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
The team at Lamont Fruit Farms  takes a progressive approach to staffing. “Give people the opportunity to excel,” Jose Iniguez says. “If our employees want it, we give them the chance.”
Apples & Pears
May 30, 2016
Is Your Orchard Ready For Mechanization?
Automation is on the horizon, and it would be beneficial if you’re planting with that in mind. Read More
high denisty apple orchard washington
Apples & Pears
May 29, 2016
Orchard Systems Matter With Mechanization
“It takes years to turn orchards from a big, wild 3-D tree to a narrow canopy — a lot of Read More
upclose of Israeli apple harvester
Fruits
May 28, 2016
Orchard Automation Is On The Horizon
Industry experts say the advent of fully automated orchard tasks are on the cusp of happening — with a few companies leading the automotive harvest charge. Read More
IFTA Washington Day3 6
Apples & Pears
May 27, 2016
Washington Apple Commission Elects New Leaders
The commission board also approved the export budget of $7.7 million for the upcoming 2016-17 crop, based on a crop of 135 million cartons. Read More
As this view of the San Luis Reservoir shows, California's drought is far from over. (Photo credit: David Eddy)
Farm Management
May 27, 2016
California Drought Far From Over
To preserve orchards and vineyards, growers are expected to fallow up to 350,000 acres of corn, wheat, cotton and alfalfa. Read More
These workers use a platform from Automated Ag for hand thinning. (Photo credit: Christina Herrick)
Apples & Pears
May 27, 2016
How Best To Integrate Man And Machine
If you want to implement labor-saving mechanization, you should start the conversation with the end user – your employees. Read More
First-year impact of Prunus replant disease at the Firebaugh replant trial; stunted trees in the foreground row were planted in plot of non-fumigated replant soil. (Photo credit: University of California Agriculture)
Fruits
May 26, 2016
Consider Fumigating For Nematodes Before Replanting Almonds, Stone Fruit
Stone fruit and almond growers looking to replant orchards might want to invest in soil samples to assess nematode populations Read More
The Latest
Crop Protection
May 31, 2016
Honey Bees Collect Urban Pesticides Via …
Purdue study indicates pollen is consistently contaminated with not only agricultural, but urban pesticides. Read More
Citrus
May 31, 2016
Cannabis Cultivation Quest Becoming Real…
Planning, preparations finally giving way to production and dispensing of ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ Read More
Fruits
May 30, 2016
‘Fresh Attitude Week’ Promot…
The largest U.S. urban school districts host weeklong celebration, Fresh Attitude Week, which highlights fresh fruits and vegetables and other nutrition education activities. Read More
Fruits
May 28, 2016
Orchard Automation Is On The Horizon
Industry experts say the advent of fully automated orchard tasks are on the cusp of happening — with a few companies leading the automotive harvest charge. Read More
Farm Management
May 27, 2016
California Drought Far From Over
To preserve orchards and vineyards, growers are expected to fallow up to 350,000 acres of corn, wheat, cotton and alfalfa. Read More
Fruits
May 26, 2016
Consider Fumigating For Nematodes Before…
Stone fruit and almond growers looking to replant orchards might want to invest in soil samples to assess nematode populations Read More
Crop Protection
May 25, 2016
More Apps Help Growers Identify Insects …
Berries, apples, pears, and cherries now rolled into new app series from Clemson University. Read More
Citrus
May 25, 2016
Monsanto Says Bayer Bid ‘Financially Ina…
Proposal cited as undervalued, not able to address financial, regulatory risks. Read More
Farm Management
May 25, 2016
Report Highlights Benefits Of Trans-Paci…
National Potato Council says report from the International Trade Commission offers the benefits the free trade agreement would offer growers. Read More
Fruits
May 25, 2016
Farm Bureau Says EPA, Army Corps Of Engi…
AFBF told Congress that the Army Corps' novel interpretations of environmental law are threatening farmers in California and other areas of the country. Read More
Citrus
May 25, 2016
NRCS Invests $4.3 Million To Combat Clim…
The Natural Resources Conservation Service in California is committing funds to help farmers and ranchers mitigate the effects of climate change and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Read More
Citrus
May 24, 2016
Panama Canal Expansion To Bring Trade Op…
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam says a confluence of events is putting the state's producers in a good spot to open new markets. Read More
Citrus
May 24, 2016
Social Media Posts On GMOs Falling Flat …
Hopefully, the hysteria the West has perpetuated on genetic engineering will not stifle the potential of moving our production forward enough to help feed a growing global population. Read More
Fruits
May 24, 2016
Organic Food Sales Hit Record $43.3 Bill…
Organic Trade Association says organic fruits and vegetables logged sales of $14.4 billion. Read More
Citrus
May 24, 2016
Report Says GMOs Offer No Risk To Human …
The study stresses the need for proper resistance management, the need for a different ways to evaluate all new crop varieties, regardless of process in which they were developed. Read More
Citrus
May 24, 2016
Full-Time Effort Required To Feed Farm-T…
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam gives a shout-out to those providing fuel to kids during the school year as well as the summer months. Read More
Citrus
May 23, 2016
World Health Organization Experts: Glyph…
Risk unlikely when consuming crops treated with herbicide. Read More
Citrus
May 23, 2016
Florida Growers Putting Food Safety On F…
Specialty crop industry stakeholders hungry to understand what’s ahead as FDA begins implementing new food safety rules. Read More
[gravityform id="62" title="false" description="false"]