October 29, 2006

Are you reading the harvest reports?

Just back from another long day at the winery. Today saw the last fruit processed, one lot of spicy Gewurtztraminer and two separate lots of Riesling, one especially botrytized. This was my first opportunity to see and taste this much botrytis in white grapes. Was there enough to make a dessert Riesling? Maybe so, maybe not. It will all depend on how things progress.

Today began cold and foggy, my hands numb on the sorting line. By lunch I lay on the hill in the weak but still warm sun, resting for a moment before continuing. And I thought of harvest everywhere, and I remembered that Louis/Dressner Selections has terrific first hand 2006 harvest reports from many terrific French and maybe two Italian producers. Don't miss them.

October 23, 2006

Harvest Update

I pressed my ½ ton of Wahle Vineyard Pinot Noir last Friday, a few days after the brix fell below zero. Like many Pinot Noir makers, I wanted to give the new wine a chance to macerate on the grape skins for a few days before pressing to give more complexity.

Pressing took hours, as I had a small rented basket press that drained into two tubs that I rotated, one to catch the new wine while I took the other to the makeshift barrel room to pour into my barrel. You might be shocked at home much air exposure wine can see during pressing, but I think some oxygen exposure is good for the wine at this stage. I filled the 228L barrel with mostly free run juice and then two carboys with press wine, all of which tasted delicious if a little alcoholic.

On Sunday I tasted the wine after it had a chance to settle in the barrel just a bit. Still a vibrant purple color with some haziness, the aroma showed more winey fragrance and in the mouth the wine shows sweet fruit, less alcohol than before, and some nice acid that will decrease through secondary fermentation in the coming months.

Overall, I think the wine is quite good. Clearly leagues above what I’ve made to this date. Of course it’s early so there’s no congratulations yet. But I know I’m on to something here, and it honestly feels real good.

Meanwhile, life goes on at the winery where I’m working harvest. Things are definitely winding down for the season, with only some late harvested whites coming in later this week. All of the reds should be pressed and in barrel by then, so my last day will be next Monday.

The weather has been a little rainy, but with nice sunny days in between. No serious botrytis in the grapes still hanging, but there should be some nice dessert wines this year, noble sweet or not.

It’s been quite a season for me, with some serious ups and downs. But in the end, I think I find myself in a very good place, with more experience, with good wine in my cellar, and no less interest in continuing down this slightly insane path of winemaking. Who knows where it will lead.

By the way, one of the first days of harvest, some dudes from the University of Oregon stopped by the winery for a story they were doing for the college newspaper. Their story is here, sort of choppy but give the college kid a break. What's really cool is the video story that's linked here. Check it out. I’m in a few pictures, the guy in a white t-shirt with green silkscreen, misidentifed at one point as the winery owner raking grapes out of a bin. Sure, that would be nice.

October 16, 2006

Heading less than zero

Things are looking very good with my 2006 Wahle vineyard Pinot Noir. After lightly warming the must last Wednesday, all three bins began natural fermentation within twenty four hours. The ferments reached a peak temp of 93F over the weekend, and were above 90F for just over a day.

I battled some H2S, an eggy smell caused by nutrient deprived yeast that is a form of reduction. Air helps neutralize it, so I stirred the vats vigorous to add air and added some yeast nutrient to feed the ferment. Everything smells very nice now.

First brix reading two nights ago was 11, down from 24 at the start. Last night was 5.5. Tonight was 0 and maybe a hair under. I’m looking for –1.5 or so for total dryness. Cap temp is around 80 after tonight’s punchdown, and I’m cooling the fermentation room to let the wine temp cool gradually as primary fermentation finishes.

How does the new wine taste? A touch sweet even at 0 brix, but almost pretty smelling with fine tannin that I’ll watch closely. The acidity is likely covered by the sugar, and I hope so or else this could be a softer wine than I was hoping.

Pressing will likely be Thursday or Friday, depending on how things go. Just have to get the barrel and other containers prepped and the barrel area cleaned out. Then it will be time to open some nice bottles of wine and feast.

October 11, 2006

More havest, with actual wine notes

Monday I was back at the winery and it proved to be a cathartic day. Things are back on track.

I suppose it didn't hurt that Monday actually started on Sunday night, when I showed up for a nice harvest dinner with the extended winery crew. A former employee cooked a fabulous meal centered around two tremendous ducks stuffed with chantrells, leeks, and various meat. And of course we sampled a bevy of terrific wines.

Among the whites were the 1995 Evesham Wood Chardonnay Mahonia Vineyard from the south Salem Hills, young and aromatic. The 2001 Dauvissat Chablis Grand Cru Le Clos took a little time to open, but showed beautiful stony terroir and a lightly honeyed note. The 1999 Domaine Rollin Pere & Fils Pernand Vergelesses Blanc 1er Cru Sous Fretille had a similar stony quality, also very young and fragrant. A 2002 Domaine Serene Etoile Chardonnay from the Dundee Hills was more rich than the others with a yeasty quality, but still showed nice restraint and balance. Apparently no new oak on this one.

The top red for me was the 1999 Pavelot Le Corton Grand Cru had the perfume of the night, just tremendous but also young. Not so full on the palate as the others, but so subtle and complex already. Very fine wine. The 2000 Vincent Girardin Corton Bressands Grand Cru on the other hand was more dense and rich, but not oaky and quite attractive. I brought the 2001 Jean Foillard Morgon Cote du Py from the Beaujolais, and it was quite nice with a beautiful fragrance. It was lighter on the palate as it should be, but showed perfect maturity and really showed well. In the mix was another good Domaine Serene wine, this the 2000 Mark Bradford Pinot Noir that was a bit gaudy but otherwise tasted nice.

For dessert we had the powerful 2003 Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, sweet with an eau de vie fragrance. The 2003 Baumard Quarts du Chaume was a little controversial, some saying it was a little corked. Perhaps muted, but fresh to me and a little fat. I preferred the 2002 Belle Pente Riesling Vendange Tardive from Oregon, sweet but so nicely balanced with great length. Terrific with Tarte Tatin.

Then off to sleep in the crew's quarters before another long day of winery work. All of the red grapes and most of the whites are in, so duties in the winery shift from processing fruit to managing the cold soaks, kicking off fermentation in the bins that have finished soaking, punching down the active fermentations, and of course pressing the earliest lots that have already finished fermentation. And don’t forget preping barrels, and cleaning and loading the press, and cleaning again.

The weather has been terrific lately, and it helps to mix up the busy day with the occasional gaze upon the gorgeous scenery. I especially like the end of the day, when the long shadows and fading light reveal new details in the broad landscape. The hay fields have a hint of green again, and though the days are still warm, it’s only for a brief time each day as the nights grow long and cold.

Back at home, at this very moment I’m warming up my cold soaks to try and get fermentation started. I haven’t actively cooled them for days but they remain in the high 50s, which won’t help fermentation to kick off. So I’m heating the room and using an aquarium heater to boost things to the mid-60s or so and see if I can get the yeasts to start making some heat of their own.

Time to stir and then back to the winery tomorrow.

October 08, 2006

Harvest continues

It’s been a tough ten days.

First, the fun part. I got just under a half ton of ripe Pinot noir from the Wahle vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA here in the northern Willamette Valley. Ripe as in 25.5 brix, or percent sugar, soaking up to just over 26 after a few days of cold maceration.

The fruit looked immaculate, except for some obvious dehydration and occasional raisined berries. Those raisins take some time to release their sugar into the crushed mass of grapes and juice that fermentation will turn into wine.

Now, raisins in Pinot noir? I know. We’ll see how the flavors turn out in the wine, but the juice doesn’t taste raisiny at all. And there weren’t that many of them. More important at this point is that there was no rot and essentially no sorting to be done before crushing.

I got the grapes this past Wednesday. Why not earlier, when sugar levels were lower but flavors already nice? That’s where the trouble begins.

Basically, between my regular job and my harvest job, and my wife going out of town for a close friend’s wedding last weekend leaving me in the care of two young kids for four days and nights, I simply didn’t have the time. That and, lucky as I was to get the fruit processed at the winery where I’m working, I was stuck with their shifting schedule for processing red grapes. Wednesday turned out to be the only day that would work, so Wednesday it was, 26 brix grapes and all.

Such is life at harvest. As I wrote last time, you just can’t always get the grapes when you’d like. Not that I’m complaining. My homebrewing is still experimental, and this year I’m learning how to deal with slightly overripe fruit. The “real wine” lover in me wants to make wine just from what I harvest. But reality this year and my desire to get experience with things, even if only to why I might not do them in the future, wins out.

So, out came five gallons of lightly pigmented juice after one night of soaking to make some early drinking rosé. And in went the same amount of distilled water with some tartaric acid, to dilute the sugar level to approximately 24 brix and increase the acid level from 5g per liter to something between 7 and 8. Adding water to make wine? Yes, sacriledge. But I don’t want to end up with 15.5% alcohol Pinot noir with a ph above 4.0. Even if I did, that kind of low acid wine is just waiting for spoilage. Lower the ph to more normal ranges and you’re much more likely to end up with a drinkable, and giftable, wine.

I’m experimenting. Perhaps it will work ok. Perhaps not. There’s only one way to find out. And judging by what I’m seeing and hearing from around the valley, I’m not alone. No one wants to talk about adding water – acid is less taboo. And for those who wonder – won’t water dilute the flavors? Not really. So much flavor and color is still in the skins and only starting to leech into the juice, adding a little water now really just lowers the sugar level. And only a bit really.

Now I’m struggling to find time to monitor the wine as much as I’d like, not to monkey around with it any more than I have, but to learn by observing it and smelling it and generally getting to know it better. But work calls and my family calls, and sleep calls. Most significantly for my body and mind, the winery calls.

Really, I’m working only every third day, so that’s not so bad. But I’m struggling. It’s hard to find a rhythm when you don’t work every day, though I’m not sure my body would stand up to repeated 12 to 14 hour days without much downtime. Am I cut out for this winemaking stuff?

More significantly, I just don’t know my way around a professional winery either as much as I thought, or at least as much as I think I should know at this point. I’m not a total newbie, but truth be told my experience is not deep. And my mechanical nature has never been strong, and you’ll quickly find out that in a winery, just like on a contruction site, being handy is a big plus. I’m not very handy.

So I’m slower with tasks then I’d like. Many processes at this winery are new to me, so I’m forever bugging my co-workers with questions, then asking for clarification when their hurried answers don’t make much sense. Then asking where I can find whatever tools or gear they’re telling me to use. Needless to say, they get frustrated and I get frustrated with myself and, while it's not like the whole experience has been a disaster, far from it really, each day has taken a toll on me. I hate not knowing my way around a place, and I find sometimes I leave for my hour drive home a bit broken down.

Maybe some of it is just the physical work. Or maybe I just need to toughen up and accept that I’ve got a lot to learn and, as much as I’d like this to be more of a learning experience, a real internship, my job is to work hard and long hours and get things done quickly and right. No matter how many other things are on my mind, including the biggie – can I hack this kind of work?

So it’s back to the winery tomorrow, then back to my “real” job Tuesday after essentially not being there for much of the past couple weeks. My kids want me to take them to the park, but it’s raining lightly. And my own wine calls.

I’ll write again when I find the time and energy.