Thursday, October 8, 2009

Willamette Valley Harvest Update

We've had several consecutive days of partly cloudy to clear skies with temperatures in the upper 60s and nights in the 40s, and it's forecast to remain like that through Sunday - albeit with a slight risk of frost Sunday morning.  Other than the frost, that's just textbook weather for fully ripening the fruit and adding complexity.  The longer the grapes get to hang on the vine without developing extra sugars that lead to higher alcohol, the better.  The seeds and stems begin to brown and the flavors deepen. Hopefully, I'll have some more pictures over the weekend.  I'd like to get some fermentation shots if I can, plus shots of a press in operation as well as some sorting line pics, but for now we'll go with what we have.

Yesterday I wandered about in some areas that aren't too far out of town.  The first place I visited hadn't picked any of their estate vineyard so I got this shot of the grapes hanging on the vine.

One thing that was readily apparent was that there is a reason this winery, which shall remain unnamed, has little or no reputation for producing memorable pinot noir, and it's their vineyard practices.  Pinot noir requires low crop yields to have the intensity of flavor most of us are looking for, and most vineyard managers thin the crop down to one cluster per shoot.  Any more than that and the vine is over-worked and the fruit won't fully ripen, especially in our somewhat marginal climate where the option of allowing the fruit to stay on the vine well into late October (or even November) isn't generally an option - unlike many spots in California.  Asking the vine to ripen too many grapes is a bit like trying to boil water with the burner on simmer or trying to pull a 5000-pound trailer with a SMART car.  Uphill.

In addition, this year's crop is larger than normal to begin with.  The clusters are huge.  I realize there's no reference point in the picture so you'll have to just trust me when I tell you that the two larger clusters are probably 50% larger than normal, and that was what we were told over the Labor Day weekend when we visited Doug Tunnell at Brick House.  He'd weighed some clusters as he always does to estimate the size of his crop, and they were running about 50% above average.  But I digress.

In the vineyard pictured, there were two clusters on most shoots, sometimes three.  The vineyard is fairly old, dating back to when the vines and rows were customarily planted on wider spacing than is common today, so that will reduce the yield per acre, but the fact remains that they're asking the individual vines to work too hard - which was proven when I tasted a couple of grapes.  This is a west-sloping vineyard which ought to ripen a little sooner than most, but these guys weren't there yet. Still a little tart with green seeds.  I hope they ripen before the rain starts next week.

Back to the harvest update, crush operations were in full swing there, with fruit coming in from other vineyards. Here's a trailer full of picking bins packed with pinot gris.  If you haven't been out to the valley to see pinot gris, you're probably surprised that the grapes are so dark.  I know I was the first time I saw them.

Not to worry, though.  The clear juice will get pressed off those dark skins and go right into the fermenter, producing a lovely, aromatic golden-hued wine.  I don't know the people at this place so barging onto the crush pad wasn't an option, but I would have loved to stick around until they pressed these babies because freshly-pressed pinot gris juice is positively one of the most amazing things you'll ever put in your mouth.  Ah well . . . maybe next time.

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