January 21, 2006

A winter pruning adventure

I drove out to the Dundee Hills the other day to meet up with a friend who works an old vineyard planted with pinot noir and a few other things. I had asked him if I couldn’t come out and give him a hand with winter pruning.

I don't have much pruning experience, so the afternoon quickly turned into a terrific lesson in the art of pruning. Winter pruning is structural, where you cut back last year’s growth to leave only the healthiest and best positioned cane and renewal spur for next year. The cane will produce fruiting canes in the coming season, and the spur will provide a few additional fruiting canes positioned to be selected as next year’s main cane and renewal spur.

Despite having read some about winter pruning, and knowing a thing or two from my gardening and vineyard experience, I still couldn’t quite envision how vine pruning happened. My friend suggested that I start by focusing on what I would definitely eliminate, which meant virtually everything. Then I could select from what remained with relative ease.

I was impressed with his quick analysis of the vine and crisp cuts of the woody growth. My attempts were slow and uncertain, but I could see how the puzzle of deciphering each vine’s unique shape could become addictive.

Even this time of year, sap may weep harmlessly from the cuts on the otherwise dormant vine. With the vine now pruned, the leftover cane is tied down to the lowest trellis wire, carefully so that no buds are rubbed off. The cuttings are collected and burned or composted. Winter pruning is done.

We moved down the vineyeard row, studying each vine, making cuts, and moving on. After some time, another friend came by and we happened upon a nearby place to sit and check out the view and sample a couple local wines.

This is the heart of the Dundee Hills, vineyards like Arcus, Goldschmidt, Maresh, Prince Hill, and Le Pavillon among many others on the southern exposure of Worden Hill Road. The engorged Willamette River lay in the distance on this unusually dry afternoon. The air was chilly and fresh, this special place glowing in this late sunlight.

We tasted two Pinot noir from 2003, both warmly alcoholic and not to my taste though well made and enjoyable in the setting. Then we decided to take an impromptu and possibly illicit tramp by and though some of the local vineyards. We talked about vine age, training, growth habits apparent in the unpruned vines, and pruning techniques displayed on the recently cut vines. I couldn't help but think of returning during the growing season to see how the vines transformed during the year.

Then the tramp turned a bit grueling, over a fence and across a rushing creek, and then a long uphill climb on a path cut mysteriously through brambles. Our destination was a recently established vineyard and winery of another friend, producing small amounts of high quality, previously homebrew-only wine.

We tasted from two barrels of ’05 chardonnay, naturally fermented, both gorgeously pure and fresh with uncommon minerality. The new barrel is particularly impressive for not being woody. Of course, they’ve yet to go through ML, so it’s very early. But I suspect this will become fine wine and I’ll be happy to elaborate then.

And then outside again, through a hazelnut orchard and another vineyard with old Riesling vines with their ungodly thick tendrils, and back to where we began. The sun was down now and it was time to head out, my boots muddy and my head spinning with satisfaction.

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