Pruning is essential. That is what the production quality and the longevity of the plots depends on. Indeed, the number of buds per plant determines the delicate balance of the vigor; pruning that leaves too many buds leads to a harvest that is too abundant and unable to ripen sufficiently. Conversely, pruning that is too severe leaves vines that are too vigorous, encouraging excessive growth to the detriment of the maturity of the grapes.
There is, not only for each plot, but for each grape variety, an optimal balance that only winegrowers understand with experience.
Winter pruning extends into the spring by a green pruning and bud-thinning. This means avoiding a build-up of vegetation that is harmful to the exposure of future grape clusters to the sun and as well to concentrating the nutrients produced by the leaves towards the branches that support the grapes, which encourages ripening. Lastly, bud-thinning enables the winegrowers to select future branches for thinning in advance.
Great wines are always produced from vines that are at least five years old. So the main objective of our wine-growing practices is to maintain the old vines in production for as long as possible. But their life expectancy doesn’t always fulfill our hopes.
The main solution is to replace the plants, one by one, as and when they die. This is called “complantation”. This practice occupies all our winegrowers for two weeks just after the winter pruning. But it’s only at the price of this difficult work that we’re able to maintain the high density of planting in our plots which allow the harmonious management of the vigor of the vines.
Among all the risks that are the farmers’ lot in life, wildlife and hail are the two most harmful and unfair. In just a few minutes they can reduce to nothing a whole year, or even several years’ efforts. But by some sort of miracle and preventative measures, the great terroirs more often than not, escape these misfortunes.
PROTECTION OF THE VINES
Obtaining grapes that are ripe enough presupposes a perfect control of the ecological conditions of the vineyard.
The problem presented by parasites, insects, and spiders is complex in a different way. We questioned all vineyard protection policies with the objective of finding an alternative method to chemicals to preserve the balance of the insect populations. After a few years of work, we were able to stabilize the situation. Since then, all these populations cohabit and auto-regulates themselves without us having to take any action, or only in an organic way. No insecticides or herbicides are used in our vineyards.
In 2012, Mercer House decided to practice thinning, which consists of removing a certain number of clusters before the start of the ripening period. In most of the young vines, the harvest in practice is too abundant to produce a quality wine; by reducing them at their mid-term, that is to say just before they change color about the beginning of August, we encourage the ripening of the other clusters left on the vine, without increasing the vigor of the plant.
This technique also allows us to select the best grapes and to eliminate those that are badly placed on the vine, or that are already late compared to the others. It is meticulous work and differs for each vine, grape by grape, which gives a good idea of the increasingly precise and rigorous attention given to the care of the vineyard.
The yield from the vines, expressed by their production (pounds of grapes or bottles of wine) is a key factor in the quality of the grapes. Too abundant a harvest never ripens because the vines become exhausted for no other reason than trying to feed too many clusters at once. In order to protect the quality of the wine and the longevity of the vines, Mercer House has fixed a limit that is, in general, the most restrictive in the Southeast.
The density of the plantation in our vineyard would lead very quickly to an impossible tangling of the vines if we didn’t provide good trellising. Primary objectives are to allow free circulation between the rows, on foot or by tractor, and to maximize the exposure of the clusters to the sun, a factor so necessary to their optimal ripening.
The acquisition of the grapes in a perfect state of ripeness is the precondition for producing a great wine; consequently, all our winegrowing practices are directed toward this objective. But by far the most important factor is the terroir: it’s their aptitude to enable the wine varietal to ripen well that distinguishes the greatest growths. To enable a grape to ripen “well” is to ensure that its components, that is to say, sugar, acidity, aromas and tannins, evolve together at the same pace. In South Carolina, we’re lucky enough to enjoy a temperate climate and rich iodine soil, allowing the vines to accompany the grapes in this effort to create the perfect balance.
The objective of manure is to bring to the vine the nutrition that it needs, without excess that would increase the vigor to the detriment of the quality and in respect to the environment. In all cases, we only use organic fertilizers that integrate naturally into the environment that is brought in the form of manure composted for at least a year.
At the end of the year’s work comes, at last, harvest time. Everything is finished, or nearly finished: the ripening is completing “August develops the must”, the great balances are happening, or not, in the grapes. However, a bit of suspense remains, because it’s in these last days that a good vintage still has a chance of becoming great. First, we have to choose the date, examine the grapes and analyze them, squeeze them, feel under our fingers and our tongue the softness of the pulp and the firmness of the tannins; ignore the big clouds rolling around in the sky in order to gain several more days and allow the Muscadines to finally reach perfect ripeness. In the meantime, we’ve formed our pickers into two-man teams, who, instead of experience, bring us their willingness and their good humor. The pickers, more than half of whom come back year after year, receive training.
The thinning operations in the summer have already allowed us to dispose of the unwanted clusters but a last rigorous sorting is imperative. The responsibilities come back directly to each picker and then to a specialist for a final sorting before the grapes are stored on ice for up to thirty days.