A Year in an Indian vineyard – Sula Vineyards, Nashik

Sula winemaker, Ajoy Shaw’s account of a year in a vineyard is fascinating and provides an insight into what it means to say a good wine is made in the vineyard

Bunches at veraison. The small bunch at the back shows green and coloured berries while most bunches have changed colour and are now starting to accumulate juice and softening  (December end to early January)

January 1 It is the first day of the New Year and it seems everything is new and has changed overnight. Most of the vineyards have grapes that are growing in size and also changing colour. Nearly all the bunches look the same, with hard berries softening, while sugar is starting to build in the early ripening varieties. The French call this process of change veraison. The winemaking team and I are visiting the vineyards to check the early ripening varieties and the vines that were pruned earliar. Each grape variety takes a specific time from pruning to ripeness, which can be as much as 120 days for Sauvignon Blanc and 180 days for Cabernet Sauvignon. We have started sampling in the vineyard and visit it every seven to 10 days to collect random berries to analyse them for sugar, acid, quality of tannins and flavours. Once the right levels are reached, I will request the viticulture team to ask the grower to harvest the plot.
Visits to vineyards are now increasing and I am proving inputs to the team on culling (dropping excess fruit) wherever necessary. With harvest just round the corner, only sulphur dust will be sprayed if needed to control powdery mildew or spider mite attacks. Sulphur is allowed even in organic vineyards but I tell the team that care needs to be taken to avoid excess, else it can lead to problematic fermentations.
Back at the winery, we are emptying out tanks for harvest by bottling the wines left over from the previous vintage. In preparation for the harvest, I have already asked the maintenance team to ensure that all the harvest equipment, like presses, destemmers, grape sorting machines, hoppers, pumps and other grape receiving equipment, is cleaned, overhauled and serviced.

January 7 Today is the first day of harvest and I have instructed the team to ensure that the early morning shift workers have washed and sanitised the equipment to receive the grapes. I make a thorough check. The grapes for making white wine are being taken to pneumatic presses while the reds are getting de-stemmed. After destemming this “must”, composed of whole berries, juice and skin, is taken to the tanks through a tube in the tube chiller, while the juice from green or white grapes in the pneumatic press is taken to the tanks through a plate and frame heat exchanger and chilled down to retain freshness.

January 9 After a day’s rest, the white juice is inoculated with yeast while the red must is still soaking at cold temperatures to extract the best colour and flavours. Once the reds start fermentation the juice needs to be pumped over the skin and the berries to extract even more flavours and tannins. I discuss the pump-over schedules for the coming days after tasting the various musts from each tank. Both white and red fermentations need to be monitored to check proper drop in sugar levels and temperatures. Temperatures too high or too low can stop the fermentation, while high sugars remaining in the juice or must could be a potential spoilage hazard. A few white wine tanks are to be watched closely for leftover sugar so that the fermentation can be stopped at the right time by chilling the tanks. This will leave behind no more than the required level of sweetness in the wine.
Reds require a lot of care and attention and daily tasting of fermentation tanks is essential to decide pump-over schedules, following maceration and the racking of juice from the skin. The red team and I taste the samples collected after each pump over. Many tanks are still light and have the potential to pick up more tannins from contact with the skin. One of the tanks is showing a good structure along with juicy fruit and since the tannins are well developed, I decide that the tank can be pressed tomorrow.

January 19 Today is the first pressing of a red tank. The liquid wine is drained off the skin or must and collected in an empty tank. I personally set the pressure of the pneumatic press to allow for a short programme with moderate pressure of about 1.4 bars. I taste the pressed wine fraction and decide to keep it separate from the free run collected earlier. This will give us some more options during the blending stage of the wines. The best wines are moved to barrels while the others stay in tank. This is a particularly good red wine lot and deserves to go into barrel for malolactic fermentation. More average lots will complete their second fermentation in tanks. Malolactic fermentation is needed to round off the wine by converting the sharp malic acid to a rounder and gentler lactic acid.

February and March The grapes continue to come in for the next 45 to 60 days. The winemaking team and I are on the same daily morning routine of vineyard visits, sampling of grapes and assessing fruit maturity. Harvesting the first few tons is comparatively easy with many empty tanks to spare. But as the crush proceeds, meticulous and precision planning is needed to allocate separate tanks for trial lots. I allocate almost two hours daily for this activity – to decide on whether to keep lots separate or to pool similar quality and grapes. With about 30 different wines to produce, this harvest planning is very important.

April sets in The grapes have finally stopped coming in and it is a relief to see the harvest getting over. But still, a lot of work remains. Most fermentations have finished, some are finishing and just a few reds need to be pressed. Many of the finished fermentation lots need to be cleaned of the yeast by racking the wines off the resulting sediments (lees). We taste the just-fermented wines throughout the day, taking decisions on pooling lots, barrelling down wines and racking lots. Pressing of some of the last Cabernet Sauvignon caps and must (a cap of grape skins forms on the surface of fermenting red wine) is continuing while a few white fermentations (especially some Viognier and Chenin Blanc) are ending. The same process of cleaning of the wines continues till mid May.

April end It is the end of April and the brand new wines have to be filled in top tanks and covered with inert gas. Proper racking and gassing schedules are being set up. I have been discussing this with the team and looking at lab analysis numbers. All wines need to be maintained at the correct sulphur dioxide levels to keep them microbiologically stable. In the vineyards, pruning has begun, to get rid of the old and tired foliage. Each shoot is being pruned back to one or two buds. This is called back-pruning and is unique to India as we do not have a dormant season for the vines after harvest.

A close-up of sprouting

May sets in It is nearly May and new sprouts have emerged after just about 10 days of pruning. We are setting up a plan for the next one month to provide adequate nutrition to the vine to build up reserves for the second cycle later in the year. We remove unwanted small sprouts or suckers to prevent crowding of shoots and also drop a few bunches that have come up. Sunlight penetration through the vine canopy is crucial at this time to help lignification of the new shoots and the development of buds that will turn into grapes during the next cycle. Cultivators are being used in the vineyard alleys to break up the soil for air to permeate to the roots. Mounding is being done, mulching or putting dried grass close to the vines is done to prevent water evaporation during these hot months of April and May.

Early June It is early June at the winery and we are evaluating and grading the hundred plus wine lots produced this season. We are also drawing conclusions from the various trial blends that were conducted. Once volumes and quality parameters are met, the blends are confirmed with the winemaking team and management. I hand the instructions for blending in the desired proportions to the cellar master. The blending is then done in the cellar or tank hall. After tasting the blended wines, if everything is fine, the wines will go for filtration or kept for further maturation in the case of reserve wines and young reds. For sparkling wines, the blended still wine is filtered lightly and filled in bottles for the second fermentation which results in the bubbles. This lot or cuvée is bottled every few months to allow proper aging of each batch during secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Mid-June The monsoon has arrived and irrigation by drip lines is no longer needed, but he vines have a new problem – flooding in the vineyard. With the first rains, we are now sowing seeds for leguminous grasses and plants in the alleys. These give rise to “cover crops” which naturally fix nitrogen in the soil and prevent water logging. They also harbour friendly predators that feed on other insect pests reducing the damage inflicted by them and the need for pesticides. The cover crops are being monitored to ensure that they are mown well before their flowering, otherwise the amount of nitrogen fixed in the soil will wane. The vines, now hit by continuous rain, are being sprayed with copper and sulphur to prevent fungal infections like downy mildew and powdery mildew.

July to September The monsoon months of July, August and September are here and it is less busy now with blended wines being stocked at the winery. The wines are getting filtered and kept ready for bottling for the peak season which starts in October and ends only by the New Year. I give orders for the dry goods, such as bottles, screw caps, labels, foils and corks which will be required during the season before the bulk of the bottling begins.

Pruning the vines in September

September It is September and I sit down with the viticulture team to make the plan for second pruning of the vines. Vineyards are assigned pruning dates considering the various soil types, weather conditions and grape varieties. A delay in pruning by one day means a delay in harvest by almost a week. The vines are being pruned to leave behind four or six buds on each shoot depending on the health of the vine and the crop requirement. The vine will again sprout in 10 days’ time giving rise to shoots that will result in grape bunches. Visits to the vineyards are essential at this time to ensure the vines have been pruned at the right time and to the right number of buds. A higher number of buds would mean a higher crop but reduced quality while too few buds mean faster ripening and lower yields.

Shoots appear on the vines after pruning, September end to early October

October It is early October, and the activity of removing extra shoots and small shoots is proceeding at a feverish pace. Checks for pests and diseases become crucial during this hot and humid month as the tender leaves and grape buds are developing. Tying of shoots to trellis wires and arranging the canopy is also being done. We are also increasing new plantation by undertaking in-situ grafts on rootstock that was planted earlier in the season. The high humidity ensures a good bonding of the scion (desired grape variety) with the rootstock, ensuring a high success rate for the grafts to survive. At the winery, we are placing orders for new requirements of machinery and equipment for harvest so that they can be here in time.

November It is November, and bottling lines are running around the clock producing bottles. Ensuring quality is a yearlong process but it turns critical now with such a large number of bottles being produced each day. Various quality checks are being carried out including sulphur dioxide levels, dissolved oxygen levels and torques needed to open the screw caps, with the most important check being the sanitation of lines and the final taste of the wines at bottling. Proper traceability records are being maintained and control bottles are kept for reference.
Meantime in the vineyard, the flowering has started and the fruit set is happening. Tiny bunches are seen with tiny berries after the flowers have fallen off. A proper estimation of yields is necessary and vineyard visits are taking place to monitor this and the ratio of fruit to canopy for suitable ripening. Any extra bunches will be dropped now and excess leaves removed for sunlight penetration. We check the vineyards for the proper development of the bunches and to resolve any issues of pests or infections.
Barrel requirements for the next year’s harvest are being calculated and orders placed. We are now also ordering the yeast and other consumables, as well as the next set of dry goods, considering the capacity of tanks to be emptied out before the harvest.

December It is December and the bottling operations are continuing at breakneck speed. Visits to vineyards are also increasing as the grape berries and bunches grow in size. Most annual new plantations are happening this month using already grafted plants procured from nurseries. Ripping of the new vineyard land has been carried out and the new vines are being planted after laying down drip irrigation lines. The posts along with a proper trellis system are being put in place to support the new vine and the future canopy.
A full year has passed and the New Year will bring another harvest, requiring hectic visits to the vineyard, meticulous planning of crush, monitoring of vineyards, fermentations, filtrations and bottling activities.
And so it goes on, year after year.