Shoot Thinning at Zaca Mesa Vineyards

May 18th, 2017

As the cool and windy spring conditions shift to our classic May-Grey weather here in the Santa Ynez Valley, we’ll watch our grapevines at Zaca Mesa Vineyards accelerate to their maximum growth rate.  It’s the time when managing the grapevine’s canopy becomes a top priority and the first stage is called “Shoot Thinning.”

What is Shoot Thinning?

Shoot Thinning is the removal of select grapevine shoots. The removal process begins once the shoot growth has reached greater than eight inches long and when tiny grape clusters are noticeable to the naked eye.

How are the shoots removed?

Only trained vineyard workers do shoot removal work. It is important for the vineyard workers to be very selective over which shoots they remove. Once selected, the unwanted shoots are broken off at their base and dropped to the ground.

Why are some shoots better than others?

When a vineyard worker approaches a vine, there are many factors they must consider when removing a shoot:

Most grapevines develop shoots that are either not fruitful or are less fruitful than others. A normal grapevine shoot should produce a total of two clusters, but in some cases, a shoot may only produce one cluster or no clusters at all. The non-fruiting shoots are typically referred to as water shoots, basal bud shoots, and lateral shoots and are removed so the vine can focus its energy on productive, fruitful growth.

Another factor is a shoot’s position and direction.  Shoots with the superior angles, such as those naturally trending upward towards the trellis wires, are typically kept over the shoots that are heading in a horizontal or downward direction. The removal of these inferior positions keeps the canopy from becoming what we refer to as “California Sprawl” and prevents possible cluster-shading later, which is important in cooler growing regions such as Santa Barbara.

A reduction in the density of the vine’s canopy can be another benefit in cool and foggy regions. Vines are vigorous growers, and by removing some of the dense growth, it allows both sunlight and airflow to filter through the canopy, reducing potential fungal or mold issues later in the growing season.

The quality of the grapes can also factor into the discussion. By removing excess foliage and potential grape clusters, it lowers the amount of fruit each grapevine must ripen to achieve “Vine Balance.” Having the right number of clusters allows the vine to focus their energy on the remaining fruit and foliage, creating healthy grapevines that produce a more concentrated and flavorful grape.

-Dane Campbell, Certified Specialist of Wine & Certified Sommelier (CMS)

Pruning 101

Pictured above: Ruben Camacho, Vineyard Manager, and Eric Mohseni, Director of Vineyard and Winemaking Operations pruning Foxen A (Viognier)

February 1st, 2017

Q&A with Director of Vineyard and Winemaking Operations

Vineyard work is a year-round love affair. After a short break from harvest, our vineyard team returns in January, ready for what will set the tone for the next harvest and beyond. Below are some comments made by our 17 year Zaca Mesa veteran and Director of Winemaking and Vineyard Operations, Eric Mohseni, as he offers some of his pruning philosophies and methods that help Zaca Mesa Vineyards produce some of the most distinctive Rhône-style wines in the region.

1.  What is the most challenging part of pruning?

“Taking your time to find good positions with older vines. As the vine ages and is spur pruned over the years, the spur positions get higher and higher and in some cases come close to the first trellis wire. We prefer to have lower spur positions and locating the right one that is strong enough can be challenging.”

2.  Is pruning an art form, or is there a formula involved —or both?

“It is a bit of both. There is a formula, for instance, on a particular block we will prune 1 or 2 buds and may leave a kicker cane. That is the formula. When you are out there, locating the best position for the kicker cane and identifying the best shoot positions is a bit of an art form. The best pruners are those that can see the future of the vine (1-2 years from now) and decide where the best placements are on the spur.”

3.  How long does it take to prune a vine — of course there are parameters, like the size, age and condition of the vine?  Any estimates on how long it would take one person to prune an acre of vines?

“There are a lot of variables. If there were 2 buds per spur from the last vintage, that leaves a lot of canes (versus if there was 1 bud per spur). When we prune, after you make the cut, you pull the canes out of the wires, and this can slow you down quite a bit, as there tends to be a lot of canes.”

“We like to pre-prune in December, which is basically like a haircut and cuts down the length of the canes. Then, when you go in to prune, there are much shorter canes to pull out. When we pre prune we can prune at about 100 vines per hour, versus no pre-pruning, which can slow us down to about 60 vines/hour. Also, if we decide to leave a kicker cane, it can go slower, as the pruners have to identify the best cane to leave.”

4.  What are you aiming to accomplish when you prune?

“We need to maintain vine form. Vines naturally like to climb. In commercial grape production, vines are generally trained and pruned upright onto a trellis support structure, called “vertical shoot positioning.” This enables the vine to retain a similar shape year after year in order to facilitate ideal canopy management and fruiting zone during harvest.” 

“We also want to regulate the number and positions of shoots on a vine, cluster size and number of clusters. During pruning, one removes buds that would otherwise become new shoots, with new clusters in the spring. By regulating the total number of buds, one is concentrating growth into remaining shoots and clusters.”

“Pruning can also improve fruit quality and stabilize production over time. A given vine in a given season can only produce a certain quantity of fruit. Its capacity to do so is largely dependent on the amount of leaf area and photosynthetic activity. By consistently limiting the number of shoots and leaves by dormant pruning, one is also working to produce the maximum crop while still aiming to achieve vine-balance for the best possible quality.”

5. Do different grape varieties require different pruning?

“Some varietals tend to respond better to cane pruning versus spur pruning, but a lot of those decisions have to do with the conditions of the growing region and vigor of the site. Because of our focus on Rhône varietals matched with a moderately cool site and poor sandy loam soils we have found that spur pruning with vertical shoot positioning is the best match for our site.”

The Art of √Člevage at Zaca Mesa

December 6th, 2016

One of the specialties of our talented winemakers Eric Mohseni and Kristin Bryden is their thoughtful and calculated use of élevage. A term coined by French winemakers, élevage is the art of refining the harsh structure (tannin and acidity) of a young wine, essentially “raising” a wine from its child-like awkwardness to graceful adulthood.

In order to refine a wine’s structure, oak barrels and other aging vessels, such as clay amphorae and concrete, are used by our winemaking team. These different vessels allow our winemakers to craft red and white wines with beautiful textures, purity of fruit and exceptional mineral expression. The greatest benefit of aging a wine in oak, clay or concrete is the ability to let tiny amounts of oxygen interact with the wine throughout the aging process. This controlled interaction between the wine and oxygen is ultimately what improves and polishes the aromatic, flavor and color compounds found in newly-fermented wines.

In our cellar, Syrah is the grape that changes the most from fermenter to bottle. Syrah will start off sharp, bitter and closed and become silky, fruit-driven and aromatically complex in as little as 12-16 months of aging. Syrah’s richness and its ability to integrate oak flavors allows our winemakers to place it into smaller, 60-gallon barrels, where the oak has more impact on the wine. A contrast would be grapes like Grenache and Mourvèdre, where élevage in larger vessels, such as 120-gallon puncheon barrels is proving to have the best impact on the finished wine. These larger barrels typically lessen the oak flavors and oxygen influence on the wine, yet still provide enough influence to smooth out their textures and flavors.

As we continue to master the art of élevage in oak barrels, other vessels such as clay amphorae and concrete vats have been introduced to our wine program over past vintages. These new additions are providing an exciting new array of flavors, textures and mineral expressions never before experienced. We look forward to the impact these new vessels have on the élevage of the current and future vintages, so keep an eye on the horizon for new updates and tasting notes as these wines age and become available!

Cheers from the Zaca Mesa cellar!

Dane Campbell

Zaca Mesa Brand Ambassador & Certified Sommelier