September 10, 2006

Grape sampling at Wahle

After my visit with Betty Wahle a few weeks back, she encouraged me to come back a few times before harvest to see and taste the fruit as it ripens. That’s probably the most exciting thing for me this year. There’s no substitute for this kind of experience, something I need and have been looking to get for a while. But it’s interesting how many vineyard owners seem reluctant to let a guy like me do that.

I can understand. Vineyards are precious, and fools wandering around can at least in theory do some pretty damaging things. Namely, unwittingly bringing in bugs like phylloxera and what not on their shoes, which in an own-rooted vineyard like Wahle could be disasterous. These days vines are grafted onto bug resistant rootstock. But old vineyards like Wahle are full of own-rooted vines that are fragile, to the point where you don’t even share work tools from other vineyards that would only encourage contamination.

Betty’s a straight shooter, and although she’s warm and friendly she had no hesitation in telling me I better wear clean shoes. And you bet I’ll do just what she says.

So I took the opportunity to stop by Wahle the other day when I was in the neighborhood. I started down in the old Pommard block, which looks beautiful with fully colored clusters and a green canopy. There are mostly 2 clusters per shoot here, with approximately 12 shoots per vine in this fairly wide-spaced vineyard. All the second crop has been cut off, and already the grapes taste sweet with seeds about 50% brown. I hope to get sugar readings from Betty but I’d guess these grapes are around 22 brix as they’re as mature as some fruit I saw harvested last year. But oh, those thick skins that I think will soften up a little before harvest this year.

Moving up the slope to the east, there’s the second year vines with some tiny clusters of sweet berries. Then the fourth or fifth year Dijon vines that look a bit stressed from the dry, warm summer. The grapes here seem behind the Pommard, odd you might think as the Dijon clones are known for ripening early, a benefit in a “cool” climate. But I think this is a case where the deep roots of the Pommard have allowed consistent development during the height of summer where the shallow roots have caused the young vines to shut down more in the heat of the day. Only one cluster per shoot on most vines here with some second crop remaining and some coloring to come on the western side of the grape clusters.

The Coury clone is still the least ripe with some coloring to come and seeds that are only beginning to show browning. There are some big jangly grape clusters here that really look odd compared to the other blocks. Lots of canopy here, the Coury clone grows straight up and tall and needs lots of hedging.

Then the 777 clone that was grafted onto old vine 108 Chardonnay. Mostly 2 clusters per shoot and, like the young vine Dijon, not as sweet and tasty as the Pommard but certainly not behind in any way. It’s still early September after all and harvest here usually wouldn’t happen until probably the first days of October. This year, depending on how September plays out, harvest could come by the end of the month.

I wandered up to the top where the old vine Cabernet is, still getting color but tasting varietal in a way few grapes do. Very interesting to taste, but it’s still a long way to “ripe” and you can see why Cabernet ain’t what the Willamette Valley is known for. Then back around to where I began, retasting the blocks to see if my original impressions were right. In fact, the Pommard tastes even better at the end.

I'm very curious to see how this develops. Will the sugars soar in a hot September, will the weather cool and the flavors develop without sugars rising too much, or will the weather fall apart and our early harvest end up late and lackluster? Still too early to say, but this is what winemaking is really all about. Learning about vineyards, following the grape development, and guessing, guessing, guessing about how it will all turn out. Stay tuned.

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