Friday, September 17, 2010

The Waiting Game

If you keep an eye on wine news at all, you've probably been reading all about late harvests and impending rain. Depending on if you speak with a farmer or a marketing person, you'll get a very different slant on what's going on around the state.

Farmers are naturally doomsdayers. If they say it's going to rain 0.25 to 0.5" a farmer will say that we'll surely get at least half an inch, if not more. Then we'll surely have rot, and on top of it, because the harvest's behind, there's going to be half of the appellation's growers who won't even get ripe fruit off the vine this year.

If you talk to a marketing person, in their area they'll surely get a quarter inch or less, and of course the growers all have rot in check -- it shouldn't be an issue -- and, on top of it, yes, the weather's cool and harvest is late, but think of the wonderful hang time the grapes are getting! They're going to be fabulous, best vintage ever!

The truth, of course, is always somewhere in the middle.

What's happening here in Anderson Valley is that they're now predicting less than an inch of rain this weekend. We personally only start to get really, truly worried at an inch or above. That's when berries can start splitting, and rot starts feeding on that released sugar. Given the reduced crop levels we're seeing and the good airflow in the canopy, I'm not sure rot will be too much of a problem because of this rain. Of course, in farming, never say never.

By the way, the improved airflow I referenced above came from pulling leaves earlier in the season to try and expose the fruit to more sunlight, thus speeding up ripening and reducing mold pressure. This backfired on some growers, causing the fruit to become sunburn and raisin up when we had several days in a row of 100-ish degree weather. If you were really on top of your vineyard, you then went out and cut off that sunburned fruit, further reducing your crop level for the year, which is good for future rot and the winemaking process, but bad for a grower's pocketbook. More labor going into less fruit is never a good thing, financially, unless you're going to get paid more for the grapes because you did it.

At least sunburn doesn't seem to be too terrible here in the valley. I've heard rumors of Sonoma County vineyards that were so sunburn they effectively have no crop to harvest this year. Just a bunch of raisins. Yikes.


The real worry about having any moisture this time of the year is that the weather doesn't look like it's going to warm up after the rain this weekend. This means that moisture will hang around on the vines. And then the possible "second trough" of weather coming after -- who knows what that will hold.

The other effect of rain is that it can dilute the sugar in the grapes, pushing your harvest back as the grapes then try and gain back the ground they lost and reach your optimal ripeness.

Let's talk about our vineyard a bit. We've already harvest our sparkling wine, and our Pinot Noir grapes are in the mid-22's for brix (sugar level). For reference, we normally pick by 24 brix. According to our snazzy ripening chart Joe created, at our current rate of accumulation, without factoring in rain, we should be picking still Pinot about September 23-27. Whites are amazingly caught up this year and may come in as little as a week after (we normally wait another 3-4 weeks after the Pinots to harvest our Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon).

Now, using a ripening graph can be helpful for predicting sugar and acid levels into the future, but we also look at physiological ripeness, especially how the seeds and stems look. Seeds and stems tend to brown as grapes ripen, reducing the harsh tannins and greenness that they can impart into a wine if crushed or pressed too hard when they're green. Optimally, when we pick our grapes the seeds are mostly chocolate brown and crunchy (mature) and the stems have lignified (become woody). We include whole clusters in our fermentation, so the state of the stems is more important for us than it might be for a winery that simply destems and tosses those stems. So far, the seeds are browning and moving along, but slowly. We're still seeing a good bit of green out there.

So now it's a waiting game. Wait to see how much rain we get, wait to test and see how that affected the grapes. Wait to see how quickly they recover. The marketing people are right, though. Flavors and colors will be fantastic this year -- we've been able to see that in the grapes for quite some time.

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