Greetings from Waipara and Greystone Wines. The hills are alive with the sounds of pickers, bird scare cannons and that distinctive New Zealand exuberance.
I’m in the midst of four days of picking and pruning at Greystone Wines. The extraordinarily deep-timbered Nick Gill – an Aussie transplant from the Barossa Valley – has assigned me to a team of permanent field staff who are only too happy to teach a viticulturally challenged Canadian the ways of the vineyard.
Vineyard managers – retired couple Wendy and Bob – are my mentors. They hand me my snips and a pair of gloves and we follow Nick to the field for our instructions. I can’t help but notice the row upon row upon row (upon row) of Pinot Gris….”Lord these rows don’t end” I think.
We’re green pruning Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir and Nick generously demonstrates (thankfully). Green pruning eliminates the under-ripe grapes that can send a wine’s acidity through the roof. The little buggers blend seamlessly with the vine canopy so it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. We’re also looking for rot or Botrytis – which looks bad (powdery mildew which loves damp, tight clusters of grapes) and smells bad (vinegary, mouldy) but surprisingly – depending on the nature of the rot – can taste good. The good kind of Botrytis – called noble rot – looks like dried, shrivelled grapes but harbours an intense, concentrated collection of flavours that moves the grape into the sweet, dessert wine category. Today, we’re looking for the evil, bacterial rot. We have our orders!
The fieldwork is monotonous. No getting around that. But it’s also very social and the first few days are spent with a team who are wonderfully welcoming and supportive. The group includes backpackers from the US, transplanted Burgundians, a couple of German nannies and a collection of Kiwis. We are a bit of a motley crew – nothing glamorous about fieldwork – but after a few days of realigning my spine (desk work is evil) the job becomes less about guesswork and more about solid viticulture practice. A well maintained canopy means the vine’s energy goes into phenolic ripening (skins, seeds and stems), pigmentation and sugar production vs. into generating more foliage. Vineyard management also involves understanding the soil composition, the delicate balance between fruit and vegetative growth, assessing sun exposure, ground cover strategies, pest management (i.e. nets) all of which contribute to enhanced ripening and flavour profiles of grapes.
Call me a wuss, but I found crop and cluster thinning emotionally challenging. Snipping off those gorgeous, bountiful clusters of grapes seemed wrong….wasteful. But the theory is the best vines are culled to allow the plant to concentrate on producing better quality berries. Over-cropping may result in more berries, but the flavour profile is compromised. And that is one of the key differences between commercial wine production and the wine from a small producer like Greystone.
Certainly, a beautifully maintained canopy is a joy to pick, and Nick Gill – my fellow pickers tell me – is one of the best. I prefer picking to pruning. There’s way more of an adrenaline rush with picking. It moves faster, it’s more deliberate and the eventual results are very satisfying. Pruning is solitary. Picking is teamwork. You pick with a partner from both sides of the vine and you’re supported by vineyard managers who empty your buckets and vet the quality of your picking.
A good vineyard manager helps you appreciate bad picking practices: picking under ripe grapes, missed Botrytis, too many leaves, eating too many grapes (one clump goes in the bucket the other in the mouth), bucket sitting….. and good picking practices: not missing the fruit, keeping up with the team, spotting Botrytis and importantly multi-tasking … pickers who can chat AND pick at the same time.
On Friday, the first block of Pinot Noir was ready for harvesting and Greystone brought in an additional 40 pickers. It’s a hive of activity and traffic and safety management is important when you’ve got that kind of action in the field. The amazing vineyard management team at Greystone has this down to a science and the buzz of energy and activity made Friday’s Pinot picking pretty effing awesome. I mean, how often do you get to breathe the clean sweet air of a vineyard and stare at a glorious ring of mountains, craggy hills and sweeping valleys dotted with sheep and cattle?