Nature Wields the Ultimate Clout in the Winemaker’s Vineyard

GrapevineWine is both simple and complex, on planes that are both juxtaposed and contraposed.

On the one hand, its baseline is as a simple agricultural product, farmed similarly as a multitude of other agricultural products. The simple formula: understand the needs of grapes that are necessary to attain a stellar crop and a farmer will be rewarded with a praiseworthy bounty. Interfere with the natural order of agriculture and a farmer is doomed to long-term mediocrity.

On the other hand, grapes are living organisms and as such are influenced by their environment. The complex factors that impact the ultimate wine product may individually play a minor role, but in combination, they serve to create a wine that is distinct from other wines.

The commonly recognized elements that play into the simple yet complex nature of wine are terroir and the winemaker. Terroir centers on selecting an ideal vineyard site that suits the genetic profile of a particular grape varietal. A widely held maxim is that 90 percent of a wine is created in the vineyard. The role of the winemaker is to coax the best wine from the grape clusters once they are harvested.

But there is a third element that has a significant impact on the winemaking process. It is as critical to the success of a winery as terroir and the winemaker, but may not be recognized as readily by consumers. It is a factor that does not yield to human intervention and may exert its influence in a seemingly random manner. I am referring to the clout wielded by nature, in the form of seasonal weather patterns.

It is the wild card in the winemaking process. It is what keeps winemakers up at night during the growing season. Weather will invariably affect the quantity and/or the quality of each season’s grape harvest. Under favorable meteorological conditions, the seasonal life cycle of a grapevine will be consistent and follow the ideal maturation path. However, this is not a given factor each year. In fact, over the course of a six-month average growing season, nature may wield its fickle hand multiple times, thereby affecting the quality and yield of a given crop.  

Consider the annual cycle of a grapevine’s growth and ultimate harvest. There may be weather-related problems throughout the season:

  1. Early Spring. As vines break from their winter dormancy, flower buds and shoots begin to form. Frost is a continuous threat; a single night of frost can kill a substantial portion of the grapevine’s flower buds, dooming the entire season’s productivity.
  2. Late Spring. Once the danger of frost passes, grape clusters begin to fill out. Drought or heavy rainfall can stall or stop this process, significantly lowering yields.
  3. Summer. As the clusters set and grape berries begin to develop, veraison begins. Via this process, berries develop, turning from green to their mature color. They increase in size and weight, developing sugars and water content. Too much rain during this period may literally dilute the vigor of the grapes; too little rain may result in shriveled clusters on the vine. Higher than average temperatures may cause grapes to ripen prematurely; cooler temperatures will slow down ripening.
  4. Late Summer/Early Fall. As grapes near maturation, unusual variations in temperature or rainfall will not only affect the timing of the harvest but also their levels of sugar and water.

Of course, a growing season wouldn’t be complete without a random act of disruption from the fickle hand of nature. A freak hailstorm in the Champagne region in northern France has wiped out entire crops, ruining any chance of a meaningful harvest.

The soil composition, climate and topography of a vineyard, as ideal as they may be for growing a particular grape varietal, are no match for the whim of nature. Nor can the skilled hand of an experienced winemaker compensate fully for the unpredictability of nature.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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