Just look at these tiny clusters! 2011 isn’t going to go down as a prolific vintage on Diamond Mountain! The good news is that small clusters and berries ripen more readily on a cool year like this one. We’ve had a good week of warm weather which is helping to move things along.
You’ve probably noticed that the term “balance” is something that comes up over and over when you’re talking about wine. Food, too, for that matter.
When wine is well balanced, you’re naturally attracted to it without necessarily knowing why – it just tastes good! So, in follow up to the last post on berry sampling let’s talk about the major components and why they’re important.
Sugar: The sugar provides the alcohol. We can figure that a little over half of the sugar we measure at harvest will wind up as alcohol in the finished wine. “Degrees brix” translates to percentage of sugar and we measure it with a prism-like instrument called a refractometer. It measures the soluable solids in the juice. About 90% of the soluable solids is sugar and the scale is calibrated accordingly.
Once we have our grape sample juiced and ready, we put a drop of the juice on the lense of the refractometer and presto - we’ve got the brix instantly. Most wine grapes are harvested between 20 and 26 degrees brix. If we harvest this Cabernet at 24% sugar we can expect to end up around 13% alcohol.
When you buy grapes at the grocery store they’re usually between 15 and 20%, so we’re working with extremely sweet, delicious fruit!
Alcohol gives wine a lot of its body, so we want a high enough sugar to make a full-bodied style satisfying and, for a delicate style, a low enough sugar to keep it light and crisp. On a cool year like this one the sugar is slow to come but, as I said, things are looking good and this Cabernet is 22% sugar – right on track.
Acid: Acid doesn’t sound attractive, does it? But, it’s so important. A good, solid acidity keeps the color bright, the flavors lively, makes the wine food friendly and helps it to age. Of course, too much is distracting because the wine is too tart. Too little and it’s flat. The main grape acids are tartaric andmalic and most wines fall between .5 and 1% acid (TA for titratable acidity), depending upon the growing region and the style.
pH: This is kind of like measuring the strength of the acidity and has a lot to do with the health and stability of the wine. In a warm climate we watch the pH carefully because if it gets too high it creates a friendly environment for bacteria and the wine browns easily. We shouldn’t have to worry about that this year.
On the pH scale 0 is acid, 7.0 is neutral and 14.0 is alkali. Most wines fall between 3.0 and 4.0. So, wine is higher in acid than almost any food you eat unless you enjoy fresh lemons, straight. Which means it’s automatically food friendly!
There’s rain in the forecast, so we hope the weather man is wrong. A little rain is fine – it gets the dust down. More than a sprinkle isn’t good news, but Cabernet has a thick, tough skin and a loose cluster formation (as you can see!) so it usually holds up pretty well. We'll see!
But it has a way to go. We’ve been berry-sampling this morning and just got back with our zip-loc bags full of grapes for tasting and analysis. We walk the vine rows and gather grapes from each section, or block, of the vineyard so we can gauge how quickly the grapes are ripening and when to finally harvest.
The main things that influence maturation are heat, light and soil moisture and we need to account for variations in the block. So, we take grapes from both sides of the vine. We eyeball the percentage of shaded clusters and gather accordingly. We like to take grapes from the top, bottom and middle of the cluster and also grapes from either side of the cluster. It’s smart to take berries from different parts of the vine, some from near the vine head and others further away... The sample should be as representative as possible because, ideally, we harvest the section once.
Then, it's back to the winery to taste, get a good look and see how we're stacking up in terms of sugar, acid and pH.
There are some visual cues that we’ve got awhile to go. As you see, the skin color is nice and deep, almost black - that's great - mature Cabernet grapes should look like tiny blueberries. You notice the green seeds? If we were to harvest now, very harsh, bitter tannins would be extracted from them into the wine. We’d like to see something more like Grapenuts cereal - brown and crunchy. And, as we walked the vineyard the stems of the clusters still look quite green. Those should brown up, too.
I wish you could see the flavors. You'll have to trust me that they're coming along nicely, leaving the early season vege character behind and developing the dark, berry-like flavors we love.
The brix, or percentage of sugar, is at 19.3%. With the nice, warm weather predicted for this week we're probably looking at mid October to harvest, much like last year.
Next post: Sugar, acid, pH: Why they're important
It’s often done in the name of flavor intensity. You can see the dried clusters that were dropped some weeks ago mixed in with the fresh ones we thinned just now.
This year the last of our green thinning is in the Petit Verdot. In this case, we’re not only looking for flavor intensity but uniformity of ripening. If we don’t remove the green fruit that’s lagging behind while the rest of the crop matures it may add green, under-ripe flavor and throw off our sugar averages as we get closer to harvest. We also don’t want to see any crowding among the clusters, although there’s little risk of that this year.
We had already thinned to just one cluster per shoot, which is a severe, but effective way to encourage ripening and flavor concentration (it’s more common to see two clusters per shoot). Now, we’ve followed up at veraison (the color change) by removing the “wings” from clusters that were still green when the rest of the cluster was fully colored (sometimes a small, lateral cluster, a “wing”, juts out by the shoulder of the main cluster, kind of like a wing on a bird).
It’s a mark of the vintage to be talking about veraison on September 12th. We had an unusually cool, weepy spring and cold rains in May so we’re about two to three weeks behind in the vineyard. A late vintage is neither good nor bad – it all depends upon what happens, weather wise, over the coming weeks. If it continues to be cool, as it has been most of the summer, the grapes will ripen slowly. A warming trend can move things right along. Petit Verdot is a late ripener, so we’ll be happy to have it in before November.
The May rains did some preliminary crop thinning for us. Rain at flowering time interferes with pollination, and, valley-wide, crop estimates are down. Here on Diamond Mountain we tend to be on the late side so we missed the worst of the rain but, even so, we see a small crop and also small clusters, which bodes well for flavor concentration.
We thought it might be fun to share our progress in the vineyard as we move into the final phases of the 2011 growing season and focus on the upcoming harvest. At this point, we’re roughly 4-5 weeks out, depending on the weather. We’ll keep you updated as the vineyard progresses and the crush begins.
As you may have heard or noticed, the weather this year in Napa Valley was just plain weird. Here on Diamond Mountain we had a late, wet spring, then "the Summer That Never Happened"- more foggy mornings with a few hours of afternoon sun. Verasion was late and green thinning challenging and we dropped about 20% of the fruit in the hopes that ripening would beat winter. Just before Labor Day we were convinced that it would take a miracle (in the form of a nice stretch of late season heat) and we got it in spades! In the last week of September and into October we had a heat wave with temperatures spiking to 113 in parts of the valley. In our location, on the west side of the valley and off the valley floor, our temperatures stayed in the 90s- great for ripening with just a little sunburn on the western facing side of the vines. We still had a ways to go and it wasn't until Oct 21 that we had the flavors, squishy skins, and brown seeds that said "pick me" Timely, as the next day it started to rain and we had 5 inches in our rain gauge before it stopped.
A new wrinkle (and we use that word ironically because the hot days just before harvest did wrinkle some skins, both ours and the grapes) is that for the first time we benefited from a new piece of equipment with the grand name: Le Trier. This sits just after the destemmer and is basically a vibrating table with slots. The grape clusters have already been sorted for flawed clusters, but the LT takes sorting down to the berry level- if there are raisins they get a shake down and fall thru the slots and shot berries and pieces of stem called jacks are also removed. Expensive but worth it. As the berries fall off the table on their way to the fermentor, they look like a cascade of blueberries... no MOG, as we say.
Now that it's all safely in the tank and we taste the early results we're thinking this could be one of our best vintages- deeply colored, bright fruits and spice aromas. Something to be thankful for.
I suppose every field has its controversies. Two that we hear about quite often in wine production are alcohol level and the hundred point scale. I will address them together as I believe they are closely linked. Over the last decade or so we have seen alcohol levels in table wine creep up. Levels of 15%, 16%, even 17% are not uncommon. It used to be that 14% was considered high, with most wines in the 12 to 13% range. What happened?
At the time we entered the wine business, in the early 70’s the models for “great wines” were relatively few. The very top ones had long track records, and were considered classics. We tasted Bordeaux and Burgundies, as well as Napa Valley Cabernets, that were structured “classically” and appreciated for their ageability. How did we learn about them? We read books about wine, written by well-known authors, and met individuals with lots of expertise to share, often with deep cellars as well. These wines became our models and we turned to them again and again, and wished to emulate them in our winemaking efforts.
In the 90’s things began to change. There was a huge amount of new wealth created by the high tech industry. The surge in disposable income brought in lots of new wine consumers, and lots of wine brands were created. Without a background in wine knowledge and faced with overwhelming choices, many consumers were looking for direction in order to appear wine knowledgeable. In an increasingly complex world, our particular culture became enamored with ratings, lists, and authorities. We had nightly top ten lists. We demanded that sports teams have playoffs such that we could proclaim “were number 1” and the athletes were excused from any standard of behavior as long as they won. We no longer required much actual knowledge from experts (just being on television seemed to ensure that an opinion demanded attention) or smarts from leaders (this is to be a politically neutral zone but it is amazing the extent of risks we are willing to take on based on pundits’ analyses identifying “bad guys vs. good guys).” Reasoning became less important than choosing sides. Staged dramas were called “reality shows.” Magical thinking became more acceptable than critical thinking.
Into this milieu steps the 100 point scale. Perfect for the culture at this point in time. The sports writer or lawyer becomes the wine expert. Who’s number 1?. What’s the top 100? Conversation overheard in a wine shop at the end of the decade: I wanted 97’s, you sent me 95’s. Talking about vintage? No, points.
Faced with a hundred wines in a day to taste, how is the poor expert going to function? This isn’t arty, ain’t no discussion (he’s got no time for that now). Forget about finesse and subtlety, we are in a rush to judgment. Hedonistic is the way to go…gobs of it!
And so it goes like this: grapes picked too soon are lean, restrained, tight, and in some varieties a bit “green.” Then they soften up and show what they have: varietal characters for sure, hopefully regional or site specific ones. Beyond that they go pruney, then raisin-y. In former times, we might have erred on the green side, reluctant to ever sacrifice the regionality or the characters of site. In this new reality show, green may be cool for energy, but not in the rocket juice, where it will just have to be voted out. Ageabilty? That is so yesterday. In the old paradigm desiccated grapes of a certain brix were called Amorone, in the new paradigm they are called “numba one”.
How do we deal with these phenomena? First of all, we don’t subscribe to the bigger is better style of winemaking. We stick to our guns in valuing balance and finesse. We consider that vineyard sites that give age ability are national or better said, planetary treasures. We feel we have such a site, in fact our wines tell us that. While we don’t get too fussed about wines made in the gaudy style garnering the big points, we do feel that there should be room for a range of styles, and don’t appreciate the narrow focus on the part of some reviewers. (A famous pianist we met said “the crickets are always with us” in reference to the pundits of his world). We have generally taken a pass on sending our wines in for review, but on occasion have yielded to direct requests. Results have generally been favorable and solid, about what we would expect in making wines of restraint and balance (note that the reviewers generally ignore the age-ability question, only rating wines on release, which some winemakers have found to be a rather easy thing to “game.”
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