how it changes, year by year, the same but such different.
Hopefully, this year I will plant my own vineyard in front of my house, so I could participate in the vine life on a day to day basis. I’ve got some experience now and I feel strong enough to take care of my own vines (with, of course, some help from others :p) and I cannot wait the another year in the vineyard.
At the same time, I am still hungry for knowledge and after my year in the vineyard, I would love to have a year in the winery to make sure I know the process of wine making from the inside out. I hope I will enjoy it as I enjoyed my year in the vineyard.
If you have any possibility to work in a vineyard, then do so. It will not only help you to understand the vineyard and all of the processes that take place in it, but also will help you to understand better the whole process of making wine. Because winemaking starts in the vineyard with the first buds that appear on the vine.
As a bonus, you will have a possibility to do some exercises every day – working in the vineyard helps to build muscles and makes the body stronger ;)
Vincent, if you ever read it I would like you to know that I am very grateful for your time and knowledge you’ve been sharing with me for the entire year. You’re the best! ;)
What about you, guys? Have you even worked in a vineyard? Did you enjoy it? What did you like the most? What did you learn from it? I will be happy to read your story about your year in the vineyard!