Auxerrois in the Puget Sound AVA

AuxerroisPaul Gregutt wrote an article a while back about the grape Auxerrois. He did a good job explaining where the grape comes from and what it characteristics are about but I wanted to add some more background around this grape and why I think it might be a good bet to grow this in the Puget Sound AVA.

Auxerrois (pronounced ohk-sair-wah) probably originated in Burgundy near the town of Auxerre in the Chablis district of Burgundy. It is widely grown in the Alsace and Luxembourg with small plantings in the Loire Valley, Switzerland and Germany. It is prized by the ability to ripen with naturally low acid content which is very helpful in far northern climates. For a grape that is is under cultivation in the order of thousands of hectares, there is surprisingly little information on it.

Originally it was thought that Auxerrois was descended from Chardonnay because of it’s similarity in the vineyard and flavor. In Jancis Robinson’s Guide to Wine Grapes (1996 Oxford University Press) she says that “Galet, the French ampelographic authority, refutes 19th century suggestions that the variety has some connection with either Chardonnay, Sylvaner or Melon…” Unfortunately, Galet was wrong.  It was found that it has the same two parents as Chardonnay (Pinot Noir and Gouais blanc) as found by genetic testing by some researchers at UC Davis back in 1999. They also found that Auxerrois has several well known siblings. Some of those include, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir (Beaujolais), Melon (Muscadet) and Aligote. In the Alsace, the grape name Pinot Blanc is interchangeable with Auxerrois. If you’ve had a wine labeled Pinot Blanc from the Alsace, it is mostly likely 100% Auxerrois. Probably because Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are genetically identical which would mean that Pinot Blanc could be one of the parents of Auxerrois.

I’ve had it in my experimental row for about 9  years now and it has ripened every year. Auxerrois appears to be less vigorous than Chardonnay, has smaller clusters. Ripens earlier with less acid, but not necessarily more sugar, which could be a condition of the climate. I once had an Auxerrois from Oregon (mentioned in the above article) that was over 14% alcohol, so I know it will go higher in a warmer climate.

The things that really impress me about the grape here in the Puget Sound region, is the ability to drop acid, reach full maturity (brown seeds, brown stems), compact size, naturally low crops and great flavors. The other interesting thing about this grape is that it is the sibling of Chardonnay. So, it has many of the same characteristics of Chardonnay, but ripens a little earlier with less acid. The flavors are not considered as fine as a really good Chardonnay, but are really close and can make an excellent wine on it’s own. If you want a French Burgundy styled white grape here in the Puget Sound, this just might be the grape to plant. I plan on expanding my plantings enough so that I might be able to make a single varietal bottling. Most likely, it will be blended with the Chardonnay to give a little lift. I really like the way it grows in the vineyard. Chardonnay is a very vigorous vine and needs way more space that I gave it, even on rootstock. I have own rooted Auxerrois and it’s a nice compact vine. Last year (2013) it gave me a really nice crop when the Chardonnay just didn’t make it.

Currently there are not any commercial sized plantings of Auxerrois in the Puget Sound, just a couple of experiments here and there. The largest plantings in the USA are in Oregon and Michigan. There are some descriptions stating it can have a cabbage like flavor, but I’ve never experienced that in any of the wines I’ve tasted.

Lastest in Bird scaring technology in the vineyard

Air Dancer scaring birdsTechnology in the vineyard changes very slowly over the decades. If you could go back in time to the vineyards that surrounded ancient Rome, you could easily see how things have changed very little. We still tend the vines the way that our ancient cousins did with a few exceptions such as tractors and chemicals, but basically you can still farm grapes as they did 2000 years ago and end up with a good wine. One thing that hasn’t changed over the millenia is the bird problem. I’m sure our ancestors in Italy were chasing birds away from the vineyards just like we do today.

There are basically two ways to get birds to stay out of your vineyard. Scare them, or exclude them. Birds are hardwired to eat grapes as this is their destiny. Grape vines are eager to give up their ripe grapes because that is how they spread their seeds. Vines want to make it as easy for birds to get the fruit. So, as you can see it’s a hard fought battle because you are competing against something that’s been going on for millions of years.

It depends on where in the world you are, but bird pressure is higher and lower in different parts of the world. I think in part it is much lower in Europe because, frankly, they have hunted many of the birds to much lower numbers than we have here in the US. Robin is a delicacy in France! Starlings too! Here we don’t have people blasting them out of the sky so we have to deal with them other ways. In Eastern Washington state, bird pressure is pretty low. It’s a vast desert and it makes it really hard for birds to survive so populations are lower. On the wet side of the Cascade mountains we the opposite problem and we have huge populations of birds both resident and migratory.

The main problem with most bird scaring devices is that birds get acclimatized to the noise, visual scaring devices. After a couple of weeks they just get used to it and their need to eat trumps the things scaring them. Our only back up is to put up bird nets that physically exclude the birds from the fruit. This is expensive and time consuming compared to putting out flash tape, noise makers and the such. But, it can be the only defense you can count on to bring in a crop.

There might be a disruption in bird scaring technology that is starting to make it’s way into vineyards (and other crops too). Have you ever seen the dancing man/air dancer at the used car lot? That bob and flap around seemingly randomly. They come in all sorts of brigh colors and in different sizes. I first starting hearing about this being used in vineyards about a year ago and having farmed grapes for 15+ years I thought this could be a valuable asset in my bag of tricks. Usually you only need to keep the birds out 2-3 weeks before you pick so it’s a short window. Having put up bird netting several times, I simply didn’t want to do it anymore. We bought a 20 foot, bright yellow dancing man last summer and I have to say I am quite happy with it. We have an acre of vines and as soon as we fired it up the birds took off and I didn’t see them as long as it was going. We ran it from dawn to dusk and not a single bird to be seen. They didn’t seem like they got used to it. We mounted it in the back of a small trailer that we towed to position by the tractor or ATV. It runs on electricity so you will need a small generator. We just happened to have a Honda 1000W one that easily handles the wattage need to run the fan. The only downside to this arrangement is the tank in the generator isn’t big enough to go all day so we had to fill the gas tank once during the middle of the day. They do make an extended tank that could hold enough for a couple of days of operation.

I think this could be the beginning of a lot of changes in bird scaring technology from using lasers and motion detecting sensors to air dancers and smart scarecrows. Time will tell but for now I think we have a low tech, high impact solution for our small vineyard!