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.”

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