Great wines begin in the vineyard. The wine’s body and character comes in large part from the grapes, whose quality, sugar content, and flavors depend on factors like vine varietal, clone type, planting layout, and culture techniques. Managing the fermentation and aging of the wine in the cellar is certainly important, but the influence of the grapes on the final result cannot be understated.
The basic approach to growing superior grapes is simple: small quantity makes better quality. Vineyards are planned, planted, and cared for in such a way as to obtain the amount of grapes per plant that gives the best possible quality. This amount turns out to be around 1.5 kg (3 lb) of grapes /plant.
In 1997, myself, my brother Fabio, and our father Adriano, decided to invest in renewing all our vineyards, to take advantage of improvements in clonal selection and cultivation technique that had taken place in our region during the previous two decades. During the following 3 years we gradually pulled out all the old vines and replanted them according to modern criteria. In addition, we began to expand our production capacity by acquiring new plots of land. This operation is still ongoing.
It is very important to plant varietals, clones, and rootstocks (the vine on which the varietal clone is grafted) that are well suited to the environment of the plot. Thus, soil and climate characteristics are assessed before choosing what to plant. In plots where the soil is particularly heterogeneous, it might be necessary to use different rootstock or clones in different areas of the plot.
It is also very important to select clones of varietals that give better than average grapes. To illustrate the process, here is what we did for our “Ornella” vineyard. The soil characteristics, sun exposure, and local temperature and humidity indicated that this plot is well suited for the Barbera varietal. A very old (90+ years) Barbera vineyard already existed on this plot, so we operated a selection among these plants to find the ones yelding grapes suitable for a high quality, distinctive wine. Nine plants from an initial selection were monitored for two years, carefully assessing the grape quality at harvest time. After tests in a specialized laboratory in France ensured the absence of disease, the best four of these plants were used to produce the grafting material to be inserted in the rootstock for planting.
Initially, only two rows of newly grafted, young vines were planted (called “Vigneto Adriano” in memory of our father, who had since passed away), so that small batches of wine could be produced and its quality and characteristics assessed before planting the entire vineyard. After this final selection, some of these vines were used to produce all the grafted stock necessary for the entire “Ornella” vineyard.
In summary, this vineyard has been generated from the best existing plants through a careful, multi-step, multi-year selection. In so doing, we built on the patient work of the farmers who had tended this vineyard long before us, leaving us a collection of vines already well adapted to this particular location. While our purpose was to obtain a superior wine with unique characteristics, we managed to preserve local clones of Barbera that would otherwise have been lost. In this way, we gave our small contribution to the preservation of biodiversity, which is as important in viticulture as in all agricultural endeavors.
To obtain good grapes plant production must be limited, and setting the right plant density is a very important step towards this goal. Plant density affects grape quality by setting the amount of nutrients and light available to each plant. Studies have shown that a density of about 4800-5200 vines per herctare gives the best results. Our vineyards are layed out with rows 2.30 to 2.70 m apart, depending on the slope of the land, with the plants 0.8 m apart within each row. The trellis height is between 1.70 and 1.80 m. These dimensions result in an optimal trellis surface of around 1 m2 /plant.
In the past, vineyards used to be tilled to eliminate grass. In modern viticulture, however, the grass that quickly covers the ground after planting is seen as beneficial. There are a number of reasons: first, grass slightly reduces grape production through competition with the vines for soil nutrients. Second, mulching the grass mantains a healthy level of organic matter in the soil, improving its structure and aeration; and third, it keeps the ground firm enough to allow the transit of tractors and machinery during wet periods. For these reasons, all our vineyards are kept grass-covered.
The pruning systems that we adopted are the Guoyot, used only in steep-sloped plots, and the “spurred rope“ (Cordone speronato) in all others. Since 2002 we are collaborating with Professor Guidoni, of the University of Turin, in a comparative study of the two pruning systems on the Barbera varietal. So far we have determined that the spurred rope reduces the production per plant by 3-5 %, and yields bunches of grapes spread further apart from each other, which improves air circulation and helps to prevent mold attacks during ripening.
This technique is also less labor intensive, and might be amenable in the future to mechanical removal of the pruned wood.
Since 2009 we are carring out studies, also with the University of Turin, on the efficacy of Giberellin treatment to further reduce grape production. Giberellins are natural hormones produced by all plants that regulate growth and stem length. In grapevines, they can cause flower-producing shoots to form tendrils instead. They aslo cause the grapes to form thinner bunches, which helps prevent the formation of mold.
Finally, the grapes are manually thinned at the beginning of maturation. This operation is labor intensive, but is necessary to bring grape production closest to the ideal 1.5 kg (3 lb) per plant and thus maximize quality.
Grape Handling in the Cellar
At harvest time, the batches of grapes coming from different vineyards are vinted individually, in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats. The fermenting jiuce is circulated from the bottom to the top (“rimontaggio”), over the grape skins that float on the liquid. This operation is essential to optimally extract flavors and colors from the grape skins, and its intensity varies with varietal and the grape characteristics of a particular year.
The newly vinted batches are then tasted and analyzed chemically. Blending is then carried out where necessary to optimize the body and character of the wine. When blending is not carried out, the single vineyard origin is indicated on the bottle.
Our approach to sustainable agriculture is to adopt processes and invest in products and technologies that minimize the impact of our activities on the environment. The water used to rinse new bottles is reused in the spray treatments for the vines. We apply the most biodegradable products on the market, an use the latest “low volume” sprayers for this work, to further conserve water. We have a temperature and humidity recording station to determine when to treat for disease, to minimize chemical applications. All of this reduces the use of machinery, and therefore contributes to a reduction in CO2 emissions.
La Famiglia Fracchia
Fabio & Mauro