Category Archives: Vintage Notes

Ningxia Winemaker Challenge: Part 1 – Harvest 2015

 Every now and then I like to push myself out of my comfort zone just to keep myself from being too comfortable in any single situation.  This trip was so far out of my comfort zone, I wasn’t even in the same ballpark with it anymore.  I did not know what to expect and since the details of what would happen when I arrived were quite fuzzy, I was going on pure blind faith that everything would be taken care of.  I shouldn’t have worried at all.   This was an experience like none that I have ever been a part of.  The first few days were spent in the company of my fellow Challenge winemakers, 48 of us in all.  As a group, we represent almost every major winemaking country, with varying experiences, languages, and careers.  Everyone was super friendly and, as is usually the case with winemaking types, extremely passionate about wine and grapes.  I had great conversations during these first days where we toured the Ningxia Provence by bus, visiting several wineries as well as our vineyard that we would be working with.

 The selection ceremony came and each winemaker was paired with a partner winery and selected a vineyard block.  This was done by random selection.  I was extremely lucky with my pick.  I am paired with a winery called Lansai.  The winery itself is small by local standards but elegantly designed and stays true to the spirit of China with very traditional architecture, statues and reliefs of mythological and symbolic Chinese figures cranes, lions, birds, and of course the dragon, which is the most prominent of the symbols and was chosen to bring power to the winery. Even though the winery is not finished it has a powerful feel to it, as though the building stands in comfortable harmony with the land even though it makes such a strong statement on the landscape.

I decided to pick on Friday, September 25th, earlier than most of my contemporaries but there was 3 days of rain coming the next week and I had no time to waste given that I was flying home on October 3rd.  If there is one thing I know from my years of winemaking, it is that 3 days of rain does not improve anything in wine quality that close to harvest.  I was able to sort quite strictly at both the cluster and berry level. Ten percent of the fruit did not make the cut.  The resulting juice was easy to work with and extracted quite nicely without the use of enzymes which so many people seem to rely on for fermentations.  I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find the winemaking supplies that I normally use in the US, but it turns out that the suppliers have great representation in the region and I was able to find everything that I needed.  The winery is very well equipped with both heating and cooling capabilities on all the tanks, a luxury which I have not had previously.  The analysis was good from the sorted fruit and I am very happy with how the wine turned out.  I was able to press off one tank at dryness before I left and am very pleased with the texture of the tannin.  The seeds were quite green still so I wanted to minimize any harsh extraction while still providing great structure for the wine.
 I had other great adventures while making the wine.  I tried a Durnian fruit for the first time, and probably the last because the smell was almost too much for me to take.  I celebrated the Chinese holiday, Middle Moon, with my Chinese host family who have welcomed me in with open arms and have supported my efforts for making the best quality wine with amazing enthusiasm.  I have sampled much of the local food, minus anything spicy, and can report that it is delicious.  In particular, I am in love with the egg based Chinese crepe that is served for breakfast here.  I have already found a recipe and if it is successfully similar I will share it.

I returned from China yesterday and although I am a bit jet lagged still, I am happy that I have been able to participate in this incredible journey.  I have left the wine in the capable hands of the Lansai winemaker, a young man named Mr. Wu, with detailed instructions on what to expect in the next few months before I head back to Lansai in February.  All I can do is hope for the best and continue to make the most out of this incredible experience.

Harvest 2015-Weeks 5&6: Recap

These past two weeks have been quite hot and dry for this area. Highs around 90 and very few cool nights. We just had rain over the weekend but I can’t speculate how much as of yet. Fall showed up yesterday bringing cloudy skies and blustery winds. The trees are starting to let the green fade away to be replaced by Crimson, orange and yellow.  The vinifera are ripening quickly spurred on by the heat. TAs are dropping more quickly than I remember as well. It makes me worried that the fruit that I thought would be ready in October will be ready while I am away in China. 

Speaking of China, I am supposed to leave this Thursday but am still waiting on flight confirmations. I have my visa now so if I can get flights I am set. 

This looks to be a great year for reds in the Finger Lakes. The Cabernet Franc we are picking for Constellation was one I was concerned about earlier in the year but after visiting the vineyard on Friday I am encouraged that I will be able to make some very nice wine. So much on the weather in the next 3-4 weeks as it always does this time of year. 

Cabernet Franc over Keuka on Friday. 

Meanwhile I am counting my blessings that we moved when we did. Napa and Lake counties are experiencing one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory. Thousands of people have been displaced by the Valley Fire and with 50,000 acres burned or burning as of last night it can only be described as devastating. I’m sure vineyards that I used to work with in the proximity of Middletown are probably gone. It is so sad and heartwrenching to see the photos. While Napa itself remains mostly unscathed, the smoke is hanging in the air which I know can be challenging for daily life, much less winemaking. My prayers go out to everyone affected and the Firefighters that are courageously  trying contain this monster fire. 


Harvest 2015: Weeks 1-3, Meanwhile Back in New York…

It was a year ago today that the earth shook at 3:15 am and I turned to my husband and said “That’s it! I’m ready to go home now.” After seeing twitter light up over a 4.3 or so quake in Oakland last week I’m reminded to be grateful that I’m on much more stable ground this harvest in more ways than one.

At the first of last year’s harvest posts, I was musing that I may need to add a week 0 to the round of posts and this year I definitely would have needed that week as much of California got off to a fast start at the end of July for one of the earliest harvests on record. (Unfortunately I am unable to link last year’s week 1 post since it has been deleted some how…)  This was largely due to a very warm January and February which led to an early bud break.   This has been another drought year and the fires have been terrible this year. I hope that the rumors of it not impacting the vineyards have been true.  Having lived through selling the 2008 wines of Alexander Valley, I know it can be problematic.  I have heard rumors of 25 and 26 Brix Cabernet Sauvignon in some areas meaning that everything is coming ripe (at least sugar wise) around the same time.  I shutter to think about the amount of water which will go into the fruit this year to try to tame the rapidly climbing brix.

Meanwhile, back in New York…

 Cabernet Franc on Keuka Lake

After one of the coldest winters on record which included snow on Easter this year, we are getting back on track after a season which has spent much of the year behind.  We saw 7-8 inches of rain in June with only 8 days in the entire month without rain.  We are accustomed to rain here but that was pretty intense.  One grower stated that he didn’t get a chance to get off the tractor on the clear days when he could get into the vineyards.  The good news is that the growers out here are used to the wet stuff and I have seen very little mildew issues.  The remainder of the summer has been lovely.  We’ve flirted with 90 a few days this month but the majority have been a very nice 75-85 range for the highs and most nights are cool enough for the windows to stay open.  We are still waiting for veraison in Cabernet Franc but Lemberger (aka Blaufrankish to the rest of the world) was turning about 2 weeks ago.  Most of the vinfera fruit will be ready to harvest in October and we won’t get started with Natives and  Hybrids until the end of this month.  While California is looking at another harvest spread over 3 months, I’m enjoying the last days of summer and looking forward to smelling the first fall mornings sometime next month.

A friend’s Riesling vineyard overlooking Cayuga Lake

I’m also frantically trying to get my Visa for China and can’t wait to see what that harvest will be like.  Hopefully it will oblige with a late September harvest which will put me back in New York just in time for the vinifera varieties to be harvested.