Wednesday, October 26, 2011

BRAMBLES: Harvesting Wine Questions

Muscadet from the Nantes of the Pays de la Loire region in Brittany or a cool vintage mid-Loire Vouvray could have been the recent Wine Educator's Certification Exam dry white wine control sample. Red choices included a recent vintage Carneros Pinot Noir and a large producers Beaujolais Village, that may have been the result of carbonic maceration.  The challenge was to determine which was which in a field of other similar varietals. Weeks after the benchmark exam, these and many other questions persist for this aspiring Wine Educator.

Loire Chenin Blanc
Muscadet, also known as Melon de Bourgogne,  is the volume leading grape of France's Loire river valley region. Vouvray is a wine region east of Tours, producing mostly wines from the high acid Chenin Blanc grape in styles that can be in a range of dry to sparkling. This was going to be a tough identification, because both were austere and green fruit influenced. Isolated from the other red wine samples, I knew Napa Valley's Carneros appellation as a cool climate region, known for some of the North Coasts best Chardonnays and Pinot Noir's. But recent harvests have been cool, resulting in high-acid wines that may not exhibit the ripe richness of any typically characteristic fruit. In effect, they can be more Gamay or 'Beaujolais-like'. To complicate matters, the Gamay vineyards of the most-southern Burgundy region, enjoyed a warm and rich harvest in 2009, producing more wines that were actually resembling Burgundy AOC Pinot Noirs. As with other wine exams, choices had to be made based on accumulated knowledge and perception. That is not unlike the annual choices premium grape farmers make every harvest season, especially this mild year.
Cote du Beaune Pinot Noir Harvest

In the weeks of this year's cool and wet Spring, local vine flowering and berry set were challenged. Fewer flowers, many knocked off by seasonal rains, poor pollination and the resulting shatter of a weak berry set indicated early on that the years harvest would be drastically affected. Trying to farm my few Sonoma County vines sustainably, an outbreak of a fungal powdery mildew, encouraged by cool temperatures, veiled Springs newly grown canopy, just as my vine curtain's fruit was forming. Outside of the seasonal rains, I purposely stopped supplemental irrigation, the canopy was then de-leafed to improve air circulation/exposure and an application of a sulfur mixture was applied to abate the fungus outbreak. Then I crossed my fingers.
Bortrytis Noble Rot or Grey Mold
The first of week of October brought un-welcomed rains to Sonoma County's grape crop. Local growers were finding their Chardonnay crop still under-ripe, with levels of sugar stuck well below the optimum for an anticipated harvest.  It was now a waiting game.  Some fruit was already showing signs of the bortrytis fungus, or noble rot, where the moldy skins break down and remaining sugars concentrate.  This would be great for Semillion, but a blight for the counties heavy volume Chardonnay crop. In recent dry days, the winds blew thru to dry the thin-skinned fruit clusters and the mild sun warmed the air.  But would it be enough to hold back the fungal spores that were waiting for the chance to thrive in our Chardonnay vineyards?

Magic in the cellars of Bordeaux
A few weeks of dry weather and sunny skies have given us recent optimism here in wine country.  With more than half of our counties premium wine grape crop of 65,000 acres harvested, mostly thick-skinned, late season ripening varieties like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon remain to mature. Due to fewer warm days this season and the early rains, the optimistic Napa Register recently reported that this years less-ripe, lower alcohol wines could be the makings of a spectacular vintage. Other grape farmers chimed in following an article in The Drinks Business, which claimed this year's rains "ruined" the harvest. As expected, the responding growers thought the idea too simplistic and too generalized, in part because they profess the ability to develop wonderful lower alcohol wines from grapes of optimum flavor and acidity.

In point of fact, great wines are made in every vintage, and great winemakers will consistently get the most out of the quality fruit they receive. Our global evolution in viticultural science, vineyard management practices and enology simply means that winemakers today have better tools and understanding to produce quality wines.  The proof will be in the bottles of the 2011 vintage.  But not in my ornamental grape garden.  The ripening grapes that were not attacked by Grey Mold have now been eaten by migrating starlings. Overall, I think it will be a much lighter grape harvest this season.