Category Archives: Viticulture

2017 Harvest Update: Veraison

Finally, it has dried out.  I can walk in the vineyards and my back yard without worrying about sinking into a puddle.  Since my last update we have still had several more storms however it has not been everyday and we have at last seen a return to sun which gave us a few weeks of normal summer weather.  Despite this, the humidity has stayed very high and has caused growers to continue to be on their game with fungus sprays.  Downy mildew has been widespread this year.  This week brought many storms as a cold front moved through and now our forecast says nights in the 50s with highs in the 70s over the next week or so.  Luckily it is supposed to be relatively dry over the same period.  If this continues it should make up for the crazy rain from earlier in the “summer”.

The reds are just now going through veraison but many of the white hybrids are within a few weeks of harvest.  We are starting our Aurore harvest tomorrow for sparkling and we will continue almost constantly until mid-October.  The vinifera is very exciting this year with the cool nights.  It should be a beautiful year for acid assuming the rest of the fruit is clean.  If we get a moderately warm September with low rainfall and cool nights, this vintage could be spectacular.  It is still too early to tell but the vines are healthy.

Blaufrankisch at the start of veraisonBlaufrankisch at the start of veraison

I’m getting ready to crush Blaufrӓnkisch (Pronounced Blaw-fraan-kish) for the first time for the 240 Days Project.  I’ve never worked with this variety but I’m extremely excited about it for the Finger Lakes.  It is an Austrian variety, mainly grown in the Burgenland with characters similar to Syrah but with a Cabernet-like structure. Most of the local wineries call this variety Lemberger and many cite Blaufrӓnkisch’s challenging pronunciation as the reason to do so.  I have my own thoughts on this since we haven’t found another name for Gewürztraminer (Ge-vurz-tra-meen-er) yet and goodness knows that one is equally challenging.  Blaufrӓnkisch is a deeply colored variety that ripens a week to week and a half ahead of where Cabernet Franc ripens, making it very appropriate for our short growing seasons.  In anticipation of the small but fun project, I’m going to do something else I’ve never done; I’m going to ferment it in barrels.  That has necessitated me purchasing coopering tools, pictured below. These will help me remove the hoops and heads then retighten the hoops in order to be able to stand the barrels on their remaining head and dump in the harvested fruit.

Barrel Wax, Head Tool, Hoop Hammer, and large L shape is a Head Holder.Barrel Wax, Head Tool, Hoop Hammer, and large L shape is a Head Holder.

This is something I had always wanted to do with the To Kalon fruit in Napa but we never got around to trying it before I moved.  I think the roundness of the palate of the Blaufrӓnkisch and the spicy character will pair nicely with the natural structure and complexity of an oak fermentation.  There will be challenges since these will need to be punched down rather than a pump over.  The early cap work I usually do during a red fermentation will be much harder.  I am considering getting a wader and punching down by foot but we’ll see.

Today, I’m off to China for the final trip of the Ningxia Winemaker Challenge. On August 29th we all find out how we did over the past two years.  This has been an incredible experience and one which I will remember forever.  I can’t wait to find out how the wine is received.

En Vogue: Misconceptions About Natural Wines

The subject of natural wines is a very subjective one.  Who defines what “natural” means?  One winemaker’s “natural” wine is another winemaker’s concocted swill all depending on where one stands on the strictness of what the definition of natural is.  While Organic and Biodynamic are easier to define due to their respective certification programs, they are still so misunderstood by the vast majority of consumers that there are completely misinformed beliefs being circulated by the general populace.  I have a passion for Biodynamic wine growing.  It is my dream to one day have my own Biodynamic vineyard because I truly believe there is something special in these types of wine. It is sad that most people don’t understand the differences between conventional, organic, and Biodynamic farming however, I was excited to see, over the holidays, that a mainstream publication, Vogue, decided to tackle this subject (Read the full story here).  I had hoped that the writer would have demonstrated a sound grasp of all three methods and could dispel some of the myths that are out there.  Unfortunately, it was yet again riddled with blatant misunderstandings and errors.   The title alone made me cringe.

No Chemicals: This Is the Most Natural Wine You Can Drink

No Chemicals.  Really?  Can someone please let the common man know that everything.  LITERALLY EVERYTHING is made up of chemicals.  Wine is no exception and is generally made up of the following CHEMICALS.

85% Dihydrogen Monoxide (That is water for the folks who missed the class in High School chemistry on chemical naming)

13% Ethanol (or the alcohol part of the drink)

1% Glycerol ( A sugar alcohol compound that adds viscosity and mouthfeel)

0.4% Organic Acids (Tartaric, Malic, Lactic, Citric, Succinic, etc..)

0.1% Tannins and Phenolic Compounds ( Color, Texture, Mouthfeel)

0.5% Other Chemicals

The great infographic was found at Compound Interest and they dive much further into this topic for red wines if you really want to geek out.  I think their estimation of the average alcohol is probably a little low hence the changes to my list above.

Assuming I give the article the benefit of the doubt about the Chemical issue…

(because after all, those of us who know wine, know this person was referring to the 3 classes of chemicals that fall into Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fungicides), the second sentence made me groan.

“Composting instead of using pesticides?”

These two actions are not interchangeable or on an either/or type of set up.  Composting is the process of turning organic waste and other natural matter into nutrient and beneficial, microbially rich soil amendments.  Using Pesticides is the process of using a chemical to kill a desired pest or range of pest.  You can do both or neither but they are not directly connected.  The author may be referring to the Biodynamic preparations which DO need to be put through the process of composting in various containers (cow’s horns, stag’s bladders, farm animal skulls, etc.) using different herbs or ingredients for at least one season before they can be added to a spray to either be applied to the soil or directly to the vine.  It should be noted that elemental sulpur (a Chemical) is used as a fungicide and is allowed in Organic, Biodynamic, and conventional viticulture.  Hopefully this clears up the misunderstanding of the second sentence of the article.  Reading on…

“Fermenting with native yeasts? Such practices were the domain of eccentrics and hippies.”

AND everyone prior to 1857 when Louis Pasteur discovered that yeast were actually what was fermenting the wine.  Personally, I love a good native ferment, however you have to have extremely clean and healthy fruit to have it go well.  Not everyone is blessed with such great fruit particularly at the value or premium end of the wine market.  Usually the “native” yeasts used today in most wineries are some form of a cultured yeast that was released into the microflora before the winery decided to start doing “native” ferments.  Of course that also doesn’t take into account that a wide number of popular strains of cultured yeasts were just native yeasts that were identified for particularly good characteristics and produced for everyone to purchase.

“The philosophy behind this grassroots winemaking movement is to let Mother Nature do most of the work in the vineyard and to intervene as little as possible in the cellar. In other words: no chemicals on the grapes and as few additives as possible in the bottle.”

Trust me.  Viticulture is working with Mother Nature but she doesn’t do jack when it comes to working in the vineyard beyond blessing a grower with good weather or bad.  Biodynamic and Organic wine growers work HARD.  These growers have to be constantly vigilant looking for problems.  They have to walk they rows everyday to assess vineyard health. The effort it takes to keep up with a lunar calendar, alone, is not for the faint of heart.  If we left it up to Mother Nature, the vines would be climbing trees instead of trellises and the birds would make off with whatever fruit the vines were able to produce.  The very fact that we have decided to train a vine takes it out of the realm of natural and into human intervention.  The sentence in the article sounds great but it does make it sound like these types of wine just make themselves.

Then I got to these two sentences and it made me want to hurl my phone across the room…

“Modern winemaking relies on ingredients like commercial yeasts and enzymes to ferment the wine, as well as additives to deepen its color, enrich its texture, boost its acidity, and sweeten its taste. What’s more, pesticides and herbicides have become commonplace in the vineyard. Many vintners spray their grapes not only to kill pests and disease, but as a routine preventative measure even when nothing at all is wrong with them.”

Chemicals are the second highest cost in vineyard management next to labor.  No one in their right mind, conventional, organic, or biodynamic just sprays the vineyard because nothing is wrong with it.  Generally the spray is because an infection has been spotted or because a crazy storm is coming and you know if you don’t spray you will lose your entire crop to mildew.  Yes, it is preventative in most cases because if you wait until something is wrong, you are too late and the quality of wine will suffer.

The article goes on to quote Catherine Papon-Nouvel of Clos Saint-Julien in Bordeaux, Elisabeth Saladin in the Rhône valley, and Thiébault Huber, in Burgundy who all explain their rationale for their preferred growing methods quite beautifully.  Their passion is clear, as are most growers and winemakers who follow these strict methods of making wine.  It was a moment of great joy for me to read after the initial misconceptions in the article.

Then we delve back into the rest of the article.

“Natural wines can be funky,” says Caleb Ganzer, head sommelier at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, the New York outpost of a Paris bar. As in: earthy, floral, redolent of mushrooms. “They can be briny or tart. Sometimes they’re fizzy. Unfiltered wines can be cloudy. Or they can taste just like conventional wines. You’ve probably had one without knowing it.”

This is my main problem with “natural” wines.  It’s the thought of the end consumers that they have to accept flaws in the wine because they were made naturally.  Well made Natural Wine should taste as good or better than conventionally made wine. Otherwise it is just flawed and it was the winemaker’s choice to let it be flawed.

I appreciate a strong philosophy but when philosophy becomes Dogma and it leads to a drop in quality then what’s the point of your philosophy.

There.  I’ll get off my soapbox now.

If you want to read a great article about Organic and Biodynamic wines please click here for Winerist.com’s comprehensive descriptions.