Back to the issue at hand. We will spare you the tractor repair issues, shoot positioning logistics, hedging and more hedging, degree day calculations ad nauseam and get right to the heart of the 2012 growing season conversation: When did you harvest and why? Note: If you are into the ad nauseam, you can read the 2012 Julian calendar here, or simply tune into C-Span where you can always catch “Drone v Drone.”
We began harvest after the rains on October 15, 2012, day 288 of the Julian calendar. June brought the last of the spring rains and the first of the fall rains to arrive at Amalie Robert Estate began the evening of October 12th. Mother Nature blessed our vines with 0.86 inches of rain in 24 hours. It seems she was in the neighborhood and couldn’t sleep. Take home message: The first shot of rains was mostly absorbed by the grassed rows, existing cover crops and any roots that were advantageously located in the top 6 inches of soil.
Up until October 12th, Ernie (Chief Farming Officer) was running down the numbers, and they were presenting a pretty clear picture. Sugars were building and pH was dropping. Sure they were. Now the most important thing in any picture is to know who the players are and what they stand for. This is why you will pet a friendly dog, but not an alligator. Clearly, the folks on Capitol Hill have this figured out by now, mostly.
When sugars rise, we see the Brix level increase. Brix is a term used to describe a measurement of fermentable sugars. In wine grapes, we like to harvest when Brix are at least 20 but less than 24. The reason for this is that sugars measured as Brix convert to alcohol at about 60%. So, 20-24 Brix gives us a range of final alcohol in the 12 to 14% range. As the wine berries stay on the vine, the natural tendency is to build sugars, so an increase in Brix is to be expected as we wait for the harvest window to open. OK, that was easy.
Case in point, our Pinot Meunier yield was down by about 50%. The fact that some vines were handling the dry spell and a nice warm summer with less than a full crop load exacerbated the harvest decision. (Note that “exacerbated” is not a term we would use as farmers, but we seem to have picked up a few looky-loo’s who like these terms.) From the vine’s point of view, all of that photosynthesis has to go somewhere. And it expediently went into building sugars in the fruit that was hanging.
The more challenging analysis is pH. This is a measure of acidity in the pre-fermented juice. The more acid in any given solution results in a lower pH reading. Less acid in the same given solution results in a higher pH. As the wine berries stay on the vine and ripen, we expect the acids to go down and therefore the pH to rise. However, we were seeing just the opposite effect with pH. The pH was not rising, it was dropping until we received our first fall rains. Note to Quants: Think about the relationship between bond yields v price and this should all make sense.
That’s all well and good. We now know not to pet alligators we come across, but what do we do to make the best wine the vintage has to offer? The 2012 Oregon Pinot Noir vintage presented us with a very clear, binary choice: Pick before the rains or wait until we get some rain. If you are a procrastinator by nature, this choice was made for you. If it was a group decision, you may have waited because some guy named Cliff was late to the meeting. But if you were like Ernie, who was predisposed to running the numbers and actually went out and tasted the fruit, you would have waited for a little rain.
What is the cost of waiting to harvest?
Since we had entered Okto-vember, the cost of not harvesting was about 2 or 3 biers per person per day. Clearly, a cost we were willing to pay.
We risked the potential combination of birds and rot due to excessive rains. While this can be unfortunate, it is not uncommon. This was a risk we were prepared to take.
The needs of the many berries becoming fully ripe outweigh our desire for an easy harvest. We only get one chance a year to make some really great wine.
What is the benefit of waiting to harvest?
We had a few extra days to catch up on our sleep.
We did not have to add water to our fermenters to dilute the sugars below 24 Brix.
We had extra money to buy bier, because we did not have to buy water.
We did not have to compete with a majority of vineyards for harvest crews.
We enjoyed a few more weeks of hang time that allowed for more interesting flavor and aroma development in the wine berry skins and riper stems for whole cluster fermentation.
These are the decisions of the winegrowers of Amalie Robert Estate. We chose to harvest after a bit of natural irrigation from Mother Nature to rehydrate the wine berries and reap the rewards of increased flavor and aroma development from extended hang time. And then, there was the Syrah and Viognier harvest on November 7th.
Our indigenous fermentations smelled wonderful again this year. The addition of whole clusters adds the youthful backbone tannin that will integrate with firm acidity to prolong the wines’ bottle maturation. After fermentation, the Pinot Noir that came out of the press this year was the most deeply hued we have ever seen. While this observation supports no conclusions at present, it is certainly worth noting as we segue into a slow barrel maturation regime.
After separating the wine from the skins, seeds and stems with the press, our wines gravity flow down to barrel for a soothing malolactic conversion. We taste the wines after the conversion is complete, and sometimes before, to get a sense of where the vintage is headed. Our Pinot Noirs spend 18 moths in barrel before we begin blending and bottling. You can think of that as “term limits” for aging wine.
Dena & Ernie