French vs. American viticulture

Over the last month, Theophile Cordonnier, son of Nathalie and Jean-Baptise of Chateau Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, has been working with us in our vineyard. We've been exchanging French and American techniques in regards to viticulture. Although most of our processes are similar, we've learned some drastic differences in our vine growth. It's been a true enjoyment having Theo work with us - hopefully we'll be able to work out at his family's vineyard in France next year.

The Cordonnier family owns and operates two vineyards in Southern France - Chateau Dutruch Anthonic and Chateau Dutruch Grand Poujeaux. We currently sell wine of Grand Poujeaux by the bottle if you're interested in trying authenic French wine. Dutruch Grand Poujeaux is an insider's tip and under Jean-Baptiste and Natalie's direction and it has gained an increasingly large following among Society members. Half of the blend is fine, old-vine merlot, and the remainder is 46% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Petit Verdot. The wine spends 12 months in oak, a third of it new, and can age gracefully for five to 15 years, depending on the vintage.

20140731_131126.jpg [Mike and Theo at Prairie Pond Vineyard]

Obviously, France's winters are not as cold as ours here in Minnesota. Because of that, our vines are able to endure colder temperatures. On the down side, we are more prone to losing vines during the winter. At Theo's family's vineyard in France, they plant one shute. At our vineyard, we typically grow two, in case one freezes. When the trunk freezes, it still grows, but it will not produce grapes. In some vineyards in America, up to five shutes are planted and are continuously rotated through. Older trunks are most susceptible to freezing, so we always have a younger trunk ready to take over. Theo reports having some vines that are 50 years old on their French Vineyard; most of the vines on the Grand Poujeaux plateau are 30 years old on average.

As you can see in the photo below, one of our trunks didn't last through the winter, but the trunk right next to it did. Although the second shute does not produce as much, it is our saving grace.

20140731_132206.jpg[older trunk on the right killed by a harsh winter]

Another difference in French and American vineyards is the resistance to plant disease. In the late 1800's, wineries all over Europe burned their family's ancient vineyards in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of Phylloexera. Phylloxera is a microscopic louse or aphid that lives on and eats roots of grapes. It can infest a vineyard from the soles of vineyard worker's boots or naturally spreading from vineyard-to-vineyard by proximity. Phylloxera is believed to be introduced to Europe through the transportation of American plants into Europe. For some mysterious reason, most American vines are not affected at all by this plant disease.

With the economy at risk, French scientists suggested grafting European wine grape varieties which thrive in their respective regions, onto American rootstocks which can tolerate the presence of Phylloxera. The solution, termed as 'reconstruction,' worked! It took years for France to restore its vineyards to normality, as over 70 percent of the vines were dead. It was a slow process, but worth it. The process is still practiced today, as no cure for Phylloxera has been found.

20140731_132023.jpg[Phylloxera on our leaves - having no effect]

As you can see, American and French vines thrive differently, but they both go through the same process of grape growing. The grapes in our vineyard are currently going into veraison, which is a French term for 'the onset of ripening.' In English, the term is only used in regards to viticulture (grape growing.) Veraison represents the transition from berry growth to berry ripening, and many changes in berry development occur at this stage. The grapes start to accumulate sugar and they also start to change color. As you can imagine, birds are beginning to take a liking to the grapes. Birds can not only deplete crop tonnage dramatically, but they can comprise the quality of the fruit by pecking at the fruit, leading to oxidation or infection. Netting is the most effective bird control solution in vineyards today. It allows light and air to filter through and the unrestricted air movement ensures that diseases to the wine canopy do not occur. Netting is lightweight, making handling easier to install and remove, but it's still very time consuming. 

20140731_131715.jpg[grapes entering the veraison stage]