Studying Ampelography in Napa Valley
Ampelography Day at St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery
Summing up my visit to St. Supéry for Ampelography Day, I will say this: Ampelography is an almost-forgotten art and today, few true artists remain. One of these true artists is Lucie Morton, America’s resident Ampelographer and our host for the day, and undoubtedly one of the most practiced and talented vine whisperers on the planet.
What is Ampelography?
Ampelography is the identification and classification of grape vines. You may be wondering why identifying and classifying grapevines is important. Without it, you simply cannot tell from the grape itself or from a cluster of grapes what the variety is. Think about what a single vine’s clusters look like. In any given vintage, one vine’s clusters can vary greatly in size and even an individual grape’s characteristics can look different, which can lead to misinterpretations of the correct variety—thus making it difficult to care appropriately for the vine. As Morton says, “There are many aspects of viticulture that are ‘hiding in plain sight’ in the sense that there is so much an experienced eye can detect about vine health and balance.” She furthers, “Ampelography can bring a specific vine and its fruit to the eye the way a glass of wine brings it to the nose and palate.”
Lucie Morton: Vine Whisperer
Lucie Morton began her study of Ampelography back in the 1970s with renowned French Ampelographer Pierre Galet. “Because I had such a great training with Galet, I was pretty much the only one who knew anything about Ampelography in America,” Lucie states about her return to America after her studies in France. She has been working in Ampelography ever since. Morton currently resides in Virginia—a wine-growing region with which she is fascinated—where she works passionately, using her Ampelography expertise to help eliminate vine diseases and control vine pests. On a day to day basis, Morton states, “It is also important for me to keep an eye out for clonal variations within the same variety and to keep up with rootstocks, as some new ones are coming into the marketplace.” Her studies and research have gained international praise.
To identify and classify a grapevine, you must pay careful attention to the distinct details of the vine’s leaves. Each grape variety’s leaves are unique with characteristic shapes, coloring, size and visual features. To illustrate this on Ampelography Day, Lucie Morton and St. Supéry CEO Emma Swain took a crew of wine industry folks—of which I was one of the lucky few!—out to the St. Supéry Dollarhide Vineyard for a day in the field with some hands-on experience.
Riding around on automated carts all afternoon in the hot, late summer sun, expansive views of the bountiful Dollarhide Vineyard reminded us all just how picturesque Napa Valley is. Even living in wine country, there are still moments when views of vineyards take your breath away and I certainly had a few of those moments on Ampelography Day.
To get to the Dollarhide Vineyard, you have to drive the winding back-country roads before you reach the stunning property. With a rich Napa Valley history that dates back to the 1800s, founder of St. Supéry Robert Skalli purchased the property in 1982. Today, nearly 500 acres of the 1,531-acre estate are planted with vines, while the winery and facilities are located on the 56-acre estate in Rutherford.
The Dollarhide Vineyard sits on the back side of the Vacas Mountain range on Napa Valley’s east side, and its rolling hillsides are planted with a range of grape varieties, given that the property exhibits so many microclimates. The property boasts elevation ranges between 600-1,000 feet with seven different soil series and 13 different soil variations. This wide range of terroir allows St. Supéry to grow a number of grape varieties and certainly made for an excellent location in which to identify vines with our newfound Ampelography skills.
Below is a series of grapevine-leaf photos that I took on that day at the Dollarhide Vineyard, alongside their identification characteristics. In trying to find sample leaves with the most distinct characteristics, you too should be able to use these photos as a guide for identifying grapevines the next time you are out wine tasting in a vineyard!
Petiolar Sinus: Straight sides, very narrow to overlapping
Teeth: Deep, very pointy, “little saw blade”
Features: Small spiky leaf, very narrow sinuses
Dimensions: Circular, height = width
Petiolar Sinus: Narrow lyre, from moderately open to closed
Teeth: Frizzy looking, narrow, rounded arches
Features: Very green everywhere, lobes have troughs, “3-spouts”
Dimensions: Circular, small, round, height = width
Petiolar Sinus: Very narrow, fleshy base, straight sides
Features: Fairly smooth, fine-grained surface
Dimensions: Big, taller than wide
Petiolar Sinus: Variably open “U” [the one here looks closed because the leaf is not laying flat]
Lateral Sinuses: None
Teeth: Small, spiky
Features: Big, thick, leathery leaf, quilted at main veins
Dimensions: Big, wider than tall
Petiolar Sinus: Naked
Lateral Sinuses: Flat-bottomed, closed
Teeth: Arched, rounded
Features: Five “hole-punched” lobes
Dimensions: Circular, taller rather than wide
*Grape leaf diagram illustration by St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery. All Ampelographic descriptions by Lucie Morton taken from St. Supéry Ampelography booklet. Permission given by Lucie Morton and St. Supéry.
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