September 23, 2008

Barrel buying and harvest talk

Last week I stopped by a local winery to buy a used barrel for this year’s homemade wine. For the past few years I’ve been buying five-year-old French oak barrels here for around $50 each, and I’ve been pleased with what I’m getting. That is, a well made barrel that’s been treated well and is still more than sufficient for winemaking, especially if you aren’t looking for new oak flavor in your wine.

I’ve actually found that these so-called “neutral” barrels still give a bit of wood flavor to the wine, though it may be the effects of slow oxidation in cask that I perceive as oakiness as much as oak flavor from the wood itself. Older barrels don’t give anything close to the flavor of new or one-year barrels. Yet when you smell one of these “neutral” barrels, they still have a toasty sweetness that I pick up later in the wine. Seems reasonable to think some of that really is getting into the wine. When I hear more experienced winemakers scoff at that, I wonder if they just don’t hang around new oak so much.

While waiting for one of the French harvest interns to get the barrel down to my car, I talked with the cellar master about the upcoming harvest. Apparently, this particular producer usually starts harvesting around September 19. We’re past that already, and this year things will likely wait until early in the second week in October. That two to three week delay is pretty much what I’m hearing from others in the area.

Later harvests can produce the best wines, but they’re nerve wracking. Around here, October sees the most dramatic change in temperature of any month in the year. In Portland, our average temperature is still 70F (21C) on October 1. By the end of the month, it’s in the high 50s (15C). You simply can’t count on good weather for too long in October, but that’s really what we need for an exceptional vintage.

Nevertheless, talking with this cellar master, it’s clear he’s genuinely excited for a great harvest. The vines are very healthy, the fruit clean and disease free. I’m finding this to be true almost everything here in the northern Willamette Valley. Acids are still high of course and some mild sunny weather into October should give wines with great freshness, fragrance and nerve. Just what more classically inclined producers are looking for.

Still, I can’t deny my stomach’s churning. We had a warm start to September but recently it’s been cool and a little wet. Nothing bad really. The vines could use a drink. We’re just losing time for nice ripening weather. By the end of the week, things apparently should turn sunny and warmer. Longer term forecasts, such as they are, call for rain in early October. We’ll see. As I wrote before, pay attention to the weather and you’ll know how the mood is around here.

At least this isn’t Burgundy. The intern who brought out the barrel told me about the reports of dreadful weather back home. Nevertheless, as wine people tend to be, he was excited about our upcoming harvest, and perhaps more excited about heading to the southern hemisphere for harvest 2009 this spring.

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