A June Update from the Vineyards – IV

My last update, I apologize, I got a little crazy about burdock. The past month has seen me successfully attend a 12-step program, Foragers Anonymous, and when I feel any urges to interact with the plant, I repeat my mantra, ” People, not weeds.” Communication with my friends who I alienated during this obsession has improved, and many thanks to my employer and especially my girlfriend who stuck with me through this dark-green, leafy episode.

That said, onto my utterly healthy obsession with wine and the vineyard…

What shall become, Lord willing, the first harvest and eventually wine of Pinot Noir! (Taken 16/6/21)

We had bud break! The picture above shows the blooming of grape flowers. Honestly, many of my friends and I, beset by adoration, chatter compulsively about the most intricate details of wine; we sing paeans to aspects many would find completely inane; honestly, the underwhelming appearance of the vine blossoms I find strangely comforting. I know no ode to the looks of květy hroznů. Could you imagine if, on top of the attractive synergy of man and plant in the vineyard, the sweaty, sticky and sweet labor of the harvest, the beguiling burble of fermentation, the flirtatious scents of a young wine and the meditative aromas of one well-aged, could you imagine if the flowers were beautiful too? There would be this whole cult of beauty for those damned, imagined things. Thousands of poems for thousands of years – “[insert body part here], like a vine bloom” – recipes for ancient celebrations that fetishized the petals, Western Classical art flipped on its head, Dionysus as both nurturer and debaucheur, biblical metaphors changed, strange medieval texts of the medicinal and spiritual worth of different varieties’ blossoms, on and on and on until now, when thousands of tourists would traipse throughout the world’s vineyards every spring, taking selfies and posing half-drunk on the trellising.

Instead we have some of the most visually uninteresting flowers in the world, doing their work in near anonymity. The physical appearance does not inspire; however, their aroma…

…The aroma of the vineyard in bloom is lemon curd and linden, such a sweet attar that laboring among the vines, a person leaves the toil more refreshed than when they started.

A winemaker probably doesn’t notice the aroma too often, he or she is too busy looking at the sky, scrolling 10-day forecasts, frowning at a single buboe or pock on a leaf. Bud break is one of the most nervous points of the year for vintners. If rain falls steadily during the flowering, the pollen is unable to drift from hermaphroditic flower to hermaphroditic flower (The term here referring to the majority of grape varieties that can self-pollinate), and the potential berries, if they exist at all, are undersized due to inadequate pollination.

Bogdan’s eyes were on the forecast. Our flowering came under very dry and very hot (30-38°C) conditions, but rain threatened in the forecasts. And after five or six days, the sky dropped! You readers might have heard of the tornado that struck southern Moravia (Southeastern Czech Republic); while we had no such tragedies, we were not spared heavy rains and winds that turned our rock hard clay soils to slick mud, and threatened to inundate the spindly grape blooms.

As I write this a week-and-a-half later, we continue to experience these abnormally strong storms, with temperatures now undulating between 19°C and 29°C. Fortunately, the grapes seemed to have made the best of the dry, hot weather, and I estimate the fertilization was 90% complete when the first bouře dropped its rain. I have not taken any shots of the nascent berries, but the riesling vines are yielding as much as last year (even with less sprouting canes) and maybe 40% of the pinot noir is finally producing. Pinot has had a rough time, as the soil in which it is planted is much more inhospitable, with a hard pan of clay clunked 40cm below the surface limiting the penetration of both rainwater and roots which would dearly like to access deeper reserves of H2O. Still, that 40% fruitfulness is a marked increase from last year; it gives us hope that we will one day taste the fruits of these vines.

Probably not what I feared…

Of course, rain and its subsequent humidity raise the specters of two banes of natural winemakers (and really, all winemakers,) odium and peronospora, in the US known as powdery mildew and downy mildew. In the picture above, I feared that the Riesling was getting attacked by the latter fungus. Bogdan was confident that it was not. Rather, it was the work of aphids taking sips on the bounty of leaves that the vines have produced. He said that the yellow on the leaves lacked an oily appearance that would indicate peronospora in a reproductive phase.

Despite his confidence, Bogdan and I did spray, using the only acceptable chemical combination available to natural winemakers – copper sulfate. Unlike most other mineral-derived chemicals, copper sulfate has no counterpart in the biodynamic / natural realm, its prophylactic effects against the fungi are superior, and even biodynamic regulators like Demeter allow its dispersal in the vineyard (albeit at significantly lesser amounts than in conventional vineyards).

Copper sulfate is not without its detractors whether conventional or natural. Some conventional winemakers (Conventional meaning someone who uses the full panoply of chemical products available for the vines and for the cellar, no matter how noisome) accurately point out that copper sulfate is a topical remedy to vine maladies, and washes off within a few rainfalls. Equally correct, they observe that copper is a heavy metal, it does not easily leave the soil, over the year it can potentially build-up and become noxious to the microbial life in the soil, which changes the terroir’s health. They might vaunt that some of the petro-chemicals they use actually break down more quickly. And they’d be right.

However, what that other chemical might do before it breaks down, the jury is still ( figuratively and probably literally) out. In our particular vineyard, for Bogdan, like the majority of natural winemaker’s with whom I have spoken, copper sulfate is a necessary evil whose necessity is constantly questioned. As such, this comparatively “milquetoast” fungicide gets sprayed here once or twice a year, compared to 7 applications in a less devoted vineyard.

Once is enough. While a face-mask has been à la mode for almost two years, this was the first time I felt truly thankful having to wear one; pants in the summer are hot, but I did not complain (The airtight rain-jacket I wore did keep in the sweat; that got pretty nasty with my cotton t-shirt). Overall, the dispersal of this mixture (150g sulfur to 350g copper to 50l of water) by a Stihl fumigator was quick, and even kind of fun, when I forgot about what I was spraying. But I am so accustomed to walking unmasked, sandaled, bare-legged and short-sleeved through the vines, that the chemical aroma and dusty, palest-blue circles left on the plants felt nigh-on tragic. I don’t know if it was the emotions or the application that made me slightly queasy.

In any case, the spraying is done, and hopefully we won’t reapply again this year. Now we strain our backs and knees, bending low again and again to choose which branches on each vine will survive and which will be thrown to the ground and return quickly to the earth. It is repetitive but highly interesting work.

Clouds to the left of us, clouds to the right, but this evening the vines only saw the sun.

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