Work in the vineyard

Making great wine starts out in the vineyard. Château Puybarbe is a great growth as a result to hundreds of small tasks undertaken with care and precision, repeated season after season, sometimes every day.

Seasons in Puybarbe


As wines go into hibernation in the winter, they are pruned. Pruning is about choosing the right fruiting cane and the few buds to leave behind and cutting off everything else. Each bud will produce on average 2 branches of grapes, so the worker chooses the number of buds that produces the best equilibrium of number of buds to compared to an individual vine’s vigor the cane left after winter pruning is then delicately attached to the guide wire in order for it to grow horizontally.


Pruning calls for experience as it is a key contributor to quality of wine produced. Each of our 150 000 vines are first observed, its vigor and balance analyzed, and then “sculpted” to desired form. This is a slow operation and we proceed by our most experienced workers to do the decision making and sculpting assisted by less experienced in removal of the previous year’s growth from the horizontal wires. Our most experienced worker has done the pruning to the same vines for over 40 years resulting in significant familiarity of individual vines.


Work on the soil: The soil at Château Puybarbe is ploughed and earthed-up and unearthed twice a year. This means pushing the soil up around the vines, and later moving it away i.e. flattening it. This protects the vine from the cold weathers of winter. In addition, every second row is “subsoiled”, going beneath the normal depth to enhance rooting of the vines via this “mechanical disruption”. Château Puybarbe uses composted cow manure as the main vine fertilizer, and winter season provides us the time to plough it into the soil.


Other winter work includes checking every vine stake, tie, and guide wire on every plot of Château Puybarbe. In March, to finish off with the winter season, the workers go through each vine, and canes are firmly tied to low wire, stable to start the growth period.


Levage: After winter the vines begin their first stage of the growth cycle. Buds come out, and then shoots begin to grow. First the vines undergo an operation called suckering, where non-fruit-bearing shoots that would sap the vigor from fruit-bearing ones are removed. This is followed by “levage” or “lifting” where the wines are attached by hand to the horizontal guide wires. This is done two or three times to keep pace with vine growth.


Work on the soil: Spring is also the time to work the soil. The soil is screefed and ploughed and earthed up to limit the growth of grass. This work is important also for the vines, as it forces the vine roots to sink deep into the ground to find nourishment, and the deeper the roots dig, the less the vines are prone to excess or insufficient water supply later in the season. Replanting, i.e replacing too old and weak vines also takes place in March and April.


Top Trimming: Flowering takes place between late May and early June. The flowers need to bloom at the same time, so the grapes will ripen together. This is the time when we limit the vertical growth of the uppermost shoots first time by trimming. This topping facilitates penetration of the sun’s rays to the grapes and provides better aeration to the bunches. One key element to high quality wine is homogeneous growth and the work on vineyard focuses to encourage it.


Summer starts when the berries start to take shape, typically last week of June or early July. Work from now on focuses on leaf thinning and overall canopy management. Leaf thinning work takes place after the fruit set, between late June and early July. This enables the grapes to take advantage of the sunlight, but still leaving some protection for them from sun directly overhead. Leaf thinning also provides a free area around the bunches for aeration.
By early summer, each vine has from two to eight bunches. The work now focuses on keeping the bunches from becoming overly compact, and because this entails a risk of rot. The ideal is to produce relatively small, concentrated berries.


Véraison that takes place within the space of a few days in early August. The skins change color and the grapes start to build up the properties that will make them into a high-quality wine. From this point on, the grapes need sufficient nourishment to concentrate sugar and tannin and to ripen well. In a good terroir, véraison coincides with a stop to the vine's vegetative growth. If the vine keeps on growing, it will be to the detriment to ripening.


As the last phase in the vine’s growth cycle, aoûtement, or lignification takes place. The veins turn first red, then brown, and the shoots become hard and woody. The grapes are fragile at this stage, and workers must be careful not to jostle them walking through the vines. The grass is now allowed to grow, as long as it does not reach the level of grape bunches. The grass will now absorb water in place of the vines. Water stress significantly improves the tannin quality.


Determining when to harvest: Analysis phase starts in early September. The vineyard manager and technical director goes through the vineyards bi-daily to evaluate the three kinds of ripeness (tannins, acidity and aroma) of the grapes. All the work done in the vineyards is at stake, so choosing the right moment to harvest is the deciding factor, where also recent and expected weather plays a big role. The aim is clear harvest at optimum level of all three kinds of ripeness in each of the Château Puybarbe’s 48 plots.


The density and power of our wines revolve around a key factor: the grapes are only picked when they have reached the exact desired degree of maturity. In all three kinds of separate ripeness criteria: The first is the maturity in tannins, “phenolic maturity” impacting the structure of the wine. The quality of tannins, the tannic grain impacts how the wine will coat the palate, neither dry or rustic, but rich, concentrated and if possible silky. The second ripeness, technological maturity, concerns the complex balance between acidity and sugar: acidity contributing to the wine’s freshness and balance and providing paradoxical qualities – youthfulness and ageing potential. Sugar levels impacts to the alcoholic degree being the less decisive factor (Puybarbe wines can vary between 13.0 to 15.0°) but the balance between acidity and alcoholic degree is of decisive importance. The third ripeness is aromatic - the natural ripeness of the grape – varying from green to rotten. Grapes are harvested when the plot of vines reaches the fresh state.
The harvest


After the waiting game comes to an end and the grapes have reached the desired degree of ripeness plot by plot harvesting commences. The decision to harvest a certain plot is made from one day to the next and the harvest plan is revised daily. Rain as the only factor can upset things, causing either acceleration or pauses to the harvest. During warm weather the harvest is carried out at nights and ceased when the temperature of grapes exceeds 20°.
In order to harvest "à la carte" according to the ripeness of each grape variety in each plot the Château Puybarbe uses mechanical harvesting and has invested in own harvester machinery. The technical director may decide to pick just a single plot in a full day – or interrupt the harvest for several days, something we could not do without the capacity and flexibility provided by this investment.
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