We seem to have the drought behind us, at least for this season. Here are our vines in mid-May. They have been shoot thinned, leaving about 30 shoots per vine, which results in an open canopy of leaves without too much shading of the developing fruit. The remaining shoots have been tucked into the trellis wire, so that they grow upwards, and can grab onto the wires for support to prevent them from breaking off in the wind. Soon we will be through and pinch off any extra clusters—we only want two per shoot to ensure concentration in the wine (but this year there are very few shoots with more that two, so this will be a quick pass). Traditionally May 15 is considered the frost free date, and we seemed to have dodged the bullet this year for frost.
We go into each season with each vine carrying about 30 shoots and 60 clusters. So makes vintages different? It’s the conditions that are to come over the next 4 to 5 months. We hope for Goldilocks conditions—not too much or too little of anything. We hope for mild days without too much drama. For example, our 2,000+ vines were in the early stages of bloom on May 21, when about one third of an inch of rain fell, which potentially might interfere with the pollination and fruit set. Only time will tell if this will affect the crop. But an early call would be that this rain, plus the relative lack of clusters (and fruitfulness is largely determined in the previous season) indicate that this season may be below average in yield. Time will tell.
Winemakers tend to be "optimystics", which is probably a good thing as each year nature hands us a new season with its own set of challenges. When we get through a vintage, sometimes it is difficult to rein in our enthusiasm for what we produced often leading to some amusing pronouncements. Having said that, we are going to risk being fools, since having over 80 Napa Valley vintages between the two of us should count for something. The last time we were this excited about releasing a new vintage from Dyer Vineyard was 1996—well, because it was our first vintage from our own vineyard. This time, the excitement is in the wine itself. Nature sent us one right over the plate in the 2013 vintage. The wine has the combination of intensity and concentration that mark the best Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon vintages. It reminds Bill of the 1985 Sterling Reserve he made, which was delicious in the barrel, and remains so over 30 years later. And yes, that wine had a significant amount of Diamond Mountain fruit in the blend. We think 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will be viewed as one of the very collectable vintages that seem to come one or twice a decade (before 1985, maybe 1974 was of the same caliber)? We made an even dozen barrels of this wine, with 290 cases bottled.
Finally, Diamond Creek is flowing again- and the start to a new growing season is promising! After a very dry February, we received 15” of rain in March. Budbreak took place the week of the 21st- early, but about the same as last year. This potentially sets us up for another early harvest, but now at least we have plenty of soil moisture going into the Spring-- which the vines need in order to grow canes- they'll grow about 1 meter over the next couple of months. We hear Diamond Creek roaring these days as it flows between Dyer Vineyard and the famous winery to which it lends its name, is roaring today. (Probably hard to read in the photo here, but the year 1885 on the bridge shows there were people making wine in the neighborhood way back then). Stay tuned for updates as we progress through the 2016 Vintage in the Diamond Mountain District, Napa Valley.
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
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