Grafting Pinot Noir
June 14, 2012
A fascinating thing happened in our backyard last week – at least for us. Matt and I have a hobby vineyard on our back hill that we’ve mentioned before – those 100 vines can produce up to 25 cases of wine. We’ve experienced two unfortunate harvest years in a row so we decided to make a change to the varietal of wine that we grow. Here’s why.
The sugar content of grapes determine their ripeness and it is the key component that influences the future wine. Weather is the primary factor in growing grapes, we always hope for wet winters, hot summer days with cool evenings, and a dry fall before the grapes are harvested. For the last two years, we’ve been unable to get the Petite Syrah’s sugar levels high enough to make wine because the varietal doesn’t ripen until late October. We’ve also been savaged by critters who raid the fruit in October as a source of food, recalled by Matt’s woeful harvest story of 2010.
After consulting with local experts and winemakers, we came to the conclusion we’d be better off if those 100 vines were Pinot Noir grapes (most commonly grown in our terroir) and not the Petite Syrah we planted twelve years ago because they ripen an entire month earlier, and are also the most commonly grown grape within 25 miles.
So what’s a winemaker to do to solve this agricultural dilemma? It’s a process called grafting, and it’s an old technique that allows us to change the variety of the grapes without the expense of replanting, and a loss of only one year’s crop. Grafting only costs $1 per plant (plus labor) and at such an affordable rate, it was worth the process. It takes someone with knowledge to do it, so we hired Miguel with his 12 years of grafting experience who came highly recommended.
The first step was hard to take, he cut down all our green grapevine leaves within an hour leaving big piles of beautiful branches down the rows and across the yard, and then cut the trunks down to 3’ tall, leaving the scene feeling rather naked, for lack of a better word.
The next step was the actual grafting process which requires what’s called “scion” wood, that comes from the mother Pinot Noir canes that are collected for this purpose the season before. We’ve been planning this transformation since our disappointing lack of a harvest last fall, so we planned ahead with a winemaker we consult with every year during the crush, and secured some healthy Pinot Noir stems which were kept in cold storage for many months in anticipation of grafting.
Scion canes are dormant branches that are kept in cold refrigeration after they’re cut in winter. Each piece of scion wood provides several buds for grafting, here’s a look at one used by Miguel – he looks for the buds that will successfully become new branches.
All canes are kept moist in a carpenter’s box as the grafter moves from vine to vine grafting the new variety.
Here is how this is done up close. First he trims back the bark in the section where the vine will be grafted.
Next, he makes several small incisions at the base of the vine to allow it to “bleed” so that the sap or water inside drains out from the bottom and to avoid any pressure to push the graft out. Miguel then makes a face cut on the vine, opening up access the raw part (called the “cambium”) underneath.
From the mother Pinot Noir plant, a dormant bud is cut, and then inserted into the cambium.
A new bud is wedged inside to become part of the old plant, and this process is repeated on the other side so that two parallel vines shoot out from each side and can be secured to the established vineyard trellis.
Miguel uses a special 1″ wide grafting tape to carefully tape the graft into place which will stay in place for several months as the new Pinot Noir plant becomes part of the old vine.
It’s kind of a sad sight to look at when just days before it was a healthy vineyard growing happily in the sun, and now cut down to nothing!
What will happen as a result of this process of grafting is we will have a two-variety grapevine where the original Petite Syrah keeps growing as the root system and lower trunk and we will trim the suckers as they grow, while up above the Pinot Noir becomes the fruiting portion of the vine that we will train and prune and allow to become grapes for future wine production.
By fall we will have leaves like this again which at least will be aesthetically nice to look at, but no fruit this year.
But the good news is by next September, we should be looking at these again . . .
. . . and they are definitely worth waiting for !