Winemaking: The Continuation of Terroir by Other Means.®

Welcome to the Amalie Robert Estate Farming Blog, aka FLOG. By subscribing, you will receive regular FLOGGINGS throughout the growing season. The FLOGGING will begin with the Spring Cellar Report in April. FLOGGINGS will continue each month and detail how the vintage is shaping up. You may also be FLOGGED directly after the big Cluster Pluck with the yearly Harvest After Action Report. Subscribe now and let the FLOGGINGS begin!


"This is one of the Willamette Valley’s most distinguished wineries, but not one that is widely known."

- Rusty Gaffney, PinotFile - September 2016


"Dena Drews and Ernie Pink have been quietly producing some of Oregon's most elegant and perfumed Pinots since the 2004 vintage. Their 30-acre vineyard outside the town of Dallas, abutting the famed Freedom Hill vineyard where Drews and Pink live, is painstakingly farmed and yields are kept low so production of these wines is limited. Winemaking includes abundant use of whole clusters, which is no doubt responsible for the wines' exotic bouquets and sneaky structure…"

- Josh Raynolds, Vinous - October 2015


"...Dallas growers Dena Drews and Ernie Pink... showed me this July three of their reserve bottlings and thereby altered my perception of their endeavors. Since these are produced in only one- or two-barrel quantities, they offer an extreme instance of a phenomenon encountered at numerous Willamette addresses, whose really exciting releases are extremely limited. But they also testify, importantly, to what is possible; and what’s possible from this site in these hands revealed itself to be extraordinary!... And what a Syrah!"

- David Schildknecht, The Wine Advocate - October 2013

Wine & Spirits

"Finding that their whole-cluster tannins take some time to integrate, Pink and Drews hold their wines in barrel for up to 18 months - so Amalie Robert is just releasing its 2008s. And what a stellar group of wines: Bright and tart, they possess both transparency and substance, emphasizing notes of rosehips and sandalwood as much as red berries. The pinot noirs alone would likely have earned Amalie Robert a top 100 nod this year. But the winery also produces cool-climate syrah that rivals the best examples from the Sonoma Coast. And the 2009 Heirloom Cameo, their first attempt at a barrel-fermented chardonnay, turned out to be one of our favorite Oregon chardonnays of the year. Ten vintages in, Amalie Robert has hit its stride."

- Luke Sykora, Wine & Spirits Magazine – September 2011


© 2005 – 2017 Amalie Robert Estate, LLC

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Amalie Robert Estate Climate Update: 2015 Mid-August

Hello and Welcome,

This is the 2015 Mid-August Climate Update – WTF Edition.

The first week of August has slipped us a new call sign. After a blistering triple digit performance that carried the month of July through the first day of August, we seem to be experiencing climate change in our own particular microclimate. In fact it has cooled down and there has been rain in the forecast, and it is still in there, just not in the vineyard. Perhaps the vintage that got the wine berries on the vine is not going to be the vintage that gets them off.

Our high temperatures have been peaking in the mid 80s and only staying at their zenith for a couple hours, if that. The evening temperatures are still above 50 degrees, but it is taking much longer in the morning to warm up as we wake up and smell the coffee. Then we seem to cool off quickly enough to open the windows in time for dinner. That’s the time of day when we plan our strategy for the next day and waft the fruit of some previous vintage. Right now we are on a 2007 kick because we ran out of 2005, dagnabbit!

We’ve got thinning on our minds. As the wine berries begin to color up, it is someone’s job to determine how we are going to thin the Vintage 2015: Hell-bent for Leather crop. There are several theories on how to determine a strategy, and of course then there is the implementation. In the world of agriculture, we often think back to a very solid piece of Microsoft advice:

A good plan well implemented is far batter than a great plan poorly understood. (While we do take artistic license from time to time, you just can’t make this stuff up.)

It’s just a rework of the KISS principle, but it seems that not everyone can keep it simple. In fact, it may be the case that someone is in the need of some Special High Intensity Training.

A Primer: Developing a Vineyard Thinning Strategy

Thinning theories break down into two camps and the dogmatic principle. The first camp is trying to determine how much wine they can ripen this season with the ultimate goal of making the best wine this vintage has to offer. Sounds good.

The camp down the way a bit wants to know what is the least amount of fruit they need to cut off and still get the crop ripe. And the disciples of the dogmatic principle thin to a specific crop load expressed as tons per acre, but not pounds per vine* because “it depends...” Overlay the variability of the remaining growing season and our problem is framed quite nicely.

Now Ernie is a recovering accountant, but he still wields Occam’s razor with the precision of a well oiled slide rule. He keeps it hidden, but this is the one time of year he brings its simplistically brutal power to bear.

{Using stealth and the cover of darkness, we enter the first camp.}

This camp is assessing the degree days and wine berry development at the beginning of August. Lag phase cluster weights have been done at seed hardening and they provide a pretty good estimation of the final cluster weights – maybe. So most folks now know they are hanging between 4 and 8 tons of wine berries per acre. At 60 cases per ton that is 240 to 480 cases of wine per acre.

This much crop traditionally has been impossible to ripen in the Willamette Valley, but not so in other nearby wine growing regions. And the reason is usually the warmth, irrigation and duration of the growing season in California and Eastern Washington. As most everyone learned from last year, a little extra crop can slow the vines down and extend the growing season. So can a little bit of rain if you can wait for it. Those that didn’t learn these lessons may be in for another Special High Intensity Training session this year.

But this year, as is the case with all previous years, is different. We are very far advanced in the vineyard due to historically high daytime and nighttime temperatures. We are also dry with no rainfall in the short term (believable) forecast. So this year, our limiting factor is not heat units or length of growing season to ripen our wine berries. Our limiting factor this year is lack of available soil moisture to prevent rapid sugar accumulation without the time required for commensurate aroma and flavor development.

So, what to do? Thin now or thin later? Thinning now will simply speed up ripening. The vine is building sugars and the fewer the berries, the more sugar per berry. This is exactly the opposite effect we are trying to achieve. Aroma and flavor are more a function of time rather than heat and we are trying to buy time. And that is another reason why Ernie only hedged his “yard of vines” twice this year instead of 4 times. He is letting the vines “free range” out there and this will have the effect of slowing the ripening curve by letting the vine think it can just keep growing new leaves and worry about ripening up the wine berries later. This is known as “Human Terroir” or interacting with the vine’s environment. If only it would rain…

The second camp is counting on extra yield to slow down the sugar accumulation and allow time for aroma and flavor development. By leaving extra fruit on the vine now, they are providing a reserve if the vine runs out of soil moisture. The vine can take some moisture from the wine berries to continue ripening. The more wine berries there are, the less impact on each individual berry.

When most of the wine berries have turned color, they will thin off clusters that are still green and would ripen later than most of the vines’ other clusters. The goal here is to “approximate the ripening curve by matching the climatic growing conditions to the vines’ yield potential.

The dogmatics have their tons per acre number and they are out there right now cutting of wine berries to match it. However, with such dry conditions, they may undershoot their target crop load due to desiccation. Warm and dry breezes from the east are not uncommon in August and September. This has the effect of drawing more moisture from the vine and concentrating sugars and acids. In fact the amount of sugars and acids do not change, only the amount of water inside the wine berry is reduced so it looks like sugars and acids are increasing.

But the dogmatics also have logistics on their side. As was the case last year, we have a large crop load. But most wineries are fixed in size and do not expand whenever we have a large crop load. So what can happen is that they harvest until all of the fermenting space is filled. They wait for the fermentations to finish and then return to harvest the remainder of the crop. This is akin to turning tables in a restaurant. Either you have the table for the night, or you need to “dine and dash” by 8 pm.

This can lead to the worst case scenario – harvesting early before aroma and flavor development, fermenting for 3-4 weeks and then harvesting again when the wine berries have desiccated and over ripened. Perhaps the dogmatics are onto something by matching their crop load to their fermentation capacity.

And then there are the wings – what to do with you? Wings typically make up about 20% of any given cluster and have the tendency to ripen a week or so after the main cluster. These may be left on the cluster as a way to further slow down sugar accumulation and provide a water reservoir. They may also be clipped off with the purpose of keeping under ripe aromas and flavors out of the fermenter.

* Remember me? Looking for something? Feeling incomplete? I’ve got some figures you are going to want to investigate – thoroughly. Let’s delve into the tons per acre, vines per acre and pounds per vine mental construct. Tank, load the jump program!

Typically, Pinot Noir is grown in a marginal climate meaning the grapes ripen just as Mother Nature is unleashing the heavens with wind and rain to signal the end of the vintage. The astute (and lucky) winegrowers have completed harvest operations just that very morning.

When they want to know how they ended up for the season, they take the total weight of the crop harvested and divide by the acres harvested providing tons per acre - so far so good. They know the total acreage because they know the number of vines harvested and how many of those vines are needed to cover an acre of land. Now we are getting somewhere, but where is that?

The limiting factor of growing Pinot Noir is either climate based or land based. Pinot Noir growers are masochists by nature. They cleverly choose locations where they know climatically it is going to be tough to ripen a full crop each year. Therefore they thin the crop down to a reasonable level (tons per acre) they think will ripen as discussed above. This climate based limiting factor seems not to be in play for Vintage 2015: Hell-bent for leather.

However, thinning is done on a vine by vine basis resulting in pounds per vine. Sure, multiply that by the vines per acre and you can easily come up with tons per acre. So you could consider tons per acre to be metadata, which is just data that describes other data. That’s like horsepower v torque and RPM. Torque and RPM are measured outputs of an engine (like vines per acre and pounds per vine.) Horsepower is just a mathematical formula that results in a number that we can compare across different exemplars (like tons per acre.)

And when you consider that horsepower is just torque multiplied by RPM divided by 5,252 you can see that you have been using metadata your whole life, gearhead! Don't get confused by the 5,252, it is a mathematical constant derived from the fact that a 1 foot circle has a circumference of 6.2832 feet, don’tcha all know…

So the cleverly masochistic Pinot Noir grower approaches each vine fully intentioned and begins to thin a little fruit. A nip here, a snip there, a fresh bandage for the green thumb, and it all looks good. But some growers are finished before others because they have a different number of vines per acre.

Early Oregon vineyards were planted at an 8 x 12 foot spacing giving them 454 vines per acre. Highly masochistic vineyards can be planted “meter by meter” yielding about 4,050 vines per acre. Note: these vineyards are often owned not by masochistic wine growers but by sadistic land owners who hire masochists to work in them. Look at any corkscrew carefully – who do you think designed that?

At Amalie Robert Estate, we are moderately planted at 1,452 vines per acre. (We not only own our own land, we farm it ourselves as well, so we have more than just a passing familiarity with the whole Sadomasochistic wine growing thing.) Our vines are 4 feet apart and we leave 7.5 feet for Ernie to get this tractors and implements through the rows. For aspiring accountants, you can do the math at home. Just take the total square feet in an acre and divide by the vine spacing. It’s easy: 43,560 square feet in an acre divided by (7.5 x 4) spacing = 1,452 vines per acre!

And if you thought that was fun, try this: If you can cover that acre in an hour, how fast are you travelling? Please express your response in the traditional “furlongs per fortnight” with two sig figs to the right of the decimal point.

So now we can peel back the tons per acre metadata to reveal the pounds per vine crop load. At an average 3 tons per acre crop load, an early Oregon vineyard will be carrying about 13.2 pounds per vine. The meter by meter fellow is packing just about a pound and a half per vine. At our moderately dense spacing of 1,452 vines per acre, each vine has to ripen just over 4 pounds of wine. It takes just under 3 pounds to produce a bottle of wine. At Amalie Robert Estate we are trying to ripen a bottle of wine per vine, but in some years the bottles are a little bigger than others.

The actuaries in the group (who skipped right to the asterisk) are now wondering why the meter by meter guy doesn’t leave the same amount of crop per vine as the old Oregon vineyard guy. Just look at the numbers; it would be over 25 tons per acre! Man, we can make some serious coin at this crop load!

Because you can’t ripen it. The crop load is limited by the amount of land. An acre is an acre is an acre no matter how many vines you plant on it. On top of the land you have the canopy. Think of it as a solar array that harvests light and heat to ripen the crop and transpires water from the soil. At 454 vines per acre, there are 3,630 lineal feet of solar array, at 1,452 vines per acre we have 5,808 lineal feet, and the meter by meter guy has 13,280 lineal feet.

But you need to factor in the space under the vine which has no leaves and the maximum height of the canopy to prevent shading. Let’s say the first two guys have no leaves below 2.5 feet and their canopies top out at 7.5 feet tall. While the old Oregon vineyard could grow a 12 foot canopy it is hard to hedge at that height, so let’s go with a maximum height of 7.5 feet. This gives us a 5 foot wall of Photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) catching canopy.

Now this is funny: The meter by meter guy has the vines trained at just over a foot off the ground, 12 inches, and a maximum canopy height of 40 inches to prevent shading. This gives him a canopy that is 28 inches tall, 2.33 feet. Not a lot to work with there. And imagine working on vines that start at just a foot off the ground. Knee pads anyone? Dang, just ran out… aka “Let Them Eat Cake.”

We can now look at height and width to give us square feet of canopy - per vine. Note: If you assume the canopy is 1 foot wide, then square feet (as if by magic) become cubic feet – ooooooh, so cool! 454 vines per acre give us 3,630 x 5 feet of canopy for a total of 18,150 square feet – 39.98 square feet per vine. 1,452 vines per acre give us 5,808 x 5 feet of canopy for a total of 29,040 square feet – 20.00 square feet per vine. And our meter by meter friend has 13,280 x 2.33 feet of canopy for a total of 30,943 square feet – 7.64 square feet per vine. The size of your solar array puts an upper limit on the amount of wine you can ripen per vine.

Now below the land you have the roots and a limited amount of available soil moisture. No matter how many vines are planted in our example, each scenario’s roots will have grown to the point of exploring the entire acre. This is called colonizing the soil. Mycorrhizae are fungi that live symbiotically with the roots and they exponentially increase the root’s “footprint” and ability to uptake nutrients and available soil moisture throughout the entire breadth and depth of the soil profile. Don’t mess with the Fungi.

Most of the available soil moisture is going out through the stomata to cool the leaves, the wine berries are certainly holding some water, and the vines need some water to translocate nutrients. So unless you are irritating the unique character of the vintage with drip irrigation i.e. cheating, the available soil moisture is putting an upper limit on the amount of fruit you can ripen per acre.

Now the obvious question is which yield (and measure of yield) makes the best wine for your palate in any given vintage? Hmmm… How to know? Experiencing wines grown in all manner of spacing and densities is the only true way to know for sure. You’re gonna need more corkscrews. Choose an array of corkscrews that have different extraction modes to reduce the potential of repetitive motion injury. So many wines, so little time.

So, there you have it – WTF.

The numbers for the first half of August look like missile launch codes, but they’re not, honest. If you try and sell them, no one will actually come through with the funds. But you might get to meet some nice folks from Interpol or the NSA, if there are any.

What the numbers are trying to tell us is that August has broken June and July’s heat spell. It could be a passing of the baton, sort of speak, where we see a very different climatic expression take the wine berries across the threshold to harvest.

And that means a slower and “more better” ripening curve with the possibility of quenching rain. And we were forecasted to receive measurable precipitation on the 14th of August. Instead we received momentary precipitation, which is not measurable.

We have logged 278 degree days through the 15th of August for a 2015 growing season accumulation of 1,710 degree days. If you are enjoying the 2010 and 2011 vintages, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that those 2 vintages accumulated less than 1,800 degree days for the entire growing season! We are there now. You can check out the 2010 and 2011 “After Action Reports” to see how we dealt with those dueling (grueling?) vintages. And while we don’t quote ourselves often, we find it helps to keep the “signal to noise” ratio above 1:1.

Much like how we measure engine output in a formulaic way with a made up construct called horsepower, we do the same with heat accumulation in the form of degree days. Consider two very different growing seasons with the same degree day accumulations:

The first scenario sees a massive shift in diurnal temperatures with record daytime highs and very cool nights. The daily temperatures average out at 70 degrees and provide a monthly degree day accumulation of: 70 degrees less 50 degrees times 30 days for a total monthly accumulation of 600 degree days.

The second scenario has a much tighter stratification of temperatures with the highs in the mid 80s and the lows holding the daytime heat into the mid 50s. The average daily temperature here is also 70 degrees which would provide the same 600 degree day accumulation as the first scenario.

Now, let’s bring it home - literally. If your living environment were to maintain a constant 70 degree temperature for any given 30 day period, you would experience 600 degree days as well. And, while the degree day accumulation is equal in both scenarios, they would certainly produce very different wines, but both those wines could well be enjoyed in your constant 70 degree environment – albeit with separate and distinct stemware.

And with that profound concept resonating throughout the vastness of your mind, we bid you “a fond adieu.” (Say it out loud…)

Kindest Regards,

Dena & Ernie (The Recovering Accountant)

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