Joe’s Winemaking Notes: September 2016

2016 CRUSH STARTS!

We’re off and running! The first grapes (Pinot Noir from our Estate Vineyard and a neighboring vineyard) were harvested in the early morning hours on August 23. It was only enough to fill a single one-ton fermenter, but it always feels good to get the harvest underway!

2016 Crush

Once the first lots were picked and destemmed to fermenter, we expected the floodgates to open. This is the normal behavior for our Pinot Noir, as any late August heat spike will concentrate the grapes at a rapid clip. We normally will see a three or four-day period of 90 to 100 degree days around Labor Day, but this year has proven to be a bit different…

WEATHER SLOWS THE HARVEST

What a change from July! Weather conditions since the last Winemaker’s Notes took a distinct turn, falling dramatically, with persistent fog well into the afternoon on most days. Average high temps dropped into the mid -70s during the past month, compared to our warm July, when most days reached well into the 80s or above.

2016 Crush

This bought us a little more time to get ready for harvest; cleaning the equipment and preparing the crew. This was very different than 2015, when the grapes began arriving in the winery on the second day of work for our harvest interns!

I certainly appreciate the extra time, which allows us to fully get ready for harvest. I spent much of the past two weeks driving around to our vineyards throughout Sonoma County. Sampling grapes for taste, sugar levels (measured as degrees Brix), and acidity gives me a sense for the best time to pick the grapes. Each vineyard is different and has a spectrum of flavors the grapes pass through. With years of working these vineyards, I have a pretty good sense for the target in each block. For example, our Estate Pinot Noir will progress through the following flavors as it ripens:

•  The first fruit flavors to appear are watermelon and light wild strawberry.
•  When we make Pinot Noir Rosé, I target this level of ripeness with its associated acidity and lower alcohol levels.
•  As the grapes ripen further, the flavors will progress into red cherry and raspberry.
•  This is a great time to harvest for Pinot Noir, showcasing classic flavors while maintaining good acid and moderate alcohol.

While these flavors are developing, a process of tannin ripening and lowering acidity is occurring simultaneously. Those two factors are critical to making a wine of balance and impact, and will develop differently according to the vintage conditions. All of these characteristics are considered together when determining the best time to pick. Add the concerns of weather (rain or heat spikes) and open tank space at the winery, and it becomes quite a challenge juggling all the vineyard blocks!

You may wonder if other grape varieties have their own flavor progressions. They do, making grape sampling exciting for those of us lucky enough to be in the vineyards at this time of year!

GOINGS ON IN THE CELLAR

Pinot Noir Rosé Fermentation:
As mentioned earlier, we’re producing a small quantity of Estate Pinot Noir Rosé this year! To make this Green Valley of Russian River Valley wine truly special, we harvested several tons of Pinot Noir from the vineyard at lower Brix (sugar level), higher acidity, and just ripe flavors. We gently pressed the grapes to collect lightly colored free-run juice. With only a short period of contact with the grape skins, the juice didn’t pull out much color, which occurs during a longer soak. Our Estate Pinot Noir is well known for its color intensity; so, even a short soak would have made a rosé with too deep a purple color.

This juice is fermenting in a small stainless steel tank and is currently heading toward dryness, when all the sugar has been converted to alcohol. Right now though, it’s tasting like a fine strawberry soda – all spritz and gorgeous fruit!

Rose

First few lots in the open tanks:
As of this writing, we have nine tanks of Green Valley and Russian River Valley Pinot Noir grapes fermenting in tanks and barrels, alongside our Green Valley Pinot Blanc, and one tank of Russian River Valley Chardonnay. By the next time you hear from me, the majority of our grapes will have been harvested, and as many as 50 different fermentation lots will be at various stages of completion. I expect to have only good things to report to you then!

Cheers!