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vines

Taking Cuttings

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Taking Cuttings

I’m out in a driving rain, taking cuttings. I pull up the hood on my rain jacket moments before gusts of rain smack the back of my head. The leaves of the Marris are clapping, and there’s a sparkle in the air. A new hawk is cruising the vineyard. As the rain abates I see her, a slender Nankeen Kestrel, Falco cenchroides, backpedalling over the Malbec, hunting for mice. 

My back is raw from my efforts and my wrist is carpel tunneling from repetitively squeezing my secateurs. I’m clad from head to toe in protection – tall rubber boots, rain pants, rain jacket, glasses and gloves. Despite the gloves, my hands are torn up and calloused. I’m tying the cuttings in bundles of 50 and find it hard to tie a knot with my gloved hands, so I remove them. The cool wood feels terrific against my bare skin and what's more I feel I can distinguish the strength and particular lifeforce of each individual cutting. They certainly do feel different from one another, apart from the smoothness of the wood. Some have terrific vigor and carry a profound strength. Others are twisted and their vivacity is less clear. Some simply possess a deep calm energy.  Others have an energy that’s a bit out of control.

I actually discard a few of my earlier choices based on what I am feeling. The weak ones are out, as are the weedy ones. I feel that the overly vigorous ones will be more herbaceous in growth rather than fruit bearing. They have long stretches between nodes and a slight unevenness to them that I decide to reject. I’m acting on intuition, trusting my instincts, as I have no precedent for this.

I continue my experiment of sticking this material directly into the ground that was prepared last year. I’m replacing cuttings that didn’t take - most likely because they were planted so late in the season. I pack the soil around each plant so that there are no air pockets, and pull the odd weeds that have come in through the mulch – a type of onion, bunches of ryegrass, a radish, some bracken fern. This particular block is somewhat shielded by trees: parts of it will not receive early morning sun whereas parts will miss sun in the late afternoon. It will be interesting to see how and if that affects ripening and flavor.

Elsewhere we are “layering in” missing vines rather than starting them fresh from cuttings. This is a way of propagating a new vine from an established “mother” vine. Layered vines grow more quickly than cuttings because they receive nutrients from the mother vine. The aim is to get the new vine to create its own roots while it is still attached to the original plant. We pick a long vigorous cane from one vine and dig a hole where we want to establish the offshoot. We loop it in the hole and bury it with the tip up, leaving several buds above ground.  We train it the same way we’d train a newly planted one. The cane will root itself and eventually we will sever the connection to the mother vine.

The layered look:

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The Terroir of Terroir

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The Terroir of Terroir

All this controversy about terroir has got me thinking about the influences of that “je ne sais quoi” that ends up in the bottle. Most wine is incredibly manipulated. It stands to reason that minimal manipulations should reflect the terrain the best, that any inputs would dull the impact of the place expressing through the final product. It’s an argument for natural wine, but just because a wine is natural doesn’t make it a good wine. This is borne out so often in the tasting, alas.

So I’ve preferred those definitions of terroir that alude to a partnership between the vigneron and land, but still find that concept pretty grandiose in practice. While I do see myself in partnership with my land, I also see that the contract isn’t on my terms, and the fine print keeps showing up. Partnership implies a certain give and take. But even the most enlightened farmers I know are giving through human prescribed lenses and taking what they are able. There’s little sense of mystery - the partner isn't actually acknowledged nor credited.

I don’t know how enlightened I am. I’m dogged though, learning from knowledgable old timers, and books, and from my comparatively limited in duration, direct experience of the land. Theoretically it’s coherent. But I suspect that the land is just incredibly generous and tolerant of or amused by my arrogant attempts to “work with it".

Yet some aspects of my relationship to the land are undeniably reflected in the wine. Does my vibration as a grower enter into it? Do my moods, preoccupations, and energies really affect the outcomes? Or are my results merely a question of the physical inputs the vines receive on this particular piece of earth?

Today I was planting Peppermint trees (Agonis flexuosa) along the Caves Road verge. The rain was hammering down, as it has been for months, no let up in sight, resulting in unprecedented surface water in the vineyard (unprecedented in my experience). All that water has to go somewhere. The result is that I crossed two deep flowing creeks, where previously at most I’ve experienced a trickle.

The freshly shoveled dirt smelled the way it looked, red and luscious and deep. I sniffed it greedily, rain splashing everywhere. I was camouflaged in my green raingear, and crouching on my knees, patting a seedling home, when I was startled by a pair of ducks gliding to a touchdown right in front of me plopping into the creek and swimming upstream.

They actually didn’t see me as they swam in tandem against the current, ducking and feeding and quacking to each other. Partners. Could terroir be the partnership between the land and what we do on it? What an arrogant thought. Terroir is the grace of this place, the generosity of all the forces and powers operating here, mostly beyond my ken. Like this creek that appears in the rainy season to house a universe of animals and plants, only to disappear in perfectly adapted dormancy in the dry, it is the only appropriate response to forces and cycles no farmer can hope to manipulate, or understand.

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Rocking the Ferment

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Rocking the Ferment

We picked our Cabernet Sauvignon on a coldish autumn day, and the grapes were still cold when they were crushed and pumped into open fermenters. We covered the fermenters with shadecloth secured by elastic to keep out dust and insects and left them resting overnight in the open air of the winery shed. It was a cool night and in the morning the ferment had barely begun.

The next day dawned slightly warmer and the ferment heated up a degree or so, but there wasn’t very strong activity. Apparently it was going to stay cold for a while so we ferried the fermenters into the warmer barrel room and that did the trick, for overnight it began to move. When the ferment was really going we brought it back outside into the open air. Every few hours the temperature rose just a bit more until the yeasts were happily cranking away.

Every day I returned at regular intervals to punch down the cap or pump over the juice, and take a sample to measure and taste. The smell and color and flavor intensified with each successive visit. It was a thrill to inhale the scent of this bubbling exuberance. With each successive visit I could feel it growing more deeply into its own distinctive personality. Several times a day I tasted. I tasted with my nose, my eyes, my ears, my mouth. My hands were purple with tasting!

It reminded me of the magical time of pregnancy, when at first there’s just the slightest inkling that something miraculous is developing, and then suddenly that something is brewing with a speed and rapidity and intelligence. From that early moment of a barely perceptible glow it proceeds through its enchanted stages and the days have a timeless celebratory fullness. Likewise, as I monitored the ferment, moment to moment movement was barely perceptible, but under the surface mysterious changes were rushing to an incredible conclusion.

After six days of this ripening, blossoming, deepening, thickening, rather than extract too much from the skins and seeds, we decided to press it off. It will finish the ferment off skins, simply as juice. I took a last sniff and taste as we prepared to shovel the skins into the press and was intoxicated again by the magnificence of it all.

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