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Dawnine Dyer
October 14, 2011 | Dawnine Dyer

Harvest Reality Check

The climate here in Napa Valley is generally so agreeable that it’s easy to become complacent. We’ve come to expect warm, sunny days, cool, breezy nights and dry conditions during almost the entire growing season.

So, here’s 2011 giving us a reality check. Some growers are calling this their most challenging vintage ever. Why? Ill-timed rain.

In my last post we’d just come through three days of rain and busily stripped away leaves, improving the air flow, and got out the leaf blower to help dry things out. At that time, no more rain was predicted for at least another week - things looked pretty good.

Surprise! Another good rain last Monday, and this was a warm one. What does it mean?

If you look carefully at the photo, you’ll notice the hairline cracks in the skins and the soft, gray mold that has taken hold in the sweet juice. The warm rain created the perfect conditions to develop botrytis cinerea, which would be great if we were making dessert wine, but is not good at all for our Cabernet!

Bear with me while I digress for a moment because botrytis is actually a pretty interesting topic. Believe it or not, under the right conditions it’s known as the “noble rot”. If you’ve ever enjoyed a glass of Sauternes, Beerenauslese or Tokaji Aszu it’s the result of botrytis.

For white varieties, in particular Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, magical things can happen thanks to noble rot. It perforates the grape skins, causing dehydration, which ramps up the sugar and concentrates the flavor. Depending upon the situation, the grapes might come in as sweet as 40% sugar! For dry table wine we harvest at between about 21 and 26%.

So, the wine will be very sweet and, what’s more, the botrytis gives it an exquisite, honeyed character. Once you’ve had a sip of botrytized wine, you’ll never forget it!

However – noble rot isn't so noble for white varieties if the timing is wrong. Then, it's just ordinary gray rot or bunch rot. And when it attacks dark varieties, it makes the flavor go off and tends to turn the wine an unappealing gray color.

Botrytis can spread rather quickly, so our first priority is to remove clusters like the one you see here. The last couple of days have been quite warm and the air is very dry. If this continues over the next week or so, we should be home free. The 10-day forecast is dry, sunny weather - keep your fingers crossed!




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