Seasonal changes are a magical time at the Howard Park vineyards. Not only are the colour changes spectacular to witness, they signify the important stages that occur during the vine lifecycle.
A grapevine is a perennial plant; one that blooms and grows in spring and summer and dies back during the cooler months, repeating this cycle each year.
May has just come to a conclusion and we are certainly in the Leaf Drop stage of the vine cycle. Autumn hues are evident throughout the vineyard, making for a striking backdrop to the Margaret River winery. Over in the Great Southern region, leaf fall happens a little later and the yellows and oranges of autumn will last through to late June.
Late June through July is pruning time for the vines in Margaret River. This plays an important role in the regeneration of vines for the following year. Why? Unpruned vines are generally a bushy mess of leaves and branches which will produce irregular yields. Pruning them each year creates balance – ensuring that energy is focused on growing quality fruit. There must be an appropriate balance between the level of crop and the leaf area on each shoot. The amount of shoots (new growth) is determined at pruning based on the previous year’s conditions. The more buds or shoots left on, the more strain on winter reserves and the capacity of the vine’s root system. However a heavy crop on short shoots can weaken vines and produce high yields of low quality fruit. It’s a constant balancing act!
For the next season we need to focus on preparing the plant. We want to ensure that it captures the maximum amount of light, that leaf bunching is avoided and that risks of disease are reduced. We are trying to give the plant the best chance it has to grow quality fruit, and that starts long before harvest time.
Late August through to mid-September is when we will start to prune the vines in the Great Southern.
A second round of very selective pruning might be done during bud burst to ensure that the desired number of buds are retained for optimal growth.
Budburst will usually occur first in Margaret River in mid-September and then mid-October in the Great Southern. This is the start of new growth, coinciding with spring. Budburst is dependent on soil temperature as well as air temperature. Buds are extremely delicate during this stage. If early budburst is activated by a warmer start to spring then there is potential for damage from cold snaps, heavy rain or even hail, which can have a profound effect on the quality of the fruit set and the resulting yields at harvest.
November is a beautiful time of year when we start to see flowering in both regions, with the Great Southern lagging slightly behind Margaret River.
Grapevine flowers are self-pollinating, without the need for bees. Gentle winds will assist with pollination but it is mostly self-contained to the grapevine.
Once fertilised the flowers form clusters that will eventually become berry bunches.
If required the viticulturist may choose to thin the vines at this stage to remove excess bunches in order to conserve vine energy.
After flowering is complete the vine focuses its energy on leaf and canopy growth to provide the best protective environment for the developing grape bunches
Véraison begins to occur when growth of vine has stopped and the energy is concentrated on the berries. It is quite a magical time as the green berries start to change colour and ripen.
Leaf Canopy thinning is also common at this stage to allow more light and increase airflow. Depending on the vineyard position this might only be done on one side so that the grapes can catch the morning sun. Whilst the leaf canopy is left intact to shade the grapes from the scorching afternoon summer sun.
Grapes continue to ripen and sugar levels rise throughout the period of veraison and after the colour change in berries is complete
When we reach the final stage of harvest, the winemaker will choose when to pick based on the sugar, acid and flavour levels in grapes. There is a proverbial ‘sweet-spot’ that the winemaker is looking for in the grapes, and it is discovered through a combination of lab analysis of the acids and sugars and sensory analysis from eating the grape berries and chewing on the seeds to assess flavour levels and tannin ripeness. When the desired characteristics are obtained the winemaker will schedule in a picking team to capture the fruit quality at this optimum point.
Harvest is a labour-intensive and very busy time at the winery. This year we saw our fruit ripen in steady succession thanks to consistent weather but in other years we’ve seen multiple varieties ripen at the same time, putting strain on vintage teams to harvest and process grapes within the window of opportunity.