How does a varietal’s root stock affect the final product?

By / Magazine / November 7th, 2017 / 9

Artisanal bread varies in style — a lovely expression of art and raw materials. Naturally we credit the baker and not the quality of the raw ingredients, but is this a fair assessment? What about wine? We credit the winemaker and focus on the finished product. Is that fair? I asked growers in Canada and in Portugal about their vineyards and what it takes to produce stellar wines. Their surprising New World/Old World answers make perfect sense.

Richard Cleave: “90 percent of the work it takes to make excellent wine is done in the vineyard.”

Phantom Creek Vineyard in Oliver, BC, is one of the most revered in Canada. Ranked as one of the top ten vineyards in the world, this special seven-acre parcel produces a limited quantity of superior grapes. Owned by master vineyard manager Richard Cleave, Phantom Creek Vineyard supplies Cabernet Sauvignon (three clones), Syrah, Malbec, Petit Verdot and a few Merlot and Cab Franc grapes for Sandhill’s Small Lots program. I met Mr. Cleave at his home, which is surrounded by his vines. I wanted to know his grape-growing secrets. The first, he tells me, is to love what you do.

RC: My hobby is grape growing. I’ve been doing it for forty years and can count the days I didn’t want to work on two hands.

It is also important to love hanging out at “The Beach.” Cleave’s cheeky nickname for his vineyard sprang from its sandy soil. He chose the property because its sand allowed him tight control over vine growth through rootstock and irrigation. With his four decades of Okanagan vineyard experience, he made careful choices.

RC: Vines need irrigation and nutrition. Grape growing is simple but it takes damn hard work to do the job properly.

Although many vines in the Okanagan, especially hybrids, are planted directly on their own roots, Cleave chose to use a rootstock called Riparia Gloire de Montpellier (RGM). Rootstock is just that: grapevine roots with a stem that will accept a grafted grapevine of a different varietal and raise and nurture it like an adopted child. Today’s rootstocks have superior resistance to phylloxera (root louses that once decimated vineyards), drought and nematodes (parasitic nasties). He buys one-year-old already-grafted rootstock from Ontario. After the first year of growth, Cleave cuts the vine back to two buds and in the second year grows a trunk. In the third year, he crops a little and in the fourth, and thereafter, it is a full crop.

Cleave chose RGM rootstock because it is the most restrictive. This firm parent supplies only enough food and water for a minimum of canopy (leaf) growth, which is what Cleave was aiming for. Allowing just enough leaves ensures that most nutrients are spent making great grapes. Restricting irrigation and strategically removing leaves and lateral shoots to allow dappled light on the grapes on the south side (so they don’t overheat) and to expose them on the north side (for air circulation) offers the optimal environment for grape tastiness. Cleave also plants more vines per acre, but restricts each vine to 2.75 pounds (for Cabernet Sauvignon, for example) and prunes bunches if they get too heavy. Everything is focussed on quality, not quantity.

RC: It takes you 10 years to learn grape growing. I still learn something new almost every day.

I asked about field blends, an old method of planting more than one varietal in a vineyard based on different soils, sun and wind exposure, and the preferences of each grape varietal. Cleave likes the idea of having the grapes ripen at the same time and fermented together, since the resulting wines are more smoothly integrated — blends from different fermentations are not as much so. He works very closely with Howard Soon, master winemaker, Sandhill Wines, in Kelowna.

RC: I trust him [Howard] implicitly.

Howard Soon: Trust is the key element. We [Richard and I] can talk about anything.

They met in 1980 when the grower was “progressive and always pushing for ways to be more efficient” according to the winemaker. Now solid partners in wine, their names and signatures on the back of Sandhill’s bottles demonstrate their connection.

HS: As far as I know, Sandhill is the only company that puts the names of the grape grower and winemaker on the bottle.

Soon has great respect for growers, their vineyards and their importance to his wine.

HS: Terroir links geography, grapes and the grower. It is a combination of a single vineyard, plus the knowledge of the humans who know how to grow grapes there, in that specific spot. Many successful growers live with — or close to — their grapes.

I wondered how much great wine owes to grapes and how much is winemaker expertise. Cleave says it is 90 percent grapes. Soon, a very humble guy who works with a team of four winemakers, was less specific.

HS: Great wine always starts with great grapes, but doesn’t end there. Those grapes have to be handled gently and respectfully.

As a demonstration of how harmoniously the winemaker and grower work together, Soon asked Cleave for suggestions about how to improve the wine before the 2013 harvest. His answer was straightforward: try blending before fermentation, not after. In response, half the harvest was blended and barrel fermented, while the rest of the varietals were fermented individually. The results will be bottled soon, but from what I tasted in the co-fermentation barrel, and Soon’s declaration that blending and barrel fermenting is the way to go, the 2013 Sandhill ONE will be seamlessly sublime.

In Europe, cultivated grapes marched in with the Romans. Knowledge and skills were passed down from generation to generation and while today’s viticulturists study to learn their craft, many also have the advantage of good genes.

Gonçalo Sousa Lopes, grower: My dad and my grandfather were involved with wine.

Rui Cunha, winemaker: My great-grandfather founded the Port House Adriano Ramos-Pinto.

I interviewed grower Gonçalo Sousa Lopes and winemaker Rui Cunha from Portugal’s Covela estate on the right bank of the Douro River, to find out how they work together to produce exceptional red, white and rosé wines.

Sousa Lopes manages 19 hectares of Covela vineyards where vines are between two and 25 years old in south-facing terraced vineyards that form a natural, sun-catching amphitheatre, plus another 40 hectares at Boavista, Covela’s sister property in the DOC Douro region.

GSL: The decision about what varietal/clone to plant really depends on the type of wine you want to make, the soil type and the climate. At Covela, each [small] plot is planted with a single varietal. Planting mono-varietally makes it easier to prevent diseases, and it is better to have separate varietals for the blending process later.

While Sousa Lopes chooses to plant single varietals, he also tastes the value of field blends.

GSL: At Boavista we have traditional Douro field blends. In new vineyards, field blends would not be an advantage because they are generally more difficult to tend due to the different sensitivities of each grape to various types of diseases and pests, and because each varietal has its own ripeness point. I do, however, have to say that wines produced from field blends are generally more complex.

As vineyards in the Douro Valley are not irrigated, roots have to penetrate deeply to find the water they need. Temperatures in the summer reach 40˚C, so leaves also have work to do. Our Old and New World growers agree about the importance of rootstock and pruning.

GSL: We use rootstock with a root system capable of digging deep. They are able to produce vines of low to medium growth and low yields of fruit. I always plant for the best quality. We prune so we leave shade over the grapes during the hottest hours of the day, but take care not to create too dense a canopy that can shelter unwanted humidity and cast impenetrable shade over the inner leaves.

Sousa Lopes and Rui Cunha work together to ensure grape excellence.

RC: We are a team. Meetings where we hold key discussions and decisions are held several times a year. Of course, as the harvest gets closer, the number and rhythm of meetings also intensify. From visiting the site, looking at the soil, seeing the balance of the vines and tasting the berries, I can be nearly 100 percent sure that this particular vineyard will produce an excellent wine. And of course I immediately start thinking what the wine will be.

Great wine, like great bread, stems from passion and devotion. No matter how you slice it, these growers and winemakers demonstrate that respect — of land, of vines, of grapes, and of each other — is as integral to excellence as sunshine.


Brenda McMillan is thrilled by new sights, sounds, aromas and flavours, and old buildings, barrels and friends. She travels at the drop of a corkscrew and is always "just back" from somewhere.

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