Managing tannins is key to making wine on Diamond Mountain- all those lovely aromas and flavors can be overwhelmed by hard mountain tannins if not managed properly. And like most things in winemaking, that management starts in the vineyard. We are already doing tannin management for the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon. We recently removed excessive shoots (shooting, so to speak, for 15 shoots per meter), so that the clusters will ripen in an environment of dappled light rather than shade. We are following the wisdom of Goldilocks when it comes to sun exposure: not too much, not too little, but just right. In excessive shade, the skin tannins will be like sandpaper in the mouth. If there is sunburn, they will not form at all. With just the right amount of light they will become supple and plush, and do so in a timely manner—that is, before the sugar levels get too high. High concentration of sugar (aka “brix”) directly leads to high alcohol, which in turn destabilizes tannins (and may destabilize us end users as well) . But it’s not all about us—the vines’ goal is to produce berries with juice sweet enough to attract birds, without assaulting them with bitter and astringent compounds in the skins and seeds. In nature the birds then help propagate the vines by dropping the seeds (it is considered lucky to get hit)!
Soon we will be cluster thinning—leaving no more than two clusters per shoot. Managing yield involves the balance between leaves and fruit , which affect the rate of ripening. Pulling leaves in the fruit zone helps too—but again this is a matter of balance (remember the goal is dappled light). Later we will be green thinning—removing clusters that are slow to turn color, so as to promote an even ripening.
The decision of when to pick is a critical part of tannin management. In the past the focus was on achieving a target brix level. Now we realize that brix and tannin do not necessarily ripen at the same rate. As green seeds are reservoirs of harsh and bitter compounds, we observe and taste the seeds, picking after they are brown and crunchy—like “grape-nuts.” Lucky for us that on our site tannins are ripe at relatively low brix, as the last, critical stages of ripening occur slowly in the cooler and shorter days of fall. On a more sun-exposed site, sometimes the sugar accumulation runs ahead of tannin maturity.
Forty years ago when we came to the valley, these practices were not common. Growers were anxious to rush grapes to the wineries when the target brix level specified in the contract was achieved. Migrant workers often arrived just in time to pick the fruit, making intensive hand-work difficult to achieve anyway. Now we realize that throughout the season we must keep our eyes on the prize: supple, rich, plush tannins. As you can see, this is an ongoing obsession!
Next: Managing Tannins in the Cellar
Hooray! Just in time for Earth Day, Dyer Vineyard has received certification by both Napa Green and Fish Friendly Farming. Both these organizations work closely with vineyard owners and wineries to develop specific practices for their sites that will protect and sustain our land and watersheds. Napa Valley Vintners recently set a goal of having all of its members (currently 500 and growing) certified Napa Green by 2020. The certification process looks at the entire property, including roads, in developing each individual plan. With terms such as organic, sustainable, and biodynamic becoming a little fuzzy, it is great to work with these two certifying organizations to lay out programs that are both specific and locally focused
On April 16 we will release our 2012 Dyer Vineyard Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon. Only 252 cases were produced from our 2.3 acre vineyard—they will be first offered to our mailing list customers.
The 2012 vintage is already being described as a classic vintage for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. In March over a foot of rain fell on our site adjacent to Diamond Mountain Creek. The deep gravely volcanic soils on a gently sloping bench welcomed the long drink, and the vines budded out the first week of April. The remaining spring weather was warm, dry, and frost free, leading to an even fruit set, with all the clusters on the same ripening curve. The summer was warm and mild, with temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s, often dropping into the 40’s at night, conditions favoring development of flavors while retaining acidity.
All in all, it was a wonderful season, and a return to normalcy after the challenges of 2011. So mark your calendars for April 16, and get ready to celebrate a new classic vintage of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon!
We are off to an early start with the 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon vintage—here on Diamond Mountain our vines budded out about 10 days ahead of normal. We did something a little different this year with our pruning, which you can see in this photo. Mid-winter when the vines were very dormant we pruned the long canes from last season, and pulled them out of the trellis wires, a very slow process. But instead of leaving two buds per spur on our cordon arms, we left four (as in the front row in the photo). Then last weekend in one day we went back through the vineyard, and quickly cut off the other two (as in the row in the background). This of course requires an extra pass through the vineyard—why would we go to this extra work (referred to as double pruning)?
There are two reasons. The first has to do with frost avoidance. Though we are in the mountains which are less susceptible to frost, which commonly forms on the valley floor where the cold air settles, our site is on a bench next to Diamond Mountain Creek, and once in a while frost does affect the lowest portion of the vineyard—in 2008 we got hammered with enough damage to the young buds that our crop was about half of normal. Because the uppermost buds on grapevines break first (this is called “apical dominance”) the lower two buds will be a little slower to push. This delay increases the odds the nights will be a little warmer when they finally do push. The other reason is the pruning cut can be infected by a grape disease called eutypa—it has the nickname “dead-arm” which is descriptive of what it does. A preventative measure is to paint every cut with as sealant, which is laborious. By making the final cut just as the vines are waking up, there will be fewer spores present under the drier conditions, and the sap will flow out of the cut, making its own seal as in dries up. This “bleeding” is not harmful to the vines.As double pruning goes very quickly, we can wait until the leaves are pushing on the upper buds that have yet to be removed. The canes from both the early and late pruning (long and short) are dropped between the rows, to be chopped and cultivated, adding organic matter to the soil.
Please check back to follow the twists and turns of the 2015 season.
We recently sent out an e-mail to our mailing list customers informing them we will not be releasing a 2011 vintage from our vineyard, and instead are offering an older vintage (2005) from our library for the holidays. This is after 15 consecutive annual releases--here is the story behind our “missing vintage.”
We have often referred to the late ripening aspect of Dyer Vineyard as a positive attribute—longer hang time, slower ripening in the shorter and cooler days of October, avoiding the heat spikes that earlier in the season can lead to dehydration, high brix, and excessive alcohol. Our site is northeast facing, and partially sheltered from the afternoon sun by the ridge of the Mayacamas range to the southwest. In 2011 an early October storm brought in four inches of rain, and subsequent humid weather caused botrytis to start in many clusters before the final stages of ripening could occur. We dropped fruit, picked clusters selectively and have never had more people on the sorting table. We picked the brains of some of our Oregon colleagues who routinely deal with botrytis-affected fruit—this is something Napa Valley Cabernet producers normally don’t have to deal with. In fact this is the only time in 40 years we have seen botrytis in Cabernet. For those not familiar with botrytis, it is a grey mold that can affect many fruits, and most people have seen it growing on fruit held too long. It is considered a positive attribute in some white wines—referred to as the “noble rot” responsible for concentrating and sweetening desert wines such as Sauterne and Trockenbeerenauslese. But in red wines it makes the pigment very unstable, resulting in lighter colored wines.
We gave the wine plenty of time to develop, taking it through the normal two years of barrel aging. We found that it benefited from a higher percentage of new French oak, so we purchased some more new barrels. Being optimistic types, we felt it was showing better each time we tasted it. But the “drop dead” decision time was the point at which we had to order bottling supplies—bottles, corks, and foils. We had to admit at that point it was not up to our usual standards. We used a wine broker to sell the wine in bulk to another producer who was able to blend it with other wine.
It is important to us to point out that our decision not to bottle does not reflect on the decision by other wineries to bottle Cabernet from this vintage. The concept of terroir includes a focus on all aspects of a vineyard site—in this case the amount of rain, the subsequent fog, and the timing of these weather events versus the stage of ripening were very specific to our site. This is also a reminder of the inherent risk in single vineyard designated wines—it is truly “letting it all hang out.”
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