Planting for the future
Planting a new vineyard can be done more or less quickly and easily, but there's more than meets the eye.
This past April, we planted 6,600 new Blaufrankisch vines. Using the machines, it's a quick, one-day job; but behind what looks like a chop-chop-chop-done affair, there's a complex net of decisions and prep, years in the making.
I'll go back to October 2018: we're harvesting Zweigelt from our Slovenské vineyard in Moravský Žižkov. The vintage was excessively hot and the vines suffered from extreme drought, so 50% of the Zweigelt grapes have wilted stems and are unusable for wine, as the dried-up stem tissues couldn't deliver the necessary nutrition to berries which then lost turgor. Half of the grapes remain on the ground, just like a few years earlier, when Zweigelt got decimated by disease. This is the last straw, I say to myself, time to rip these out.
The vineyard was about 15 years old back then, ie. at its peak form, with no gaps after dead vines; sure, the wine does not have a strong personality, but it was an OK blending material. So uprooting it is a bit of a radical move, time- and money-wise. But, once I made that decision, I felt nothing but relief. I took the leap and it was over. Clear cut. Wow. Best feeling ever. No more worries about something that doesn't really work, just looking ahead, to the future.
Since then, I've made a few major decisions like that, and my life has gotten dramatically easier. We don't need to be looking at what the current hype is, we don't need to experiment with the grapes like in the past. Just Veltliner and Frankovka, period. My two darlings, perfect for the soil and climatic conditions we have. Clear vision.
"Just Veltliner and Frankovka, period. My two darlings, perfect for the soil and climatic conditions we have"
I knew it would cost time and money to replant the vineyard in a way that I would be at least moderately happy with. I didn't want to do it in a way that's common here – rip the vines out in autumn and plant a new vineyard the following spring. It is possible, of course. Time is money, I totally understand. But I personally think that although it might not show right away, it will affect the vineyard in some way, sooner or later. So we took the luxury and gave our soil the time to rest, to recover, to regain its strength, for which one needs to leave it fallow for at least 4–5 years. (Josko Gravner once told me he keeps his land empty for up to 7 years.)
We currently have some 5 hectares of empty plots (previously uprooted due to bad health, unsuitable variety–location combination, or other circumstances) and plan to gradually replant some of them, and some not at all. In the meantime, we're doing our best to increase the organic matter and the microbial life in the soil, as well as prepare the best possible planting material.
The best possible for us means that we go for old-vine selection massale, of course. I have been building such a “library” for a long time, picking out sites and plants that I know (or hope) will yield good results. They come both from our own vineyards or from my old neighbours' plantings whose wines I've had the opportunity to drink and liked their flavour profile and habitus. For Gruner Veltliner, we focus on the old, less aromatic clones, where the character is spicier and the grapes ripen later – we don't want to grow Veltliners that tend to an early yellowing of the berries and overripe easily. (It's Gruner, not Gelber Veltliner, right?) In the case of Blaufrankisch, we are looking for the historical ones with loose grapes and very low yields, as we want to use genetic material unaffected by the late-20th-century clonal selection.
The cuttings are then sent to our friend's vine nursery in Germany, to be grafted onto a rootstock – a topic that's currently on my mind as well. We used to work with the SO4 rootstock which is well adapted to our local conditions. But, due to the increasing drought, we are now opting for rootstocks with more drought resistance and a different geotropic angle for deeper rooting, such as Fercal. To me, the drought issue should be approached with a different mindset than just installing drip irrigation.
We're planting the vines using the "double planting" system, ie. two vines in one hole, sharing one support pole. This will increase the density of plantation to some 9,500 vines per hectare. Using single-cane cordon training, we aim at low yields and a good must structure – this type of pruning means that the grapes are produced on the one-year wood part, which naturally produces fewer grapes, a looser grape structure and smaller berries, exactly what we want for both our Veltliners and Frankovkas.
For the Veltliner, we also deliberately plant the rows closer, to keep the sun at bay from the grapes – the challenge for the upcoming years will be how to keep the acids and prevent that the grapes “get baked”. (This is true not only for the whites but the reds as well.) We've already planted some Veltliner like this last year, and Frankovka this April, and we will continue to change the management in some of our other vineyards, in order to prepare for the hot future in time...
We will probably also start to use some slopes that don't quite have south exposure – sites we wouldn't even consider for planting vines 10 or 15 years ago, but now make perfect sense. I don't think it is necessary to eschew the regionally traditional grapes – none of us can imagine that pinot noir will disappear from Burgundy – but I do believe it is necessary to reflect, cultivate and do some things differently if we want to keep making wines with elegance and balance…