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We check in on the vineyard's progress at the end of May

Off with Their Heads: We Graft our Chardonnay to Counoise and Mourvedre

By Levi Glenn

We have been accused of being part of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) contingent, but that wasn’t true... until now.

Grafting Over - Contrast with Roussanne

Since 2000, we've harvested our two-acre Chardonnay block -- originally used to produce vine material for our grapevine nursery -- and used it to make our Antithesis Chardonnay.  We've always intended to graft that block over to the Rhone varietals that are our focus, and in our management review last year we decided the time had come to increase our acreage in the varieties that butter our bread, so to speak. Chardonnay is a challenge here, and while we're proud of the results we've achieved with this grape, its difficulties are significant. It sprouts so early that it's always subject to spring frosts; we've received a full crop off the block just three times in the fourteen years since it came into production. During the summer, Paso Robles is on the warmest edge of where Chardonnay can grow successfully. The cooler vintages (like the 2011 Antithesis that we just released) show excellent varietal character, the warmer years, we feel, less so. And we will have several new grapes to work with in the next few years from our importation of the full collection of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes. We felt that it was better to focus our attention on these new grapes such as Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picardin, Muscardin, Cinsaut and Terret Noir.

I'm sure some people will be sad at the prospect of Tablas not making our Chardonnay, and we understand that. We've come to love the wine too. But it's a good time to make sure that we're focused on our core mission, and we’re excited to have more Counoise and Mourvedre; each will get an acre of the former Chardonnay block.

The decision to re-graft a vineyard provides us with a couple of advantages over just pulling the whole block out and replanting. The infrastructure that is already in place like wires, posts, stakes, and drip-hose can stay in place, saving us potentially tens of thousands of dollars per acre. A newly planted vineyard would take 3-4 years to start bearing fruit, while a re-grafted vineyard only loses out on one year of production. But most importantly, the new vines take advantage of the old vineyard's root system, giving the vines the benefit of deep root penetration, greater resistance to drought and heat spikes, and the ability to concentrate all the character of the soils into the new grapes.

The process is remarkable to watch, with just a sliver of the new grape variety slipped into wedges sliced into the vine's trunk.  These new buds are then wrapped with tape to hold them in place, and we wait two to three weeks for the two plants' tissues to grow together.  The video below shows the whole, amazing process:

But grafting does have its own risks, especially with older and less healthy vineyards. Cutting off the top of the vine is a traumatic event in a grapevine's life, but grapevines are quite resilient, their inherent vigor showing in the suckers they push from their trunk while the new buds are connecting. The photo below shows a photo taken this afternoon, with the new buds starting to swell (under the white tape) while the trunk of the vine also pushes Chardonnay suckers. We'll rub these off once the new buds start growing.

Grafting Over - Buds Pushing

Having a specialized and experienced grafting crew is crucial to being successful. The best crews guarantee at least a 95% success rate, and from my experience they are often more effective than that. As you saw in the video, they make this look easy, but there is a real art to grafting. Already, a few of these little buds have started to push out their first little shoots, and by this time next year we will see little clusters of Mourvedre and Counoise starting to form.

So what’s the antithesis of Antithesis?

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