November 29, 2011

Harvest 2011 part 6: barreling

At this point, the new wine from each fermenter settles for a few days in a separate container. Press wine is kept separate as well. Everything settles for a few days before the wine goes into barrel. All that's left to do now is fill barrels.

Filling barrels means washing barrels first, then smelling them to see if they're fit for wine. These two look beautiful and smell sweet and fresh despite a few years of prior use. Good French oak - all we use - is a wonderful thing for wine.

Each barrel gets filled and tagged with a note on what's inside. Barrels are paired side by side on racks, the racks then stacked three high and put away into the barrel storage area.

To wait. And wait.

Through the winter and spring, when the malolactic fermentation will happen, softening what are now young, raw wines. Then into the summer, before the wines will be drawn off the fine sediment that settles out in barrel and blended for bottling before the next harvest.

Once the last barrel is filled and the final tanks and hoses cleaned out, harvest is done. Now it's time for a harvest dinner to celebrate the vintage. Tomorrow night in fact, I can't wait.

November 27, 2011

Harvest 2011 part 5: draining

Draining and pressing is what you do once the red wine is done fermenting. 

We begin by tipping a small fermenter and putting a siphon into the grapes and new wine.

As the wine is gently pumped out, the grape skins floating on the surface of the liquid gradually drop to the bottom of the bin. I like how they cling to the top of the "torpedo" that sucks out the wine.

The new wine goes into a tank to settle before going into barrel. The grape skins go into the press to squeeze out every last bit of juice. Here you see how we use the fork lift to dump the grapes into the press.

The big pan under the press captures the milky press wine, which we pump into a separate tank to settle before it goes also into barrel.

 The pump, with hoses not in proper order.

 Wise advice on the press, full of moving parts.

The harvest lunch table. Ok, this is exceptional, but nearing the end of harvest means more time to celebrate things. All that's left to do is put the new wine into barrel.

November 21, 2011

Harvest 2011 part 4: plunging

Pumping over Vincent Pinot Noir, once early on to give oxygen to the yeast.
Waiting this year for the fermenters to start their fermenting was especially nerve wracking for me. Last year one fermenter went a little sideways on me. The resulting wine was good, just not what it might have been. This year, a few days into crush I was sure something was terribly wrong with everything. I felt an inexplicable doubt about the whole process, the doing nothing, waiting for luck to happen. Still we did nothing, waiting for some good carbon dioxide to emerge before plunging the first time. Finally it happened.

Plunging Bjornson vineyard, never shy on color. Very interesting, muscular Pin
Before harvest, a thread on Wine Berserkers offered a nice debate on how many or few punchdowns make sense for Pinot noir. One camp says just a few are necessary. Another camp, predominant in the U.S., says no, no, no, frequent punchdowns are required to extract color and flavor, not to mention keeping the fermentation healthy and happy. I felt some bravado and wrote about how we don't punchdown much, how at a winemaking conference we heard from a famous producer in Burgundy about the "one" punchdown they do for the top end Musigny. Turns out we did between eight and 10 punchdowns in each fermenter over 18 days, more than I would have guessed but still not a lot compared to usual regimes locally. The wines don't lack for color and the fermentations were extremely healthy, so it just didn't make sense to do anything more. Same with yeast foods or anything else. The grapes were terrific this year. And plunging fewer times helps let the natural core of heat in the fermenter build up, rather than constantly mixing things up and wondering why the temperature isn't going up.

I'm not about color in Pinot noir, but this is remarkable nonetheless.
The result? Beautiful, young, raw wine that needs time in wood. Time it now gets, harvest completely done, all new wines in barrel. The vibrant color of new wine is unmatched. You may not love the green apple acidity of this unfinished drink, but that color is remarkable. Astonishing even.

November 16, 2011

Harvest 2011 part 3: waiting

Last time I wrote about bringing in several tons of Pinot noir from Armstrong Vineyard on this past October 20. Turns out that same day, we also brought in Vincent Wine Company's one ton of Pinot from Zenith Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills. With the three fermenters full of Armstrong fruit, we ended the day with four full fermenters of destemmed grapes ready to become wine.

So how does that happen? Every which way you can imagine. You can add yeast or let ambient yeast spontaneously ferment the grapes. You can chill the grapes before they start to ferment to let them "cold soak," so that color, texture, flavor and aroma elements in the grapes can gently steep into the grape juice before alcohol has been created. You can heat the grapes to encourage fermentation, much as you might put dough in a warm place to rise. You can add nutrients to feed the yeast and keep them healthy. Sugar to boost alcohol levels in the finished wine in cold years like this one. Acidity to boost acid levels if the grapes are too ripe (not much of an issue this year). Tannin to fix color and, yes, soften the texture of the finished wine. Enzymes to help the grape matter break down more readily, for enhanced extraction. Sulfur dioxide as a preservative. You name it.

No matter what you choose to do or not do in your winemaking, fermentation is all about sugar in the grapes and grape juice changing into alcohol, producing carbon dioxide and heat in the process. The winemaker simply wants to guide the process. Our process is to do that extremely minimally. This year the approach was this:
  • Pick and process the grapes
  • Let them soak at ambient temperature until they begin to ferment on their own
  • Do one "pump over" - using a pump to suck out the juice at the bottom of the fermenter and spraying it over the top, to mix the juice and give air to the yeast
  • Do nothing for days until fermentation is active enough so you get a little hit from the carbon dioxide of fermentation
  • That means nothing - no punch downs or pump overs - just a little spritz of sulfur if necessary to keep things fresh
  • Once fermentation is nice and active - after about 10 days - the first punch down is highly aerative to feed the yeast more
  • Then punchdowns once a day for the six to eight days as the yeast convert sugar to alcohol and temperatures in the fermenter get into the 80sF if not 90F.
  • Drain the new wine and press the grape skins to get everything out
  • Let the new wine settle for a couple days, then put into barrel for the winter
With the late harvest and cold temperatures when it came time to make wine, we played with some aquarium heaters to help encourage the spontaneous fermentation in some bins. With the last fermenter, we didn't even use heat. We just waited, with patience knowing everything would work out. And it did.

In the end, we saw some nicely flavored and colored wines from Armstrong and Zenith. Good raw material you might say, fully ripe tasting but with alcohols in the 12.5% and bright acidity, wine that will change dramatically in barrel but already you know it's going to be good. 2011 is that kind of year.

November 14, 2011

Harvest 2011 part 2: grapes!

8am, October 20 at Armstrong vineyard on Ribbon Ridge. Picking bins scattered around the vineyard and a fast crew of pickers working through the rows. The Vincent Wine Company harvest begins.

In most years, October 20 would see the last grapes coming in to local wineries. Ok, some late, late pickers and people who make Riesling would still be holding on. The point remains, this was a very late beginning to harvest and yet look at the sky. Beautifully blue, the ground dry, even a bit dusty after more than a week of dry weather (that would continue almost through the month).

A little while later, four tons of gorgeous Pinot noir clusters rest in a series of bins, waiting to be loaded on a flat bed truck that will take them to the winery. As the bins get filled with buckets of freshly picked grapes, a few of us pick out any rotten clusters, leaves and anything that doesn't look good.

I always like to taste berries and occasionally chomp into a cluster to see how things taste, careful to avoid seeds. This year, the flavors are ripe but the acidity seems strong, giving a fresh quality to the flavors, an energy that I'm looking for. The grape skins seem relatively thick, perhaps because of the cool year, and I think that I want to make sure the wines don't end up too tannic. File that thought away.

Later at the winery, our trusty grower Doug Ackerman (right) and several other kind volunteers help do another sort of the grapes. Again, we pull out any rotten cluster we find, any leaves, anything we don't want in the fermenters. It's tedious work but vital for producing great wine. The volunteers' reward? Fun talking wine and everything else you can imagine on the sorting line. Then some dinner and wine for taking home. Thank you volunteers!

From here, the clusters go through the destemmer to separate the grapes from their stems, dropping the berries into a fermenter waiting below. We end up filling three small fermenters with the fruit from three different blocks at Armstrong, each to be fermented and barrel aged separately before we blend in about year before bottling. Now comes the waiting period, where the grapes sit undisturbed until they ferment on their own. This year, as usual, it takes several days to begin. More on that next time.

November 12, 2011

Harvest 2011, part 1 - it's a miracle

Yes, always.

Seriously, that has to be the answer if anyone ever again asks if the harvest is going to turn out. After this year, how could you say any different?

In the brief history of wine grape growing in Oregon's Willamette Valley, this year was historically cold and late. How late? Bud break in Pinot noir vines that should be in full swing in mid-April was still happening after Mother's Day because spring was so wet and cold. Flowering should happen by mid-June. This year it finally occurred on and after the fourth of July for the same reason. But the weather was great for flowering, meaning that lots of flowers that might have been knocked off by June wind and rain actually set as fruit, making for a potentially huge crop that might never get ripe. So growers immediately went into major triage mode, cutting off lots of new grape clusters to reduce the size of the crop in the hope of making sure what remained on the vines would actually ripen. Crop thinning happens every year, but this year it was more important than ever.

A nice benchmark for grape growing locally is that you might harvest grapes 100 days after flowering. So when flowering peaked in early July, I wrote here that we might begin picking around October 12. Ideally you would get more than those 100 days to further develop grape flavors and tannin, but this year that would put harvest into late October and early November for the coolest sites. If you don't know Willamette Valley weather, understand that we have warm and dry summers that often last into October. This is a great place for grape growing. But ask any kid around here - come Halloween it's usually cold, wet and windy. You really don't want to be sitting there in July thinking about harvesting grapes around Halloween, so you can imagine how hard it was to stay optimistic this year.

July proceeded to be relatively cool though dry, with August continuing the dry streak and summer temperatures finally coming on strong. I believe we didn't hit 90F locally until mid-August, ridiculously late for such a benchmark. Then the season began to turn in our favor. September was warmer overall than July and we entered October still facing a mid-month start to harvest, but on the cusp of something special if the weather held out.

It didn't, at least at first. Early October saw a quick change to autumn with cold temps and rain. Immediately we saw media reports of a ruined harvest, before any grapes had been picked. I'll admit, it was hard to remain optimistic, but what choice did we have? Then the skies cleared and the rest of October was amazingly mild and notably dry, perfect for ripening grapes. Finally, on October 20 it was time for our first pick of the season, at Armstrong vineyard on Ribbon Ridge.

How did it go? The picture at the top shows the sunrise October 20 from Bell Road as I made my way out to the vineyard. No fog, no rain, just a beautiful, perfect morning that told me we indeed had something special about to happen. Stay tuned for part 2, which won't take another month to write up. Harvest is finally about done and I couldn't be more excited for the results. Plus, now I have a little free time again.