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A year in the life of a winemaker

By Bordeaux Wine Council 

As you sit back, relax and sip happily on a big glass of quality wine that’s just been delivered to your door from the Wine & Dine Festival online cellar, take a minute to think of the winemaker, and all the hard work they put in to perfecting their product. If you daydream about switching your office for a vineyard and living the winemaker life, here’s what your year ahead as a Bordeaux winemaker might look like, and some wine vernacular to get you started. 

 

 

OCTOBER

The winemaker vinifies the grapes. In the vineyard, this is also ploughing time.

Why is this the perfect time for ploughing?

During the vegetative phase, the vines extract the strength they need to grow from the soil and produce quality grapes. The goal is now to add organic fertiliser to the soil to nourish it and prevent deficiencies.

EXPRESSION OF WINTER

Chausser les vignes — turning the soil

The plough turns the soil between the rows and partially covers the vines to protect them from winter frosts.

 

NOVEMBER TO JANUARY

As soon as leaf-fall ends, winemakers begin pruning. This period runs into mid-March.

When does pruning start?

The winemakers begin as early as mid-November, unless they are able to do it later in a shorter timeframe. This is a long process, but a determining factor in the vineyard’s growth.

EXPRESSION OF WINTER

Preparing for pruning

This entails removing the staples and lowering the trellising wires to make the pruner’s work easier.

 

FEBRUARY

The pruning dovetails the removal of the unwanted wood to discard the pruned branches. There are two ways to dispose of these branches: burning or grinding.

What are the advantages of grinding or burning?

Mechanical grinding has the advantage of speed, and the shredded branches left in the rows help regenerate the soil’s organic matter, while the ash that results from burning adds minerals to the soil.

EXPRESSION OF THE MONTH

Tirage des bois — removing the wood

Once pruning is done, the next step is to remove the unwanted wood. These workers, the tireurs, clear the vine of the wood cut by the pruners that passed before them.

 

MARCH

The vine awakens from its winter sleep: it is the beginning of a new growth cycle. This month, the winegrower works on the trellising.

What part of the plant’s life cycle is beginning?

The sap rises in the branches and oozes through the scars left by the pruner’s shears. It is said that the vine is weeping! The winegrower paces his work to align with the rhythm of vine’s growth and climatic conditions.

EXPRESSION OF THE MONTH

Palissage — trellising

The plot is pruned, the wood removed, now it is time for trellising: replacing the posts that have been damaged by weather or machinery, replacing any broken wires, retightening others. Once the trellising is finished, the winegrower attaches the vines to the stakes and the lowest wire.

 

APRIL

Now is the bud break phase: the buds swell to show the first leaves and future branches. The winegrower completes the operation by hand with a tire-cavaillon.

Why is this a delicate phase in the plant’s life?

Spring frosts can harm the quality of the crop by burning the young branch, as happened in April 1991.

EXPRESSION TO REMEMBER

Tire — cavaillon

After removing the piled earth from around the vines and smoothing the workspaces between the vines, clods of earth remain. These are removed both mechanically (with a décavaillonneuse, or a vineyard plough) and manually (with a tire-cavaillon, or a toothed hoe). It is hard work on the often-compact clay soil left after the rainwater evaporates.

 

MAY

Between disbudding and flowering, the winemaker selects the branches that will help produce quality grapes.

Why is activity speeding up?

The branches grow fast, between 5 and 15 centimetres a day: they must be lifted and trellised regularly before being pollarded (trimmed).

EXPRESSION OF THE MONTH

Disbudding and suckering

Disbudding: remove all the buds or burgeoning branches that could add too much weight to the vine (detrimental to harvest quality). When buds or shoots are removed from the base of the vine or the ground, it is called suckering.

 

JUNE

The vine enters its reproductive cycle with a flowering period from May to June.

How is flowering important to the winegrower?

It directly influences the quantity and quality of the grapes and the harvest date. Success of this phase depends on climatic conditions.

EXPRESSION TO REMEMBER

Coulure — failure to set fruit

During pollination, cold and precipitation can lead to coulure, a failure to set fruit (decreasing the number of berries per bunch) or millerandage (hindered berry growth).

 

JULY

Now for the fruit set: flowering has come to an end and the flowers become berries. The hot, humid weather means this period is conducive to a number of pests.

Can grape ripeness be predicted?

More than three months in advance, winemakers have a very good notion of the harvest date for peak grape ripeness, as it occurs 120 days after flowering (particularly for Merlot noir) and 45 days after mid- véraison (in August). At fruit set, the leaves are thinned out on the vines on the side facing the sunrise and those vines too laden with grapes are thinned (green harvest).

EXPRESSION OF THE MONTH 

Vine protection 

During this period of vulnerability, the winegrower makes sure to protect his or her future harvest. Whatever production mode is used, intervention is needed here. Whether the agricultural techniques are conventional, organic, biodynamic, or integrated, the intervention choices made are conservative and take the environment into account.

 

AUGUST

The ripening phase (véraison): the grapes change colour and ripening begins. There is a second phase of leaf-stripping on clusters that are not yet ripening evenly.

How long is the ripening period?

It depends on the weather conditions, which will influence the harvest quality. Another phenomenon of this phase: the vine ceases its vegetative growth.

EXPRESSION TO REMEMBER

L’aoûtement — hardening off

This is when the shoots change colour from green to brown.

 

SEPTEMBER

Once the aoûtement takes place, the winegrower prepares for the harvest, to gather the healthy, ripe grapes, free of noble rot (botrytis). The harvest lasts one to three weeks, depending on the size of the vineyard and the weather.

What is the right time to harvest?

This decision is not an easy one, as each vintage is different. Ripeness checks and grape tastings are nearly constant!’

EXPRESSION OF THE MONTH

Ban des vendanges — official opening of the harvest period

The official declaration of the authorised start date for harvests. The word 'ban' originally meant drum roll or fanfare for this event, but now simply means an announcement. Once officially pronounced, the harvest begins.

 

 

Feeling inspired? Join a wine masterclass to continue your journey towards becoming a wine aficionado. Or if all this talk of wine has simply made you thirsty, use our wine finder to order your perfect bottle or find something extra special in our online auction.

 

 

 

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