How and why do grape growers prune vines? (Bordeaux drinking earlier due mainly to better viticultural practices…)

Panos and gala Pichon Baron dinner and myself

Last week, January 19th, I attended a gala dinner in Washington DC that was arranged by Panos Kakaviatos, who is an incredible freelance wine writer, #winelover and I thoroughly recommend his blog at Jean-Rene Matignon, technical director of Château Pichon Longueville Baron, helped with the assistance of Panos to lead us through a 13 vintage tasting of Pichon Baron (snap shot of tasting notes at the end of this blog for those who are interested), and I have to say I was extremely impressed by not only Panos’ command of the French language (as he needed to assist with translating) but also his knowledge, charm, wit and overall great energy that really helped to transform this wine dinner into a special event.

Pichon Baron Several Vintages

So what does this have to do with the title of this blog post? Well, those who know my writing know I have a tendency to focus on a certain aspect of a conversation and/or experience… and I think about that certain aspect and debate it in my mind.. and sometimes I get a chance to debate it with others.. which is always fun and a great learning experience. I started to think about pruning and its importance because Jean-Rene told me that it is the work in the vineyards that is really making Bordeaux more accessible earlier, not manipulation in the winery… I know, I know this is going to open a can of worms. Some people may talk about micro-oxygenation or even riper vintages (but you can still have green tannins with high sugar) and since many of you know I am struggling with the Masters of Wine program, I need to try to focus on one topic at a time. So let’s talk about pruning!

How and why do grape growers prune vines throughout the year?

The most important pruning is winter pruning, and the majority of this post will focus on pruning during the winter and not so much on trimming or summer pruning (crop thinning).

How do we prune?

Mechanical vs hand pruning

The factors that influence choosing one or the other involve the potential compaction of the soil, the layout of the vineyard, density of planting and style. Even though low density planting will lend itself to hand pruning such as Numanthia’s bush vines in Toro with 1000 per hectare, Pichon Baron employs hand pruning at a much higher density of 9000 per hectare. Yes, Jean-Rene said that hand pruning has more precision and hence there is a better chance for a healthy and overall more balanced vine. But also, it was interesting how he expressed that they are able to continue this practice and to a greater degree than ever before due to having more resources. He said having more resources helps them to produce higher quality grapes, which is making fine wine Bordeaux consistently higher quality, and this comes down to having the labor that is needed in the vineyard.

It is interesting to note that mechanical pruning is a common practice in South Eastern Australia and the Central Valley in California and other hotter wine regions. Since mechanical pruning typically leaves more buds on the vine the yield increases for the first few years. This may be an issue for some producers but not for others. It really comes down to the producer’s intention of style, and of course resources will always dictate what is possible and not possible.

Why would you want to prune more or less?

This may be influenced by vigor of variety (scion) and/or climate. Sauvignon Blanc is a very vigorous variety and some wineries may want to prune it more. Alternatively, the Te Kairanga winery in Martinborough says that they prune their Sauvignon Blanc less. They want higher yields instead of lower yields. By pruning for higher yields, allowing for more buds that produce more fruit, it stresses the vines to the point of requiring more hang time for physiological ripeness. According to Te Kairanga the longer hang time helps to reduce unwanted unripe, herbaceous flavors in their fruit.

Jean-Rene said that Pichon Baron does not have a general philosophy with pruning, but more of a case by case approach. They allow anywhere from 5 to 12 clusters per vine depending on age and variety. Theses decisions are changed annually to either increase or decrease the clusters as they observe the vines. This was not always the case when resources were lacking and manpower was limited and untrained.

Well, there is the simple fact that there are yield and harvest requirements. But a quality producer does not just follow the yield and harvesting requirements by the local appellation. A quality producer such as a super second as Pichon Baron will not risk its reputation for its Grand Vin. It will produce less of its top wine to keep the prestige of its name. As we all know, it is not enough to be a 2nd growth in current times. Major influencers will reclassify the 1855 classification according to their assessment of quality. That is why Palmer (3rd growth) can command more money on the market place than Brane-Cantenac (2nd growth).

Why prune at all?

It is important to get rid of the old fruiting wood and replace it with new fruiting wood. Too little fruiting wood will cause too much vegetation growth and potentially produces a canopy that causes too much shade and risk for disease; too much fruiting wood may produce too much fruit for a vine to fully ripen. But vines are greatly influenced by the weather. There may be less bunches of fruit due to poor weather during flowering. For example, in 2012 England was particularly wet and cold with many vineyards producing little, if no sparkling wine. If one could predict the weather, then perhaps they could always choose the right amount of fruiting wood to leave year after year. But it is difficult to predict the weather… like the recent snow storm in New York City that was supposed to be the Storm of a Century.. and suffice it to say, it was a little exaggerated 🙂

It was very interesting when someone else at the table asked Jean-Rene about terroir. He started to talk about terroir but ended up talking about marketing. It basically came down to the idea if a producer cannot successfully market their wine in today’s market then they will not be able to have the resources to invest consistently, and hence terroir is difficult to express.

This started a conversation among a few of us at the table regarding terroir and how at one time we associated Brettanomyces (bacteria on the grapes causing esters) with terroir. Then I remembered a seminar I attended last year discussing research at the University of Davis in California regarding microbial substances in vineyards, and how they may be associated with defining a specific terroir. Conversely, some would say that Brettanomyces is a fault. They believe only “fruit” esters truly express terroir.

Sometimes I think about the yearning for the good old days of Bordeaux. Would we still have it if pricing was more reasonable? Would we still want astringency and intensely earthy notes? I was introduced to Bordeaux over twenty years ago and it was a different animal. It was not as round or lush as the 2009s let’s say… and hence why I have a special place in my heart for the 2010s. I love their tannic tension. But do the lusher vintages bring a new audience? Keep Bordeaux current? And help to secure a future? The world is changing, and either Bordeaux evolves or becomes irrelevant.

Yes, there are many factors that make Bordeaux more accessible. Viticulture is only one of those factors, but I do agree an important one, since there are really only so many miracles one can perform in the winery. And there is still major vintage variation, hence showing it is not so easy to make a wine more accessible when dealing with mediocre grapes. I don’t mind being able to drink wines within 5 years instead of 15…. and I have to guess the older you get, it can only be a good thing to drink wines closer to release. But pricing… well, there are enough articles regarding that topic, but yes, hopefully the potentially great 2014 vintage will not revert to 2009 pricing. But for now all I can say is that I understand the importance of pruning and that it does not always go according to plan.


Pichon Baron Several Vintages

Tasting notes from 13 vintage vertical on January 19th

(In the order of how I tasted them during the dinner)

-2006 Pichon Baron

Yes, the 2006 was a little closed and very tannic, but it had a great smoky quality… smoked meats.. seems like it will be like the 1996, but a little less fleshy on the mid palate. Needs a lot more time.

-2007 Pichon Baron

Intense aromatics with beautiful dried flowers and herbs, light body, soft texture. A lovely wine to drink today.

-2008 Pichon Baron

A very balanced wine, not a show stopper, but a great balance of the right amount of body, slight grip, bright acidity, fresh blackcurrant with interesting espresso notes. Could use a couple more years, but pretty accessible now.

-2001 Pichon Baron

They always say the biggest problem with the 2001s is that it came after the great 2000 vintage. A lot of elegance with this wine… restraint not as showy as the 2000s. Great purity of fruit with a great backbone of acidity.

-2002 Pichon Baron

Did not have as long of a finish as 2001, 2001 will go a lot further… but the 2002 was giving a lot more on the nose. Tobacco leaf, exotic spice, and a combination ripe and unripe notes.

-2004 Pichon Baron

This was not a great vintage, but Pichon Baron was one of the stars of the vintage, and hence this is still an impressive wine. Chocolate and cinnamon with a full body and velvety tannic structure. This is an exception for the vintage.

-2000 Pichon Baron

Great, great wine… the purity of fruit is stunning. It is complex while being fresh.. the acidity is not that high in this vintage, but the laser clarity of the fruit makes it seem bright on the finish. Yes, this wine was always a stunner because of riper fruit, but there is a great combination of clear expression of terroir that takes this wine to the next level.

-2003 Pichon Baron

Jean-Rene said there was extremely strict selection for this vintage. I am not a fan of the desiccated fruit with stewed bell pepper note I typically get from the 2003s. But this had no hint of those aromas or flavors. Delicious cassis fruit dominated with dusty earth and a decadent mouth coating finish that I have to admit gives instant gratification that I think all wine drinkers can appreciate.

-2005 Pichon Baron

Yes, this vintage still lives up to its initial hype. This 2005 had everything… complexity of flavors with spice, vanilla, and bbq, sweet fruit, fair amount of acidity, evident structure to make an overall big, bold and robust wine. Needs time.. is still a little closed.. but impressive and I’m a fan of the not so shy structure.

-1998 Pichon Baron

Nose was intoxicating… yes, I said intoxicating! Truffle, truffle, truffle…the body and length was not as great as the 1990… it had a much more open, addictive nose.

-1990 Pichon Baron

Nose was a little closed, especially compared to the 1998. But the finish was one of the longest of the night in my opinion… it was completely savory with cigar box and gravelly earth, and it seemed to roll around in my head all night.

-2009 Pichon Baron

Yes, I surrender to the 2009 and all its greatness. Personally, I will always be a 2010 girl.. I love tannin, always have, always will…. but the 2009 offers a much more international appeal…. and I mean that in a positive way, even though I know it can be taken the wrong way. It had a wide range of fruit flavors: blue, black and red…. more chocolate notes than any other wine in the lineup, and it is very smooth in texture. To think that you could ever drink a Bordeaux wine so young while being so smooth is mind blowing.

-2010 Pichon Baron

Oh 2010, how I love you, let me count the ways! Yes, it has obvious tannin and acidity, but well integrated and perfectly balanced with lots of fruit and glycerol… and the 1990 might have had the longest finish in regards to aromatics but the 2010 had the longest when it came to the palate. This wine needs a lot more time to reveal all of its layers of flavors.. but I thoroughly enjoyed it on a textural level.

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