September 28, 2013

Harvest 2013 update

What a crazy grape harvest 2013 is turning out to be in Oregon's northern Willamette Valley. The short story? Harvest began last week under sunny late summer skies, then picking shut down for days as rain fell intermittently throughout this past week, more picking resumed in the last couple of dryish days, again picking has stopped for an unseasonably wet and windy weekend, and with perhaps 50% of the local grape crop still on the vine, growers and winemakers look at a rainy forecast for clearing and dry days to resume picking.

What does it all mean? First and most importantly, rain isn't bad. People sometimes freak out about rain and down in my native California it seems even the threat of rain brings out the naysayers who write off a vintage before grapes have even been picked. Grapes are tougher than people think, even Pinot noir, and personally I'd rather have lighter more delicate wines from wet harvests than heavy, overripe wines from drought conditions.

That's not to say the wines of 2013 in Oregon will be light. I actually brought in 90% of my grapes last week before any really significant rain, and I'm thrilled with what I have happily fermenting away in the winery as I type. My red wines won't show any affect of the rain we're seeing right now, and that will make for interesting comparisons to wines made from later picked grapes.

This vintage is making me think of a more extreme 2005, where we had a nicely warm summer though not as warm as this year, then an early window to harvest at the earlier ripening sites where grapes were picked without any weather issues. At the end of September 2005, the heavens opened and it rained hard for a couple of days, not unlike this past week. Picking resumed amid up and down conditions, much like we've seen the past few days. Then as the season drew out, some really nice picking windows reemerged and the last of the grapes came in under fair skies. And you know what? 2005 is one of my favorite vintages of the past decade plus.

Who knows how 2013 will turn out, and I sympathize with those who have lots of fruit still out there hanging in this nasty weather. It's easy to say the grapes are tough when you don't really have anything left out there (just a little Pinot blanc to bring in in a week or two). But the truth is, I was afraid of extreme ripeness this fall after the consistently warm but rarely super hot summer we had. Seeing the fruit I brought in last week at sugars in the 22 to 23 range, with pHs in the 3.2 to 3.3 range, wow, that's chemistry I'd like any day. What about the flavors? I thought everything tasted nicely ripe, with the Bjornson fruit reminding me of 2011 with dynamic fruit expression at low sugar and low pH, just what I want and something I never expected given the growing season.

In all, there's no judging a vintage when so many grapes are still on the vine. Given when I've brought in, I'm thrilled for 2013. Given the fruit I've tasted that's still out on the vine, I'm excited so long as we do indeed see some prolonged drying and final ripening time. And before anyone writes things off because of rain, just remember 2005.

September 11, 2013

Harvest approaches

Pinot Noir grapes nearly ready to pick at Crowley Station Vineyard
It's always a controversial time of year. The grape harvest approaches and there are the usual conversations among winemakers of varying stylistic and ego tendencies.

"I was out in the vines yesterday. Looks like things are getting close!"

"What? I haven't even begun sampling."

"Maybe you should. I'm going to start picking next week."

"No, I don't work with early ripening young vines like you do. I won't even begin to think about picking until the end of the month."

"I want fruit in before all the acidity ripens away."

"That's not a problem with my old vines. The flavors aren't there anyway. You can pick by the numbers. You need to wait for the flavors to develop."

Blah, blah, blah.

The upshot is - no one can agree what grape ripeness really is, much less when to best capture it with the all important decision - when to pick.

I was out in the vines the other day - incidentally, with a playwright friend who's latest script is set in the OR wine country - and found things progressing very fast toward harvest.

I'll just admit it. I'm an early picker. I want fruit that isn't too ripe, with good natural acidity and more focus in the final product than huge, explosive flavors that may impress up front but then fade, leaving you hanging.

A big sky from the top of the hill at Crowley Station
This year in the Willamette Valley, flowering was early. Think of that as the time you put something in the oven to start baking. Put it in early and you figure you'll be taking it out early, especially if the temperature was running warm. Sure enough, summer has been warm - rarely hot though - and the grapes have been progressing toward "done" consistently ahead of a normal schedule.

Normally we might harvest in the last week of September into mid-October. In 2011, we harvested in late October into early-November, ridiculously late compared to the norm. This year, we're looking at a harvest perhaps a week earlier than "normal."

How did things look the other day? Sugars in Pinot Noir grapes ranged from 18 to 21 brix, or percent sugar (essentially). pHs were in the 3.0 to 3.15 range. By the numbers, I'd love brix at 22 to 23, and pH in the 3.3 range, perhaps lower, perhaps a bit higher if necessary to wait for - yes - flavors.

Flavor is more complicated than it might seem. Winemakers always talk about flavors - wanting explosive flavors that they'll capture in their wines. Except I don't really want explosive anything in my wine. And we all know from cooking that if you're going to cook something first, then add it to something else to cook together, you probably don't fully cook the thing at the outset to account for the additional cooking it will see.

Translated to grapes and wine, I want grapes with flavors that are appropriate for wine, not fruit juice. Wine is the product of fermentation, an additional kind of cooking if you will, so I'm looking for flavors that will translate well through that entire process (I haven't even mentioned the curing process of aging wine in barrels). It seems though that many winemakers want flavors in their fruit that, once made into wine, seem to lack energy or complexity, more like a bucket of ribs (delicious as that can be) instead of the more subtle, perhaps more complex flavor of appropriately rare beef.

Ok, enough with the analogies. The other day, the grapes sure looked, tasted and even measured out in ways that suggest harvest is just about here. Once we're through this week of hot summer temps, we'll see a cool down and perhaps some rain showers. Then I think it will be time to pick.

We'll continue to measure sugar and acidity. We'll continue to taste. But like with cooking, sometimes you just know when it's time, when something is ready. My focus right now is on that moment, for each vineyard I work with. It's exciting to know it's getting closer, really close.