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cattleya January, 2015
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Annual Ritual: The Winterization of Hillside Vineyard

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Some questions to ask about winter in the vineyards:

  1. Why should we care so much about doing all we can to avoid the erosion of vineyards planted on hillsides?
  2. Why do winegrowers plant on hillsides when it would be so much easier to utilize the gentler, flatter areas of the countryside?
  3. And what about those timeless Romans who have always created the most amazing terraced vineyards throughout Europe?

This season’s blog is about winterization and understanding the work that goes on throughout what might be the “quiet time” of the year, in the quest for amazing wine. Once harvest is complete, and the grapes are fermenting gently in their vats, we focus on preparing the vineyards for winter cold and rain.

To prepare the vineyard, a few steps must take place:

  • • Analysis of soil amendments and resulting adjustments needed to improve the health of the soil and mineral balance.
  • • Addition of compost and seeding of cover crops in between rows
  • • Distribution of straw, placement of wattles, digging V-ditches and ultimately creation of “French drains” to reduce the impact of rainwater running through the rows, dragging the topsoil to the bottom of the hills.
  • • Collecting soil that has moved to the bottom of the hills and moving it to the top of the hills — all done by hand as in past centuries.
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So, allow me to answer some of these timely and fascinating questions:

• Why do we care about avoiding erosion?

Well, erosion means that topsoil on any given farmed land has moved down a hill due to the effects of weather — mainly wind and rainfall. So, each year, on hillside plantings, soil will tend to move down the hill, all the while reducing depth of the topsoil. Over generations, it would become impossible to continue farming, as we would reach rock beneath. Farmers need to preserve the topsoil by keeping the microflora, microfauna, and texture of the soil healthy and stable.

Furthermore, caring for the soil is a long-term investment. Caring for the topsoil is essential for the long life and productivity of a vineyard. Therefore, limiting erosion and nurturing for the soil is essential to our survival as winegrowers.

• Why do we plant vineyards on hillsides?

Mainly because hillside areas are more perfectly exposed to the sun and other natural elements. Additionally, hillsides are by nature more stressful on the vines. The perfect amount of stress for vineyard growth is important in order to obtain concentration, intensity of flavors, and quality of tannins. As an example, the vast majority of the top Grand Crus from around the world are planted on hillsides.

• What did those wise Romans know?


Throughout the expansion of the Roman Empire, it was common knowledge that shallow soils on the hillsides produced the best wines in all countries across the Mediterranean region.


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And the work paid of! After the cumulative 15 inches of rain we received in less than a week this past December of year 2014, the inspection of our vineyard rows proved very satisfactory … only a few shovels full of sandy soil needed to be brought back to the top of the blocks.

At the Soberanes Vineyard, Mark Pisoni does similar intensive work to protect the topsoil from erosion. Conditions in The Santa Lucia Highlands, where only a few inches of rain fall each winter (average 4-5” per year), are quite different from the western Sonoma Coast. Regardless of the lighter rainfall, they don’t limit their efforts to insure that cover crops, straw, v-ditches and drainage are improved in between rows and around driveways. Water is then diverted to areas where drainage is optimum and out of vineyard-planted acreage.

In steep European AVAs such as Côte-Rôtie and across the Rhône Valley, as well as in Alsace, Burgundy, Languedoc, and in general for all acres planted on hillsides in countries along the Mediterranean, you will still encounter the traditional terraces and beautiful cover crops growing during the winter/spring, protecting the soil from moving away.

So, as we are just at the end of January and expecting (hoping for!) more inches of rain to bless us, we’re happy to see the results of our intensive, protective care of the topsoil being effective in a winter of lots of rain — rain most needed in California after few years of a troublesome drought.

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From Sonoma County, CA.
Bibiana González Rave