Leaves of Class: At St. Supéry in the Napa Valley, A Master Class in Ampelography

The grape leaves fluttering in the Napa Valley sunshine seem—to me—simply a sea of green, indistinguishable one from the other. But that’s not how Scott Tracy sees them.

8-25_st-supery-scott-tracyTracy, guest experience manager at St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, is a student of ampelography, the science of identifying and classifying grapevines. On this bright morning he’s leading me through an ampelography master class, one of the unique experiences offered at the winery for visitors who want to dig a little deeper into the world of wine.

Ampelography (am-pel-LOH-grah-fee) is hard to say and spell, but it encompasses a fascinating field of botanical study: identifying grape varieties based mostly on the characteristics of their leaves.

For growers, ampelography is a job skill that can keep you from making a slip-up when ordering or planting new vines. For the casual vineyard visitor, it’s an innovative way to get a little more familiar with wine. That’s why St. Supéry has developed their class as an interactive experience.

“It’s always such a little journey that people are on when they visit a winery,” says Scott Tracy. “The first time you come, you just—like wine. It may as well be a golf course to you. Then the more you learn about everything that’s happening, and the more you come back to Napa, you become more curious. There’s a point where many of our return visitors want to know a little more, so this is an opportunity to create that.”

Family-owned and producing 100 percent estate wines, St. Supéry has 500 acres of vineyards at its Dollarhide and Rutherford estate vineyards in the Napa Valley. It also owns an additional 1,000 acres not in vine. The ampelography program at St. Supéry was developed with viticultural expert Lucie Morton, an authority on the subject, and classes come complete with helpful charts and primers.

8-25_st-supery-vinesAt St. Supéry (pronounced saint soup-eh-REE, in case you were wondering), the approach to scholarship is decidedly relaxed, making it anything but dull. Visitors begin their class with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, then tour the display vineyard at the winery’s Rutherford property. There they see what each variety looks like on the vine, and get tips on identification.

Ampelography 101

While there are many characteristics used in identifying vines—and, of course, modern scientists can turn to DNA to fully blueprint a variety—casual vineyard visitors learn five key ways to differentiate the vines:

Dimension

A leaf can be taller than it is wide, wider than it is tall, or almost circular. All of these are clues to its identity.

Shape

There are two very common leaf shapes: shield, where the leaf is solid and shaped somewhat like a maple leaf; and lobe, where indentations create an origami effect. Malbec, for instance, is a shield; Merlot has five variable lobes.

Teeth

Just as you’d expect, these are tooth-like serrations on the outside of the leaf. If you’ve got a Petit Verdot leaf in your hand, you’ll see small spikes bordering the leaf; Cabernet Sauvignon has wider triangles that are variable and rounded.

Petiolar Sinus

This is the cavity at the top of the leaf where it meets the stem. The area can be U-shaped or rounded, wide or narrow, open or closed. Malbec has a wide, open U, and this is a key way to identify this leaf. Cabernet is closed at the top and almost looks as if it’s been cut out with a hole-puncher.

Unique Features

This handy bonus round of characteristics can help you identify a vine with confidence—and make you sound like a leaf-peeping Ph.D. For instance, the surface of the Malbec leaf has a quilted texture; Merlot is crimped or waffled, especially in the center. Cabernet Sauvignon is known for the “mask face” produced by its lobes. Cabernet Franc has a little “tooth” of leaf poking into the petiolar sinus.

After this vineyard introduction, guests pick a few leaves to take back to the winery, where they describe them and give clues for others to try to make an identification. A trio of wine and food pairings follows this session, deepening the connection to the varieties studied while providing insight on how certain foods enhance certain characteristics in the wine.

The ampelography sessions are just one of many experiences offered at St. Supéry. Other classes include “Aromatherapy with a Corkscrew,” in which participants sample various aromas and then learn how to identify those smells in a wine. That class includes a “mystery wine” to see how much the noses know. And in “Five Bordeaux Varieties and Your Five Senses,” visitors get up close and personal with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

“Our guests are here for fun,” Tracy points out. The point is to take the opportunity to open the doors a little wider to the wine country visitor, giving a new perspective on the many things that go on in the journey from grape to glass. Tracy adds, “It’s just kind of a wonderful story.”

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St. Supéry’s ampelography classes are available by appointment from March 21 through November 21 and cost $60 per person. Groups limited to six people maximum to keep the feeling intimate. Find out more here.

About the Author

Michelle Locke is a writer, photographer and editor based in the San Francisco Bay area. A news reporter for many yeras, she now writes about food, drink and travel, producing stories that appear in newspapers and magazines nationwide. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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