Vineyard Touches: Leaf Pulling

Vineyard Touches: Leaf Pulling

In past posts, we’ve talked about what Cambria’s winemaker, Denise Shurtleff, calls “touches in the vineyard”—all those interactions between human and vine that are meant to encourage healthier, more flavorful grapes. We’ve already learned about the wintertime activity of pruning and early spring activities of tying, shoot thinning, suckering and shoot positioning. Today, we move into summertime touches, which are extensive, and set the stage for harvest.

Vineyard Touches: Leaf Pulling

Vineyard Touches: Leaf Pulling

The first summer touch is leaf pulling by hand. This is normally done right about now, on both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines. Pulling leaves from the growing canopy thins it out, allowing sunshine in to fall on the grapes and ripen them. Opening those canopies also increases airflow around the tightly-packed clusters, which helps to ward off mold in the damp climate of Santa Maria Valley. But, as Cambria’s viticulturalist Matt Mahoney warns, “We take care not to pull too many leaves off the canopy.” If there’s an intense heat wave—it can and does happen—you don’t want the grapes to get sunburned.

Vineyard Touches: Leaf Pulling

By the end of July, the Pinot Noir vines are ready for “red drop.” This occurs after the grapes have begun the process of veraison, or getting some red color. Because individual grapes ripen at different times—it’s just a function of their physiology—the crews will cut off the first ones to turn red, using hand shears. Why? “With red drop, we’re eliminating the potentially overripe grapes,” explains Matt. By harvest time, you want the grapes to be as even in ripening as possible: nothing overripe, and nothing underripe. Which leads to the next touch:

Cambria Winery Vineyard Workers

That would be “green drop,” which like red drop applies only to Pinot Noir. It normally occurs after red drop, and is its opposite: As Matt puts it, “We’ll identify the ten percent of fruit that’s underripe or behind the rest of the crop, and cut it off with shears.” Denise points out that both underripe fruit and overripe fruit are “outliers,” so getting rid of both—“the double drop”—makes for more consistent cluster size, berry size and maturity.

Right around the time of green drop comes “lateral removal,” which applies to both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Grape vines will often throw laterals, which are unwanted and unneeded shoots that can potentially produce a second crop of inferior fruit. As Matt puts it, “If there’s a second crop, it will be significantly behind on maturity. You want to remove them so the grapes, which can be green and acidic, don’t get blended in with the ripe grapes.”

Santa Maria Valley Vineyards

All of these steps—leaf pulling, red drop and green drop, and lateral removal—are costly. They involve extra field crews, and obviously they also result in a smaller crop. But these are the things that are necessary in order to produce the finest wines.

By: Steve Heimoff