I distinctly remember the first time I saw a vintner culling grapes. I was just seven years old, wandering through the vines of a family friend’s California estate, admiring all of the big, juicy grapes hanging from the branches. You can imagine my surprise when I saw one of the vineyard’s workers snip off what looked like a perfectly good bunch of grapes with a pair of scissors, only to throw it into bin filled with dead leaves and other rubbish. I thought, “What a waste of fruit!” It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized the importance of culling grapes from branches. This simple farming technique has the power to create legendary vintages, or add much-needed acidity to a flabby wine. The producers who have mastered this technique are those you’ll want to invest in as a collector, since their wines are more likely to resist miserable weather and maintain consistency across vintages.
Grape Culling’s Impact on Flavor
You can have a perfectly healthy, decades-old vine, but if the grapes reach a certain number per branch, the vine’s quality becomes unimportant. Too many clusters on a single branch results in grapes that have to fight for every little bit of sunlight and water they receive. The result are clusters with small, underripe grapes that make the wine taste sour, green, and overly acidic. However, too few grapes on a branch can also be a problem. Not only will this result in less wine, but the grapes could become too large, and thus, too sweet. When vintners trim back the grape clusters that look smaller and less ripe than others on the branch, they improve the sweetness and size of the remaining grapes without giving them too much space to grow large and diluted. The ideal amount of fruit on a branch is one cluster for every 16 leaves, and some of the best producers work day and night to attain this ratio.
Culling improves the flavor of the wine, but it’s also necessary to keep a chemical-free vineyard healthy. Now that biodynamic winemaking is becoming more popular, many winemakers avoid using pesticides to control the insect population, believing that these chemicals will change the flavor of the wine. One method of natural pest control is to use culling to remove any damaged grapes from the vine quickly. Studies have shown that pests like fruit flies are more attracted to grapes that are crushed or cracked; removing these grapes halts the spread of grape-damaging bacteria that the fruit flies carry from grape to grape.
Experimenting with Unripe Grapes
While most vintners focus on removing grapes, some actively promote the growth of unripe fruit. Winemakers in Washington’s warmest climates tend to produce intense, sugar-heavy wines because the weather is dry and the grapes receive hours of sunlight each day. For many of these winemakers, culling too many grapes can easily create fruit that’s too sugary. Instead, you’ll find some of the best examples of verjus (sometimes called “green juice”) in subregions like Red Mountain. Vintners who grow verjus allow their vines to produce nearly as many grapes as it naturally would like, with little, if any, culling. The only time they cull the grapes is if disease threatens to destroy the entire crop.
This technique works in some of these hotter regions because the grapes used to make the flagship wines already have a great deal of sugar, and a bit of competition from other grapes can help improve their acidity, preventing them from growing too large. Rather than throwing out the underripe grapes, the vintners can then press them and turn them into pure verjus. This acidic, almost vinegar-like wine can then be added to a blend for acidity, or used by chefs in cooking.
How Grape Culling Helps Your Collection
When you know which regions call for the most grape culling, it’s easier to tell which producers and vintages are worth a place in your cellar. As we have seen with Red Mountain’s verjus production, a warm, arid region won’t use the same culling techniques as a cooler area like Alsace. When you’re hunting for fine vintages, be on the lookout for producers in cold regions who talk about culling grapes early in the season, as these will likely be more intense wines compared to producers who didn’t do much culling. Similarly, avoid producers who do much culling early in the season if they grow in traditionally hot regions.
Region alone can’t always tell you whether producers should do more or less culling, since weather plays a major role. Generally, you should look for more grape culling in vintages when the weather was poor, and less culling during ideal weather conditions. For instance, 2010 DRC was plagued by humidity in some vineyards, which caused some of the grapes to rot on the vine. Hail and cold weather further threatened the grapes, slowing down their development and producing many underripe clusters. However, DRC acted quickly, severely culling any grapes that suffered from mildew, were green, or had thin skin. The thick-skinned, robust grapes remained, causing deep, intense wines like La Tache to thrive that year. Grape culling has the added benefit of increasing the rarity of most wines. The lower the overall yield, the more valuable the final wine will likely be on the market.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.