How To Grow Syrah Grapes In A Hot Climate

At R.H. Phillips Winery, located in the Dunnigan Hills northwest of Sacramento, CA, viticulturists have long wrestled with the problem of producing premium Syrah wines in such a hot climate (see “Farming On The Edge”). Years ago they settled on the Smart-Dyson training system to deal with vigor, and they’ve had great success, producing such popular wines as the Toasted Head Shiraz. But there were problems with the system, problems that they’ve not only solved, but in doing so are realizing huge savings.

The chief problem with the Smart-Dyson system in their Syrah, says David Sorokowsky, R.H. Phillips’ research viticulturist, is that as the basal leaves senesce due to deficit irrigation, the fruit is fully exposed by the end of the season. “Not only does that bleach out the anthocyanins, but it can lead to more harsh tannins,” he says. “Here we can get dark, nice jammy fruit — that’s what we’re after.”

Initially, they tried using shade cloth. That worked, in that it improved fruit quality. But besides the cost of the material, there were significant labor costs that certainly weren’t going to pencil out. So that got Sorokowsky and the viticulturist at that time (2004), Scott Thompson, thinking: What if they used the vines’ leaves to shade the fruit? What if they just let the canes sprawl?

The Trial

They were doing an irrigation trial with vineyard manager Rob Harris at the time that didn’t take up a whole block, so they used the remaining 8 acres, Syrah on 110R rootstock, for a trial of various training systems. The four-year-old vineyard had an east-west row orientation, which proved to be crucial, says Sorokowsky. Planted on rolling hills with fairly consistent soil, the block was drip-irrigated based on vine stress, with the stress measured through the use of pressure chambers.

There were three canopy treatments: untreated or fully sprawled, the Smart-Dyson, and a combination of the two, southern sprawl. The east-west row orientation was necessary for the approach in order to have the vines sprawl to the south to take the brunt of the sun, says Sorokowsky. “The dappled light produces more color than the fully exposed, which will get bleached,” he says. “It turned out to be just the right amount of protection in this climate.”

They did three replicates for each canopy treatment. Each replicate was three rows, and there were 10 vines per replicate from which data was collected. From each of the vines they monitored they collected 100 berry samples just prior to harvest. Each vine was then harvested, and the clusters were counted. The berry samples were analyzed for Brix, titratable acidity, pH, absorbance of light at 420 and 520 nanometers (which shows color), total anthocyanins, and total phenols.

The Results

Over the three years of trials, the wines produced from the full sprawl vines fared the worst in most categories. The full exposure of the fruit, due to the canes “flopping down,” led, in particular, to wines with extremely harsh tannins, says Sorokowsky. However, the partially shaded fruit in the southern sprawl system did not suffer the same fate. In fact, it generally produced the best wines with more intense fruit flavors and less vegetative aromas and astringency. The berries harvested from the southern sprawl vines were the smallest of the three systems in two of the three years, had the highest total phenols in two of the three years, and had the highest Brix every year.

Better still, southern sprawl is less expensive than the Smart-Dyson system, which costs 7¢ per vine per pass for wire work. Three passes are needed per season, costing about $170 per acre total. But southern sprawl eliminates two of those passes, saving $113 per acre.

Based on trial results, R.H. Phillips converted half of its 360 acres of Syrah to the southern sprawl system. After seeing good results again in 2007, they’re going to convert the rest for a savings of a little more than $40,000, not to mention even better wine. “This year in the vineyard we saw no reason not to, so we will do all southern sprawl this coming year,” Sorokowsky says. “Why wouldn’t we?”

Quality and saves labor costs.

Farming On The Edge

One of the reasons Sorokowsky experimented with the southern sprawl training system in the first place is because he grows grapes in a nontraditional growing region. R.H. Phillips Winery is located in Esparto, CA, northwest of Sacramento. Known as the Dunnigan Hills, the area is about as hot as much of the Golden State’s inland, with normal summer days in the high 90s and the thermometer topping out at over 100°F about 15 days each year. But that’s where the similarities end.

By being reasonably close to the Sacramento Delta, the nights get cooler in the Dunnigan Hills. Also pressure gradients cause hot, dry winds to whip down from the north. It’s not unusual for it to be 105°F and windy, says Sorokowsky. “It can be rough on the vines, and it’s not that great for people either,” cracks the Ontario, Canada native.

The strong winds — especially in the spring and the fall, when gusts of 30 miles per hour are not uncommon — are especially tough on the vines at R.H. Phillips, because many of them are on exposed hilltops. In addition, the soils are thin on the hilltops. With all these challenges, it’s no wonder Sorokowsky terms it “farming on the edge.”

The first grapes were planted on the former wheat and sheep ranch in 1981 by Karl and John Giguiere. At the first harvest in 1983, the 10 acres of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc looked great, but no one wanted them. Who wanted to make wine from grapes grown in an unproven region? So the Giguieres started their own winery, R.H. Phillips, which produced 4,000 cases in 1984.

In 2000, R.H. Phillips was sold to Canada’s Vincor, which was in turn acquired by Constellation Brands in 2006. Today, not only is it a proven region, but it is a dedicated American Viticultural Area. Sorokowsky and his colleagues farm 1,700 acres of winegrapes, not only under the R.H. Phillips name but with such labels as Night Harvest and Toasted Head. And while the daytime temperatures might be similar to that of the San Joaquin Valley, the prices of the wines are in the $14- to $20-per-bottle range.

“It’s not a traditional grape-growing region,” says Sorokowsky, “but we do make high-quality wines here.”

Syrah Or Shiraz?

Ask for a glass of Shiraz at a lot of California wineries and you might be in for a dirty look. That’s the Australian pronunciation, they’ll huff, and when in California… . But not at R.H. Phillips, where they use the term Shiraz on such labels as their well-known Toasted Head. It wasn’t a statement of philosophy so much as a statement that their wine fit into the style that the Aussies defined: soft tannins and jammy fruit. It was the Aussies that got American wine drinkers to connect with this style of wine, says R.H. Phillips’ David Sorokowsky.

In fact, Sorokowsky credits the Aussies for making the variety so popular in the U.S. That was partly by accident, as several years ago the Australians found they had a glut of Shiraz on their hands. To ease the glut, they not only shipped a lot of good-quality wines to the U.S., but they sold them at attractive prices. American wine drinkers responded to the fruit-forward reds from Down Under with open arms. “Now the glut is gone,” he says, “but people have found that they like it.”

That’s great news to Sorokowsky, who says the variety is fairly easy to grow. “It’s not too troublesome, except that it’s pretty vigorous,” he says, “but you can control that with rootstocks, water, and training systems.”

As for the name, Sorokowsky says the Aussies have earned the right to call it Shiraz through sheer domination. Out of the top 20 Syrahs sold in the U.S., he estimates that a good 80% are Australian. “They’ve built it up — that’s their grape,” he says. “Go ahead and call it ‘Shiraz.’ Give up.”

Topics: ,

Leave a Reply

Fruits Stories
Citrus
October 17, 2017
USDA Issues Disaster Declaration for Hurricane-Stricken Florida Farmers
Operators in designated counties eligible for emergency assistance. Read More
Fruits
October 17, 2017
Hirst Named American Society of Horticultural Science Fellow
Honor was presented during society’s annual meeting. Read More
Crop Protection
October 17, 2017
EPA Takes Steps to Reduce Risk of Drift-Related Herbicide Injury
With reports of dicamba injuries in tomatoes, peaches, grapes, and other crops, the agency works to reduce the impact of spray drift on vulnerable crops. Read More
Fruits
October 16, 2017
New Broad-Spectrum Herbicide Released by Nufarm
Grapple herbicide works on pre- and post-emergent weeds in orchards and vineyards. Read More
Flooded peach and grape groves from Irma at UF/IFAS HAEC
Citrus
October 16, 2017
Wrath of Hurricane Irma’s Rainfall Measured by the Trillions
Report says storm dropped enough gallons of water on Florida’s St. Johns River Water Management District to swamp 6.7 million football fields. Read More
Checking hop cones at UF/IFAS MREC
Fruits
October 14, 2017
USDA Seeks Applications for Next Round of Specialty Crop Research Grants
SCRI grants to total $48 million for 2018 fiscal year. Read More
Grapes
October 13, 2017
Fairgrounds Host California Fire Evacuees
Gallo will contribute $1 million to fire recovery effort and will match employee donations two-for-one. Read More
Grapes
October 10, 2017
Wildfires Hit California Wine Country
California Gov. Jerry Brown declares state of emergency for northern counties impacted by flames. Read More
A water-logged citrus grove in Southwest Florida following Irma
Citrus
October 10, 2017
Impressions from Irma Indelible on the Florida Farmscape [Slideshow]
Striking images from the field reveal not only the storm’s destructive nature, but also paths to recovery and reconstruction. Read More
Citrus
October 9, 2017
(We Won’t Back Down … ) Stand Your Ground for Agriculture
You don’t have to be a super hero, rock star, or award-winning scientist to aid farming. You can help by supporting professionalism in fields. Read More
Apples & Pears
October 9, 2017
How to Transition to Multileader Production
Use this guide to help you determine whether multileader production is a good fit for your farm. Read More
Grapes
October 7, 2017
Tips for Effective Vine Mealybug Management in Grapes
Scouting, trapping, and mating disruption can help prevent populations of this pest increasing in your vineyard. Read More
Apples & Pears
October 6, 2017
What You Need to Know About Multileader Systems for Apple Trees
While multiple leaders shrink the tree canopy, experts warn there are places where missteps can be made. Read More
Apples & Pears
October 5, 2017
Apple Growers Moving to Multileaders
Growers shift from single leader to multiple leader systems to increase light interception and production. But this system isn’t without its risks and costs. Read More
Growers boot up drone technology on the farm
Citrus
October 5, 2017
Are You a Precision Grower?
Gathering, analysis, and application still seems to be the best basic definition of precision agriculture. Read More
The Latest
Citrus
October 19, 2017
Disaster Relief: Ways Florida Growers Ca…
With billions of dollars lost to Irma, financial assistance will be crucial for many. Read More
Fruits
October 19, 2017
New Online Tool Helps Growers Determine …
California Land Use Viewer can help growers determine if they can adopt groundwater recharge practices on their own operations. Read More
Citrus
October 18, 2017
How to Keep Track of Climate Change
Use cool tools to find out how your production methods may change in the future, how much your area is at risk, and how to limit your own impact on the climate. Read More
Citrus
October 17, 2017
USDA Issues Disaster Declaration for Hur…
Operators in designated counties eligible for emergency assistance. Read More
Fruits
October 17, 2017
Hirst Named American Society of Horticul…
Honor was presented during society’s annual meeting. Read More
Crop Protection
October 17, 2017
EPA Takes Steps to Reduce Risk of Drift-…
With reports of dicamba injuries in tomatoes, peaches, grapes, and other crops, the agency works to reduce the impact of spray drift on vulnerable crops. Read More
Fruits
October 16, 2017
New Broad-Spectrum Herbicide Released by…
Grapple herbicide works on pre- and post-emergent weeds in orchards and vineyards. Read More
Citrus
October 16, 2017
Wrath of Hurricane Irma’s Rainfall…
Report says storm dropped enough gallons of water on Florida’s St. Johns River Water Management District to swamp 6.7 million football fields. Read More
Fruits
October 14, 2017
USDA Seeks Applications for Next Round o…
SCRI grants to total $48 million for 2018 fiscal year. Read More
Citrus
October 10, 2017
Impressions from Irma Indelible on the F…
Striking images from the field reveal not only the storm’s destructive nature, but also paths to recovery and reconstruction. Read More
Citrus
October 9, 2017
(We Won’t Back Down … ) Stan…
You don’t have to be a super hero, rock star, or award-winning scientist to aid farming. You can help by supporting professionalism in fields. Read More
Citrus
October 5, 2017
Are You a Precision Grower?
Gathering, analysis, and application still seems to be the best basic definition of precision agriculture. Read More
Fruits
October 5, 2017
Environmental Monitoring Helps With Food…
Monitoring may be most effective way to meet the preventative controls component of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Read More
Citrus
October 5, 2017
Hurricane Irma Toll on Florida Farming i…
Preliminary damage estimates confirm storm’s ferocity. Read More
Citrus
October 4, 2017
Goodlatte Officially Introduces the Ag G…
On Monday, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) introduced his Agricultural Guestworker Act of 2017 bill, which would replace H-2A with an H-2C program. Rep. Goodlatte introduced the bill to the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. Read More
Fruits
October 3, 2017
Bill Introduced to Crack Down on Fake Or…
Organic Farmer and Consumer Protection Act seeks stricter enforcement of imports, modernization of documentation. Read More
Citrus
October 2, 2017
$10 Million for Honeybee Health
National Honey Board, Project Apis.m investing in pollinator research. Read More
Citrus
October 2, 2017
Perseverance a Priority for Florida Farm…
Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam heartened by the strides being made by growers around the state as they begin to recover from the hurricane. Read More