October 26, 2007

Waiting to press

My 2007 Pinot Noir is nearly done fermenting, 12 days after harvest. Normally I'd want to leave the new wine on its skins for up to several days to gain more winey complexity, but this year wasn't so ripe so I'll press Sunday. That's exactly two weeks from the October 14 harvest date. Leaving it any longer would probably lead to too much tannin in the wine, though I even wonder if two more days is already waiting too long. So far it seems fine, so I'm not going to worry about it.

Meanwhile the rose and chardonnay are still bubbling away, as I expect them to do for a while longer. They've seemed to go a bit faster than I might have expected, so I shouldn't be surprised if they finish up more quickly. I'm not taking brix readings until they slow down considerably. With fermentations, I've learned that if they're doing well then don't worry about them. It's really that simple.

Down at the winery, I spent a few hours this afternoon labelling 2006 Pinot Noir and then punching down the remaining fermentations. There are only eight 1.5 ton bins left, and they're getting pretty soft. We'll press most of them tomorrow, maybe Sunday but I hope not. I haven't worked 12 hour days every day, but I've worked every day for about the past three or four weeks and I'd like a day off. Still, the harvest guy works when there's work to be done. Plus, no matter how it shakes out, this is the end of harvest. Next weekend I'll definitely put my feet up.

Leaving the winery around 5pm on what was a stunningly clear afternoon, I couldn't help but stop and stare for a moment at the autumn scene. Vineyards and orchards on Ribbon Ridge looking east to the vine covered southwestern slopes of the Chehalem Mountains...simply beautiful. I ended up driving over Worden Hill Road through the heart of the Dundee Hills to see the yellowing canopies and nothing but second crop on the vines. Certainly there are grapes still to be harvested, but in many high elevation vineyards, I saw nothing left. I was surprised, actually.

Tonight's tasting note, the 1998 Domaine du Joncier Lirac, an old favorite bargain wine from the southern Rhone. In its youth, it tasted like a nice Edmunds St. John Syrah that's California wine that tastes French. Now the Joncier smells bottle sweet and beautiful, but in the mouth the wine is coming apart with medicinal flavors and disjointed alcohol. Not a total washout by any means, but certainly something to have drunk sooner. Of course, I was warned not to age this, but I couldn't help trying with one. You win some, you lose some. And I suppose if this is losing, it ain't all bad.

October 21, 2007

Fermentation is peaking

The garage is filled with the sweet smells of fermenting wine. I have 50 liters of Chardonnay, 25 liters of Pinot Noir rose, and the main event - nearly 300 liters of Pinot Noir spread over three garbage can fermentors, all fermenting without added yeast.

After picking the grapes last Sunday, I let them soak without any cooling for 5 days before warming the fermentors with a space heater and an aquarium heater. This morning the bins all smelled a bit like nail polish, or ethyl acetate, but a brix reading showed that sugar levels had hardly dropped so I knew fermentation hadn't yet begun in earnest. Sometimes at the beginning you can get "ea" smells, before tempertures in the fermentors has risen significantly. Sure enough, things smell great again.

The garage is pretty cold, so I have the heater on to help get the fermentation temperature up. I don't want it to get too high, because the grapes this year aren't as ripe as I'd like. Higher temps can extract more tannin than I want. Sure enough, one bin shot up to 92F before punchdown and stirring tonight brought things down significantly. The other bins are staying in the low 80s, right below where I want them but since the one went so high, I think a mix of the three will be just right. My goal now is to get the yeast to slowly complete fermentation without sticking as the temperature falls. I want it cooler after this peak period, but not too cool so that the yeast go inactive. It's a delicate balance.

Of course, with the low brix level I mentioned previously, I chaptalized (added sugar) some this morning and will do more tomorrow as I add approximately 1.7kg per 100L of wine, per Emile Peynaud, to raise the wine one degree of alcohol. I'm loathe to chaptalize as I did in 2005, but this year especially there's no avoiding it.

At the winery, I did some labelling today and the evening punchdowns. Only 11 bins fermenting in earnest, so punchdowns weren't so difficult. There are a few more bins about to be kicked off, the last of the year. This weekend we dug out 12 bins in five press loads, giving me lots of time to learn the finer points of working a 3-ton bladder press. Fill, press, spin, press, spin, press, spin, etc. empty, repeat. Lots of shovelling, lots of nice new wine aromas, satisfying to be done at the end of the work day.

Tasting note - France, yet again. This time, the 2004 Perrin Cotes du Rhone "Nature" from one organic vineyard apparently near Orange. This is simply one of the best old school grenache driven Cotes du Rhones I've had in a long time. For just over $10, it's a steal. Rich earthy plum and black pepper aromas with a full body, ripe tannins, and delicious blackberry, stone, and pepper flavors. There's not a ton of acidity here, but it doesn't matter. I think you could hold on to this for a few years, not that it will improve. But if you're looking for a great value French wine that you don't have to worry about drinking up in the next 12 to 24 months, here it is.

October 18, 2007

Harvest at home

There's been no time to write, but there's a lot to write about. First, I worked a lot last weekend as my own grapes came in at the same time as the last 15+ tons of fruit came into the winery, along with some press loads and lots on punch downs. After three brutal days, I was wiped out Monday but pretty happy about everything.

In the winery, I got to run the press a few times and otherwise just feel like I'm getting more and more comfortable with the idea of leading winery processes rather than just contributing to them. Not that I'm there yet, but for all I still need to learn, I've come a long way. This year has been something of a quantum leap toward doing this stuff commercially. It all feels very real now, even if I still just homebrewing.

On the home front, I picked 200 pounds of Chardonnay from Courting Hill vineyard near Banks on Saturday morning. The weather was beautiful all weekend, though the mornings were foggy. The Chard is Dijon clone 76 on 101-14 rootstock, the vines are about 10 years old. The fruit looked pretty good with a mix of firmer and softer clusters. I sorted out a little rot in the vineyard, brought it home, stomped on it in my small totes, and pressed it in my new basket press. After settling, there's about 14 gallons of juice that's now fermenting in carboys with VL-2 yeast. I'm looking for a crisp, early drinking chard. At 22 brix with bright acidity, I think it should be pretty good.

Then Sunday I got a little more than a half ton of Pinot Noir from the Meredith Mitchell vineyard in the foothills west of McMinnville. I got the fruit through a friend and checked it out in the vineyard a week before harvest. Things looked good then, with ripe looking clusters with little rot and ok flavors even if there was some green in the seeds. Two weeks ago a brix sample showed 20.8, bu that hadn't moved a week later. I hoped another week of better weather might help things dry out and bump sugars up a bit. But when the fruit showed up, there was more ruby color on the insides of the clusters than I noticed in the vineyard. The flavors were still ok, the stems pretty mature, the fruit in good shape and even falling off the stems easily like riper fruit. But my hydrometer showed only 21 brix in a settled juice sample. And after a couple days soaking, the brix is........20.1 according to ETS labs. I was stunned when I found out. But the ph is 3.27, which isn't as low as 20 brix suggest. And there's nearly 4g of malic acid without a lot of potassium, the ph will I hope go up a good bit and soften what might otherwise be a hard, acidic wine.

On Monday morning, after about 14 hours of soaking on the skins, I bled off about 8 gallons of Pinot Noir juice to make rose and, I hope, give a little more concentration to the red wine. I will chaptalize, or add sugar, to the red wine during fermentation to boost the alcohol level. I won't do more than one percent of alcohol, maybe less. The rationale is that the fruit is riper than the sugar level suggests, so I don't think I'll imbalance the wine by boosting the sugar minimally.

The past few days I've been at my normal job. But tomorrow and Saturday I'm back at the winery. We're done bringing in fruit, but there are literally tons of Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Tempranillo in fermentors filling the winery. Lots of punchdowns to do, and lots of pressing and barreling, not to mention cleaning things before putting them away for the season.

Harvest has peaked, the leaves in the vineyards are yellowing, it's already time to start thinking about the coming winter. Despite the crazy highs and lows of the season, it feels amazing to be doing all this. And great to see it coming to an end, for this year at least.

And a tasting note. The 2006 Quercus "Cadmus" Pinot Noir from the irrepressible Michael Beckley up on Ribbon Ridge. This is 2006 all the way, full of rich black raspberries and spice. I found it a bit zinfandel-like, but that's not uncommon with this vintage in Oregon. The group I tried it with seemed to love it. If you like big wines, it's a buy at $32 or something like that.

October 12, 2007

Oregon harvest update

The harvest is at peak at the winery where I'm working. We have 75% of the grapes in and the rest is coming in this weekend.

I've been hoping the weather would warm up and dry out, but last night there was some light rain and today was mostly cloudy down in Yamhill County. Where's the sun? Apparently it's due to come out the next two days, as we might hit 70F probably for the last time until spring.

But it's interesting. There are some people who still aren't picking everything, who want to hold out for more sunshine and riper flavors on the other side of the coming week's rain. I'd join them if I had a choice, and if the forecast was at all positive. Even the 15-day outlook shows rains everyday from Monday onward. I suppose people will find brief dry periods and bring in what they have left. But the latest picked Pinot Noir is going to be a test of cool summer and rainy harvest winemaking. Should be worth watching.

Tomorrow I pick my chardonnay, process it at home, then head down to the winery for lots of pressing and cellar work to clear space. Then Sunday we get 14 tons of mostly red grapes. At a little winery, that's a lot. More soon.

The tasting note for tonight is Anchor Steam beer. To put it simply, my old San Francisco favorite still does the trick. Good night.

October 10, 2007

Picking this weekend

The seven-day forecast looks good, at least for the next four or five days. At the winery we'll be bringing in more fruit over the weekend, and pressing off more lots that were harvested back in later September. It's nice to clear out space in the winery, but we're still filling it back up with newly processed fruit. It's hard to imagine, but that won't keep happening for long.

It's already the second week of October.

Which is exactly why I'm picking this weekend. This warm stretch might be the last shot of good weather we get. With each passing week, you can expect conditions to deteriorate. There's no sign of a warm up. It's time to pick.

On Saturday morning, I'll pick 200 pounds of Chardonnay from Courting Hill vineyard near Banks. I'm getting younger vine Dijon clone stuff, which might be a good thing in a cool year as they ripen quickly and in warm years might be too early. I just want to make some clean white wine for summer drinking. No oak, no malolactic fermentation, we'll see about filtering. At least that's the goal. I'm excited to use my new basket press.

Then on Sunday, a half ton of Pinot Noir that I'm a little worried about. What's new. The grapes are from a cool, higher site. Not exactly your ideal location in a cool year like this. And so the grapes are somewhere in the 21 brix range, which is too low. But like much fruit this year, it looks and tastes more ripe than the sugar shows. I'm hoping just a few days of sunshine will push the sugars up. But I'm excited to make lower alcohol, ripe Pinot Noir. At least I hope the wine I get ends up tasting ripe. We'll know in a few weeks.

For a tasting note, the 2003 J. P. Brun "l'Ancien" Beaujolais V.V., an atypically ripe Gamay wine with a full body and even a raisined note in the aroma. This wasn't low acid Zinfandel by any means, but certainly not the light, lithe Brun Beaujolais we're used to. Glad this was my only experimental bottle. It's fine, and it's not in decline. But it's a bit odd. Bottled with a synthetic cork by the way, which seems controversial these days for oxidation issues. No problem here, but I might not store these wines on their sides if I knew there wasn't a real cork. Don't you think?

October 08, 2007

New grape source

Looks like I'm going with my backup source for grapes, which isn't all bad. It's all Pommard clone, which I think is especially interesting here in Oregon. As is the geology in the coast range where the vineyard is located. There's old basalt in the coast range, but really there's a mix of things depending on where you are. I need to investigate this source, which for now must remain anonymous.

Back at the winery, we processed a small amount of Pinot Noir from a vineyard off Abbey Road. Mostly Pommard with some Wadensvil, which tasted good with some rot (again not a lot) and not the brownest of stems. Seeds were pretty brown though, and the flavors seemed good.

Weather condition today were actually pretty nice, with bright cloudy weather and some warmth, which might continue even with some rain this week. If there is a higher power, the forecast for mostly sunny and upper 60s weather this weekend, lingering into a cloudy but dry start to Monday, will come through. Making next Monday a perfect picking day before the bottom falls out with rain and cold next week.

Don't count on it. But something to think about while I look for the phone number for the vineyard where I'm getting chardonnay. Appaarently it's ready, even though I wasn't expecting it until the weekend at the earliest. I'm learning this is normal in winemaking.

October 07, 2007

Harvest in the Willamette Valley continues

It's raining tonight in Portland, OR, but that's the first real precipitation we've seen in a few days. Instead, we've had mostly dry weather, with some drizzle but mostly dry if cloudy conditions. It's also been breezy, and there's even been sunshine. Still, temps haven't gone above 65F and, as I mentioned, it's raining.

Down at the winery today we processed a few tons of Pinot Noir from a vineyard out west of McMinnville, in the foothills of the coast range. This was clone 113, and it looked ok. Certainly not overripe, definitely showing more rot than I've seen to this point. We sorted quickly but carefully, throwing out a few 35lb trays worth of junk, and and filling a few fermentation bins. Then up on the board to punch down the bins in the "warm" room where the active fermentations are. I get the vigorous ones, with thick caps of skins, some stems, and seeds.

Then pilsner from Heater Allen brewing, still delicious. And again. I really need to try more of this guy's beer. Wow.

And doesn't that beer taste good, especially after I got news Saturday that I might not get Pinot Noir grapes from the vineyard I'm counting on. Seems the crop yield has been lower than expected, and maybe all the orders of grapes can't be filled, we'll just have to see. Oh, come on. I really want to make wine from the same source as last year, to have some connection year over year. But who knows if it will come through. Today, I got a back up plan from a higher elevation site with older Pommard vines. Ripeness might be an issue, we'll go check it out tomorrow and see how it's coming. Either way, looks like I'm set for grapes. But for a day there things were completely up in the air, and I'm finding lots of high highs and low lows this harvest, with the ebb and flow of weather and grapes. Welcome to my new life.

October 05, 2007

Pressing in the sunshine

Spent the afternoon in Yamhill county today. First a visit to Wahle vineyard, where the grapes look really good. That is, aside from a few patches where the clusters have "hens and chicks," meaning large and small berries in the same cluster. The small berries often don't have seeds and, in rainy weather, easily turn to mush that tastes a bit like vinegar and is a siren for rot. Happily, in the many vineyard rows I traversed and clusters I examined up close, I found only one bit of rot. But there are some bad clusters that I'll need to sort out after picking. The grapes look good enough that I'd like to hold off picking as long as I can. Unfortunately, we expect more rain this weekend and on and off rain next week. We'll see how long I can hold out. Leaving the vineyard, I took a moment to check out the view across the valley to the coast range, sunlight streaming though broken clouds scattered across the sky.

Then over to the winery, pressing syrah outside in the sunshine. We drained the new wine from three 1.5 ton bins, bringing the bins down to the press where I literally got in with my boots and scooped out the grape pomace into the 3 ton bladder press. The aroma, the squishing and sloshing, the phyical labor of bucketing and heaving fermented grapes. It's hard work, but very satisfying.

Once we're done, we cleaned everything and went inside to add dry ice to bins full of soaking grapes, then I got up on the 2x12 board and punched down about a dozen bins full or nearly overfull with fermenting grapes. Again, hard but satisfying work. A quick clean up and I was gone by 6pm, pretty early by harvest standards.

This morning I talked to my chardonnay grower. I'm only getting a couple hundred pounds to make some early drinking, crisp white wine. Apparently we're at least a week away from harvesting, so what might have been a big harvest weekend for my homebrewing ends up getting put off for a while.

No tasting notes tonight. However, I did enjoy two samples from the winery where I'm working. More on that after harvest.

October 03, 2007

Harvest update - Many more tons of pinot noir, and syrah

Just back from the longest day yet of this harvest, for me at least. With many tons of grapes already in, there's lots of cellar work to do. So gently mixing fresh bins that aren't fermenting yet, kicking off fermentation in older bins, cleaning the press, punching down the bins that are fermenting (which I somehow avoid), and sorting fruit. Literally tons and tons of fruit.

First Syrah from southern Oregon, big jangly clusters of slightly wilting fruit, ripe and pulpy. We went through just a few tons, all very clean and nicely ripe. I have a bad impression of southern Oregon fruit, for whatever reason. But it is so nice to see this fruit, full of promise, and taste a delicious free run sample of newly fermented syrah from another southern Oregon vineyard that came in a couple weeks ago. These look like promising wines, even if the market doesn't seem too hot on Oregon syrah.

Then numerous tons of Pinot Noir from the Amity area, same source as yesterday but from a different block of the vineyard. Yesterday was all Pommard clone, today is all 115. There's some rot like yesterday, but really not a lot and we sorted it out pretty well. The crop on this particular vineyard seems a bit high, so there are a number of lesser ripe wings and shoulders that we weed out. All together, processing goes well and the fruit looks nicely ripe without high sugars.

After cleaning up, we eat and enjoy a couple wines, one in particular the 2005 Palmina Barbera Santa Barbara County. This is the label of Steve Clifton of Brewer-Clifton for his mostly Italian varietals. I really like this wine. It's clearly new world in style with its impeccable purity and cleanliness. But it's true to Barbera, with perfume, a soft texture, and ripe fruit balanced by bright acidity. What's not to like? I see this is $25 or so, which isn't cheap. But for Barbera of this quality, that's about right, certainly not overpriced.

October 02, 2007

More rain, but the grapes still look good

Today was another picking day at the winery. Happily the grapes arrived before the latest rains swept through the area late this afternoon. We processed several tons of pinot noir, most of it delicious and really quite nice despite the recent weather. However, there was some botrytis (rot) in the center of a few clusters, making me think things might be deteriorating in some vineyards sooner rather than later. That makes me anxious to pick at Wahle vineyard later this week. I just want a nice window of a day or even two of dry weather to let things dry out before picking. Yes, the forecast doesn't look promising. And next week looks rainy too, so I think we're nearing the point where you choose to pick now because it's not going to get any better later. Just a few days ago I was feeling daring and brave about this weather. But wouldn't you know it. Things look different when you're holding rotten fruit in your hands. More soon.

October 01, 2007

More harvest, and great local beer

Today's weather was typical of the past few days (when it hasn't been raining). Cloudy and cool, with brief sunshine, but otherwise ok for bad weather. Tomorrow's supposed to see more rain, but where I'm working we're planning to bring in grapes for the next two days.

The long term forecast is still mixed, and I'm wondering when to pick at Wahle. I'm also getting a couple hundred pounds of chardonnay from Courting Hill out in Banks, where I got Pinot Noir in 2005. I may get both this weekend if the sun comes out for a couple of days. But how to balance that with my winery work? When the weather's good, they want to pick too. We'll see how it goes.

Tasting note for today, and all of the harvest season this fall, is one of the best beers I've ever tasted. At the winery, we have a 5 gallon keg of Heater Allen Brewing Pilsner. Heater Allen is apparently the brand new commercial brewery from longtime homebrewer Rick Allen (not the Def Leppard drummer as far as I can tell) down in McMinnville, OR.

This "pils" is absolutely delicious, with good richness, great hops and acidity, and a long finish. Tasting this beer made me think of the beer halls of Prague. It's easily the most exciting beer I've tried in years. If you're in the area, definitely check this guy out. I'm going to pay a visit as soon as I can.