ICYMI, earlier this year we looked at what wineries do in the winter, a period of dormancy that is anything but unproductive. Now, as signs of Spring are beginning to appear, we wanted to return to the vineyards for another important time for growers (maybe the most important): bud break.
Bud break is that crucial moment when vines wake up from their long sleep, using all the energy they've stored in their roots and trunks to push the first green leaves through their protective buds, and marking the beginning of the annual growing cycle.
In Idaho, that usually occurs within the first couple weeks of April, but that too may vary. According to Mike Williamson, co-owner of Williamson Orchards & Vineyards, "We may be a little early, like 5 days, this year, but the next few weeks will be a big influence on that timing."
Tales from the vine
Winemakers like Williamson look toward bud break with anxious anticipation. A lot can happen in the winter that may damage their precious vines — cold snaps, freezing rain, prolonged winters. And how the buds break will tell you how the growing season will unfurl. Already in Southwest Idaho, growers may get a sneak preview of things to come with the early arrival of spring-like weather.
"I am always amazed at how these next two, three months can affect the rest of the year," Williamson muses.
Waiting is the hardest part
Once the buds break, it's another waiting game until Mother's Day when the grapevines bloom. Then growers will see exactly what they're dealing, judged both by the size of the crop and that of the berries.
But winemakers have to remain vigilant. It's not unusual for us to warm up toward the end of February and beginning of March, and then experience a few weeks of cooler weather not long after. Growers have to be ready for anything.
Those first delicate buds are still vulnerable to Spring's many unpredictabilities. Even one frosty night can end a growing season. Heavy winds are another danger, snapping off the shoots of baby buds with ease. Mild temperatures are what you want.
Not too hot. Not too cool.
Fighting off the cold
Luckily, local winemakers have a few tricks up their sleeves to combat Mother Nature's more mischievous moods. On cold nights, giant fans or wind machines in the fields gently stir up the air — pushing warmer currents down to the ground and scuttling the cooler air that normally dwells there.
Perhaps counterintuitively, overhead sprinkler systems also come into play. When temperatures drop, the moisture on the vines forms a protective shell of ice around the bud, keeping it at a safe 32 degrees.
Ready, set... break!
March's warm start has allowed grape growers in Southwest Idaho to get an early start on field work.
At Williamson Orchards & Vineyards, they're busily prepping for future growth. "At this point we are finishing up our pruning," Williamson says. "This is one of the more intensive jobs in the vineyard where we remove last year’s canes to promote healthy balanced growth in the vineyard. I actually find this to be one of the most exciting jobs we do."
Add the mild winter we experienced and you can see optimism growing as well as the vines. The resulting longer growing season gives the wine grapes more time to mature and optimize their sugar levels — allowing growers to produce richer, riper flavors.
"The vines seem so full of potential." Williamson says. "I can see all the dormant buds and can imagine all the fruit that should come and can't help but feel the excitement for the coming year."
Life opens up
Whether bud break comes early, late or on-time this year, one thing is for certain: it's a time of transformation we can all look forward to. After living with winter's drab palette of browns and grays, bud break signals a renewal of life with an immediate burst of vibrant green.
Almost overnight, you'll see entire vineyards transform as more and more leaves push out of their buds, a process called "rapid shoot development". And as it does, a new vintage of Idaho wine is born.
But until then, we wait... And we watch...
For those first buds to break free.
Is this it?
You can almost taste the anticipation.