September 16, 2012

Harvest approaches in the northern Willamette Valley

Sunday's no day of rest around here, especially mid-September when the weather is still warm (almost hot) and the grapes in the northern Willamette Valley are nearing harvest. Instead of a lazy day watching football on the couch (that was tonight, and the dominant SF 49ers were worth every moment), I went with a winemaker friend to several vineyards around our area that we work with. We walked rows, tasted fruit, picked individual berries to do quick sugar tests to see about ripeness, and generally shot the shit about what we saw and tasted and what we think will happen with the coming harvest.

The highlights? Ripeness is coming on fast, too fast I fear given a long dry summer that's not letting up any time soon. Instead of 80s and sunny, I could really go for some 60s and even a little wet, just to water the vines a bit. This late in the season it's normal to see some stress in the plants (locals, check your gardens and tell me if the tomato plants looks as vibrant as they did in July - didn't think so). A little water from the skies would be lovely. Not so much that we get rot or dilute flavors, rather just enough to slow the vines down a bit and draw out ripening.

Are things really alarming? Not at all. Every year around this time it's common to get a little nervous about all the harvest work we're facing. And if it's not too warm, it's too cold, or too wet or too dry or too perfect even and that can't last. No matter what, wine makers fret about stuff, so here I am. Really, things look great. But what else would we do if we didn't fret and gnash teeth about everything?

Armstrong Vineyard on Ribbon Ridge is the furthest ahead of my Vincent Wine Company sites. Lower leaves are yellowing as the canopy ages and ripening approaches. Berry samples in the 667 and 115 clone blocks were 20.3 and 20.6 brix, respectively. That's the measure of the sugar percentage in the grapes. Ideal is around 22 to 23 in my book, some want things higher (or much higher). A good rule of thumb is that you'll gain one brix a week, so we're a couple weeks out from picking. However, that's a very general average. Hot weather can accelerate ripening, dramatically so. Cold weather can essentially stop sugar accumulation. Rain can even knock sugar levels down through simple dilution. But given the average, I think we'll pick in two weeks. That means I better get a lot of stuff ready between now and then. I'm very excited about the new winery, but that adds some complexity. Imagine throwing a party in a brand new house. How can you help the guests when you barely know where everything is. We'll figure it out.

Moving south to the Eola Hills, Bjornson Vineyard was happily further behind. It's a slightly cooler area (little differences can affect wine dramatically, do note). It's also a bit higher in elevation. I'd usually expect picking dates at Bjornson to be a week or two behind Armstrong. And that's great. We don't want all the fruit to ripen at the same time. It's like a restaurant having to serve all the night's meals at once. Instead, it's nice to have a few weeks of harvest time so you're bringing in fruit gradually, perhaps even barreling down wine from early picks before the last grapes are in. Nice to use a given fermenter more than once in a season!

Then Zenith Vineyard, lower in elevation than Bjornson and usually a bit earlier to ripen but not a early as Armstrong (we did pick Zenith and Armstrong on the same date last year, but that was an unusual year). Zenith is a little unusual this year, with some lighter colored berries still that a few more days of heat will likely darken. As with Bjornson, things at Zenith were obviously not so close to picking, and that's great. We had flowering a bit late this year, and because we want the fruit to have good "hang time" from the day it's set from flower to berry, until the day it's picked, I'm happy to see the grapes take their time to ripen.

So how did things taste? Wine makers often talk about how flavors in the vineyard will most guide picking decisions, I'm delighted how things are progressing. Since the fruit's not "ripe" yet, obviously acids are pretty tart still (enough to remind yourself not to sample too much or you'll get an upset stomach). But what a delight to taste sweetness in the grapes, which until now are just hard, green berries throughout the summer that seem like they'll never be ready to pick. Really, flavors are tricky. Ripe grapes do "explode" with flavor in your mouth, but I think a lot of people wait for that explosion to get bigger and bigger...and the wines they end up with are similarly big. I'm looking for explosive ripeness but with the right acidity or energy to keep things fresh and brisk, not syrupy and cloying. We're making wine, not fruit juice, right? So I'll keep tasting throughout the growing season, but really it's not about finding fruit you want to eat all day long. It's about fruit that's just getting to that point, or getting to getting to that point, so that you have fruit that's going to make great wine, not just great fruit juice.

Really, I'm more focused on the health of the vine and the grape clusters. Is there mold anywhere? No. Mildew? No. Other issues that may affect wine quality? No, everything looks great. We just need to finish things off well and I think we'll have a lovely vintage. And instead of focusing on sugar, I'm more interested in following the pH of the grapes, to find that spot just before acids drop off quickly and pH shoots up. That's the time I want to pick, really no matter where the sugars are.

Oh, and I'm going to get Pinot from one other site starting this year, Crowley Station, on the west side of the Eola Hills, not far from Zenith but just too far to get to today. It was a long enough day and the 49ers weren't going to wait for me. I'll get back there soon but I'm sure it's in the Zenith or Bjornson time frame. Nothing to think too much about yet. Really, Armstrong will be first and that's enough to get me finalizing harvest plans, cleaning equipment, etc. The rest will fall into line. Is it time yet? I can't wait.

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