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Site Selection

During the first few years we were attempting to be a grape growers, a widely held opinion in the eastern U.S. was, "Site your vineyard on a south facing slope." The handful of Marylanders espousing this idea were, unfortunately, very influential. They had imported the idea from southern Ontario and New York; places where it probably made sense. Better that they had left the south slope idea with our neighbors to the north. The idea of the south slope is to give your vines more protection against winter damage. In Maryland and regions of similar distance from the equator, planting a vineyard on a south facing slope may increase the possibility of winter damage.

For at least three decades after World War II, everyone in Maryland who was interested in operating a vineyard ran around looking for vineyard sites with south facing slopes. We think it finally became a personal thing. You did not want to admit to your fellow grape enthusiasts that you had just put a down payment on a vineyard site and not be prepared to positively answer the inevitable question, "Does the slope face south?"

I don't know whether this south slope concept extends to Europe, but it has obvious applicability in climates that are similar to Ontario and New York. In the southern hemisphere, there is probably a north slope advocacy group in parts of Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. Again, the group may be correct under some circumstances. But, whether you're facing the winter sun to the south or to the north, the trick is to know why and under what circumstances this logic might be false.

If you have lived in your current area, or know someone who has, consider the 8th week of winter (in our case, the third week of February). If there is a history of multiple "shirt sleeve" working days (3 or more), soil temperature can rise to the point where grapevines enter the earliest stage of post dormant activity: Namely, pumping sap, or "pushing" as the viticulturist would describe it. If your vines are planted on a south facing slope, you only need one, good, sunny day for this transition from dormancy. Then, the inevitable happens. A good solid refreeze, sap filled trunks and KABOOM. Trunks split wide open.

Our vineyard slopes to the Northwest. The vines stay asleep until the spring actually arrives.

A comprehensive paper on site selection by Dr. Tony Wolf, Virginia Tech University, may be accessed on the links pages.

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