Looking back on Winter as we start our new season

Rich Williams, Vineyard Manager at Misha's Vineyard
Vineyard Manager Rich Williams provides a summary of the winter activities in preparation for the 2013 vintage season.

Winter tasks in the vineyard progressed well. We had plenty of rain and one of the coldest Winter weeks I can remember, but there wasn’t any snow falling on us in the vineyard for a change this year – touch wood. However we had the usual occurrence of fog which tends to drive us insane if we don’t see the sun for long periods.

Our pruning regime this year was again focused on increasing vigour in our slower vines and maintaining balance within each block.

Sue Reid Pruning Pinot Noir
All of our pruning on 65,000 vines was done by our permanent team of Steve, Sue and I, with careful focus on the needs of each vine – understanding how to look at individual vines and identify their growth habit. This will aid in the management of the vines into the growing season. We have looked closely and accurately into balanced pruning within each block. Having a permanent cordon means that we have limited tools in the arsenal to do this but essentially it means that struggling vines have less bud numbers hence less shoots next season reducing load, and strong vines have more bud numbers hence more shoots next season. I have also instigated some 2-cane VSP in the Gewürztraminer and Riesling in the centre of the Fruit Bowl where vigour has again been strong. Last year they were put on a Scott Henry type system whereby one canopy would go up and one down. This opened up the canopy and was a good option given there weren’t many canes below the fruiting wire. This season the permanent cordon has been removed and the vine can be thinned successfully and a canopy directed upwards giving more control and ease of management.

Our trial organic blocks have had mixed results and some of the weaker vines will have some serious work done on them this season to give them back their oomph. The under-vine vegetation that was allowed to establish did indeed have some benefits of higher levels of organic matter under the vines but it has been especially competitive for water and nutrients with the vines. We will continue trials to determine when the vines may have enough soil OM (Organic Matter) to reduce weed competition issues.

The range of soil types in our vineyard present a challenge getting consistent growth through the seasons and adverse weather conditions also play their part in growth patterns. Looking back on various seasons, we always get off to a good start – good even growth until about November. We then reach a period around flowering where inconsistencies in weather patterns tend to have an influence on the vines’ ability to develop evenly. We get warm periods with drying Nor-west winds during which we supply adequate irrigation and Cal-Nitrate. These are often followed by a cooler change with rain and adverse weather conditions which can make the vines sulk.

There is an untimely coincidence between these weather conditions and how it relates to the soil and condition of the vines and ripening of fruit through these periods. As our climate is not a temperate one, we must find ways of dealing with these events – it would be great if the weather was perfect all the time!

Our prevailing wind dries out the soil quickly and some of our soil does not take up the water and drain as we would like. Upon investigation we have found that there are some areas of clay pans that water just can’t easily penetrate. This means that we don’t have the right components of water and air in the soil for optimum root growth and we either give the vines too much water or not enough. To solve this we have been deep ripping areas of the soil to allow better drainage through the clay pan and increasing organic matter to give a better structure to the soil, allowing drainage and soil micro/macro fauna to give the soil some life to it. Organic matter needs to be broken down by soil insect life before it is converted to humus and is readily available for plant uptake. It really is the only thing that can store precious Nitrogen for plant growth.

Spiking Soil to loosen
We have used a 3.5T digger with a large meter long pick on the end and spiked the subsoil in alternate rows in parts of affected blocks. We have used the same technique to rip each side of the row in alternate rows to help open the soil without having to rip the whole row up. This ripping technique tends to bring up rocks the size of a standard size dining table – and there are many dining tables out there!! We will continue the soil program next year and trial some less aggressive techniques such as simply disking and grubbing the soil to plant a mixed inter-row cover crop. Our mix will have legumes, cereals, and insect friendly host plants which can provide a balance of C:N ratios to break down quickly and provide deep rooting traits to enhance the breakup of the subsoil.

Fertiliser requirements this year have been reduced as our soil is coming back into nutrient balance. Some of our larger blocks have been divided up and tested individually and the differences have been remarkable.

The sheep were back through the vineyard over Winter and have done their job well. As with last year they came here from John Perriam’s Bendigo Station so there may be a future Shrek in amongst them. They are doing a brilliant job at knocking back the vegetative growth under vine and as well as that eat all the old decomposing bunches that have been dropped through last season. The sheep fertilizer will also help the vines thrive through a new season.

Now that Bud Burst is complete and the 2013 season is well underway I will keep a more frequent update on what is happening here.