syrah grapes Thinkstock Dina Calvarese/Thinksctock

Reigning in the Syrah in the Sierra Foothills

It took a while. But by the second week of July – with her wine grape crop just past seed-hardening and several weeks before the start of veraison – Amador County grower Ann Kraemer finally had her Syrah vines, her most vigorously-growing variety, under control.

That’s when she finished thinning the shoots, which was much later than usual and reflects abundant rainfall this past winter and the resulting high soil moisture levels this spring at the hilly site of her Shake Ridge Vineyard near Sutter Creek, Calif.

Normally, Kraemer likes to thin shoots when they’ve grown to between 6 and 18 inches in length, depending on the variety. Usually, her goal is to direct vine growth to the remaining shoots so they will have enough leaves to ripen the crop yet not be overly vigorous.

Ideally, soon after fruit set, when the berries are still pea-size, the vine ceases vegetative growth and directs its energy into developing the fruit. The earlier in berry development this happens, the smaller the berries, resulting in better juice to skin ratio. Also, it leads to better development of tannins, volatile compounds and color in the berries.

But, this year, with all the excess soil moisture, Kraemer needed to push the vines hard in the spring to use up the extra vigor. To help dissipate that excess vigor, she left extra buds when pruning the canes during dormancy and then delayed suckering and shoot-thinning so the resulting shoot length was normal and had stopped growing by the time the fruit was pea-sized.

“However, when we thinned the shoots this year, the vines, with their extra canes, were a mess and required a lot of work to thin and straighten out,” she says.

Also, to soak up more of the soil moisture she delayed mowing the vegetation between the rows of vines. “For vigorous Syrah, you really have to have your foot on the brake all spring long, especially in a high-rainfall season,” she noted.

In the case of her low-vigor varieties, Grenache and Petite Sirah, Kramer delayed shoot thinning only a little longer than usual this year. In other, more vigorous vines, like Barbera and Tempranillo, she waited about two weeks or so later than normal to thin the shoots.

“In a year like this one with later rains, it’s critical to manage vine growth to use up excess vigor early in the season, yet not stress the vines later in the season,” she adds.

The trick is to take away extra shoots and clusters, once the vine growth slows down, so the vines are normal-sized and retaining enough leaves to support the desired crop load.

Kraemer’s desire to establish Shake Ridge Vineyards in 2003 reflects her family’s farming heritage, which includes four generations of Southern California citrus growers.

In designing the vineyard, she drew on her previous 25 years of experience in the premium wine industry managing vineyards and serving as viticultural consultant in Napa and Sonoma counties as well as in Oregon and Chile.

She focuses on producing top-quality wine grapes by farming small blocks of grapes to meet the specific needs of individual wine makers.

In addition to growing grapes for her own family label, Yorba Wines, Kraemer currently sells her fruit to 29 other vintners.

Originally, she planted 34 acres to 14 varieties, including Graciano, Mourvedre and Tempranillo.

She based her choice of varieties and rootstocks, in part, on the soil types and climatic condition of the Amador County AVA. But she also relied on her own judgment. “I tasted a lot of wines made from grapes grown here and the varieties I thought would do well here.

“As a consultant, I would always tell my clients to do a few things in their vineyard very well. But,” she says, “I probably planted more varieties than I should have.”

She explains some of her choices:

“The wines made from Amador County Barbera tasted so delicious. Zinfandel has had a great history here, and several wine makers asked for Tempranillo. Also, because I was thinking we would be more southern Rhone than Northern Rhone, I planted Grenache and Mourvedre to blend with Syrah.

“Even though I thought the area would be too hot for Viognier, I put it in half an acre to conferment with Syrah. I’m glad I did because of how quickly the hot days turn into cool nights. It wasn’t as hot here as I had thought. The variety turned out to be a pleasant surprise. That little half-acre made some really pretty Viognier wine.”

In 2009, she added another 12 acres to the vineyard and adjusted her mix of varieties. That included top-working, or grafting over, the half acre of Cabernet Sauvignon to Tempranillo. “The Cab blend was doing pretty darn good here,” Kraemer says. “But not good enough to try to compete with Napa Valley.”

She replaced the Cabernet Franc and Merlot with more Malbec, since that was the most promising of the Bordeaux varieties and has been cherished for its blending qualities.

At the same time she planted 7/10ths of an acre of Greco di Tufo vines, a grape grown in the Campania province of southern Italy. It grows in a strip of the vineyard that weaves among trees, which provide some shade.

“Greco di Tufo makes an edgy, more acidic white wine with really nice aromatic qualities,” Kraemer says. “Our wine-making consultant, Ken Bernard, and I wanted to add a white variety that was different. We tasted a lot of French and Italian wines and some from the warmer regions of Spain, and Greco di Tufo rose to the top of our list.”

After the first six years, during which the Greco di Tufo vines were head-trained and spur-pruned, they produced only enough grapes for 40 cases of wine. So, Kraemer put the vines on trellises and switched to cane pruning. That’s tripled production from about ½ a ton per acre to 1½ tons per acre.

“Although the jury’s still out on the quality of our Greco di Tufo wine to justify that low quantity, it should do better with a different vine spacing with a vertical trellis system and the cane pruning,” she says.

Kraemer’s paramount priority in growing her grapes is keeping a close eye on the details. In her case, where the largest block of any one variety is less than 4 acres in size, and most range from less than 1 acre to under 2 acres, that can mean custom-farming the vines to meet the needs of a particular buyer, sometimes even on a row-by-row basis.

That’s where the job gets complicated, she says. It includes dealing with all kinds of variables, like quickly-changing soil types across the hillside plantings; opening up the canopy in one part of a block and allowing for more filtered sunlight in another; and leaving extra fruit on a row or two of vines to slow sugar development and limit alcohol levels for a rose wine maker who wants to pick at 22º Brix while still allowing time for aromatics to develop and for astringency to calm down.

“The most critical details to get right are achieving the balance between vine and fruit growth so that we give the different wine makers what they want.” Kraemer says.

Signs at the head of rows identify individual buyers of the grapes by row or section of the block. Individual blocks might be split between four to five winemakers. Although each winemaker’s crop is treated slightly different, the styles of their wine can be quite varied, Kraemer notes.

“This is the fun part,” she says. “We get to taste the difference in wines made from the same variety of grapes in the same vineyard when the vines and fruit are managed differently and vinified so differently.”

The winemakers each decide when Kraemer picks the grapes as well as how they handle the fruit once it’s in the winery. “More extraction, different barrels, fermentation temperatures – all change the wine,” she says. “That’s why I define terroir to include not just the environmental factors like the soil, topography and climate, where the wine is made, but also the people factor – the decisions made by both the grower and the winemaker.”

TAGS: Management
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