Springtime is always associated with growth—flowers are blooming, leaves are growing back on the trees, and for the Napa Valley, the upcoming vintage of fine wine whispers hello with buds breaking through on the vines. Perhaps, in your own adventures with wine, you have learned about the vineyard growth cycle and how vital it is to make the great wine we lovingly share with friends and family.
This post is meant to supplement the knowledge you may already have about the vine growth cycle. Napa Valley is an amazing place to visit because no matter what the season, there is always profound growth occurring in the vineyards and in the wineries, whether or not it is visible. From budbreak, flowering, fruit set, veraison, harvesting, leaf fall, and dormancy.
We will start where we are now, in springtime.
Bud break- Early Spring
The annual growth cycle begins in springtime with bud break. Here in the Napa Valley, buds break around March while the daily temperature begin to exceed 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Tiny buds literally swell and burst—kicking off the growth of shoots, which can grow up to 1 inch per day.
Sometimes, warmer days in summer can be at risk of premature bud break—which then can result in premature buds becoming vulnerable to frost damage. We do not face this decision often in the Napa Valley. We are very fortunate to have extremely attentive and dedicated vineyard managers who use wind circulators and heaters to keep cold air from settling on the vines during this time.
Around a month or two after bud break, when temperatures stay between 59-68 degrees Fahrenheit, flowering begins. Small flower clusters appear on the tips of the young shoots, and in this stage the grapevine pollinates itself, resulting in the eventual product of a grape berry. This period of time is when next year’s crops begin to form.
Fruit Set- Late Spring/Early Summer
This stage rapidly follows flowering, when the fertilized flower begins to develop a seed and grape berry. This is a critical stage because it determines the potential crop yield, and thus how much wine will come from the harvest.
At a certain point, the vigorous shoot growth that has occurred during the spring must be managed to ensure optimal grape production and ripening. A complex process, canopy management refers to a variety of decisions and actions related to leaf removal, vigor management, shoot thinning, and shoot positioning. The goal here is to achieve the perfect balance of shade, sunlight, and air circulation around each cluster, which promotes optimal ripening.
Immediately following fruit set, the grape berries are small, green, and hard to the touch. At this stage, the grapes have very little sugar but are high in organic acid. Veraison brings about color change—so some of the green berries ripen and turn red/black or yellow/gold depending on the varietal. But why does the color change? The colors change due to cholorphyll in the berry skin being replaced by anthocyanins in red wine grapes, and carotenoids in white wine grapes. The grapes soften as they collect sugars, and grow as they accumulate glucose and fructose and acids fall.
Interestingly, the onset of veraison doesn’t occur uniformly among all grapes on a cluster. The grapes most exposed to warmth on the outer extents of the canopy undergo veraison first with the berries in the most shade closest to the trunk see veraison last.
Harvest- Late Summer/Fall
- Harvest time is the magical period in which the grapes are hand picked from the vine and transported to the winery to begin the winemaking process. The exact time of harvest is subjective, usually determined by how individual winemakers and viticulturalists define ripeness. As the grape ripens, sugars increase, and acids decrease while tannins and other phenolics also develop. At Frank Family, we harvest overnight almost exclusively to preserve acidity and freshness in the grapes.
- Crush: This is when red wine grapes that were just picked enter the de-stemmer and come out the other side as individual berries. The grapes are then sorted by hand or with an optical sorter to make sure only fruit with particular qualities make it through. Grapes are gently crushed and sent to an appropriate vessel to ferment on their skins. White wine grapes, on the other hand, are placed into a press that gently squeezes the whole bunch to release its juice, which is then transferred to a fermentation vessel without the grape skins.
- Fermentation: The age-old process of yeast converting sugary grape juice into wine. At Frank Family, our chardonnays are barrel fermented and goes through malolactic fermentation to create complex, creamy notes. Our pinot noirs will typically sit on the skins for several days before fermentation in a cold soak to extract color from this thin-skinned, red variety. Cabernet Sauvignon and our other thick skinned varieties often spend more time on the skins after fermentation to soften the tannins and create deeper color and denser mouthfeel in the finished wine.
- Aging: During the aging stage of our wines, Todd uses exclusively French oak to develop flavors in and impart flavors onto our wines. Depending on the variety, Todd will age the wine inside the barrel for a different amount of time.
- Bottling: Deciding when to bottle and which bottle to put the finished wine in is another highly subjective experience.
Pruning is a highly skilled vineyard practice that takes place over an extended period of time. The purpose is the guide the vine in certain directions and for particular purposes.