There seems to be a bit of buzz ramping up regarding Merlot in the blogosphere this week and I wanted to add my two cents. I was recently talking to a colleague about my concerns about Merlot disappearing from Napa. It seems every time you turn around someone else is pulling a Merlot vineyard to replant it to Cabernet Sauvignon. I really like Merlot. When it is done well, it is a beautiful thing. However, during the PS era (pre-Sideways) there was quite a bit of very bad Merlot on the market since it was the “it” grape. The quintessential red wine of America, one could almost look up “red wine” in the dictionary and have a picture and description of Merlot as the definition. Post-sideways, it became the least desirable, least flashy workhorse of the wine world and sales plummeted for the next few years and vineyards began to pull it.
The pulling has slowed however it is becoming harder and harder to find good Merlot. I personally feel that Cabernet needs a little bit of Merlot. It fills in the middle and rounds out the edges. There is a reason these varieties are blended together most of the time because they truly do complement each other. The Sommelier Files brought up a great point saying “Thanks to the combination of soft tannins and finesse, the distinct flavors of … high-quality Merlots are also very approachable and fantastic with winter dishes.” It’s a great variety and one that I would hate to see reduced further in the valley. I have a fear that we as winemakers are going to wake up one day to a monoculture of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa and have no Merlot or Cabernet Franc to enhance it.
I’m not fortunate enough to own vineyard land in Napa but if I did, I’d be looking at all my neighbors planting Cabernet Sauvignon and probably would decide to go with Merlot. If you are planting now one has to think about the market in 3-6 years and beyond. I think Merlot is going to be the scarcer commodity in a few year’s time and it might be quietly coming back while no one is looking.
Like a duck gliding slowly, wings spread wide, feet reaching for landing on a pond, we are coming to the end of an incredibly fast harvest. Last week we saw extreme temperatures. Extreme cold in the mid 40s and extreme heat in the mid 90s. I have seen some vineyards in Calistoga with frost damage at this point and that only reconfirms my belief that the season is coming to a close. We have about a week an a half left of harvest at the winery to bring in all the remaining fruit. It is mostly Bordeaux varieties with one lone block of Chardonnay down in Carneros that routinely takes its sweet time ripening.
The theme of this year has been low extractability. We are having to work extremely hard to extract what color and flavors are in the skins. Maybe that is a result of the drought. Maybe the skins are thicker and harder due to the lack of water. However, this was not the case last year which was also a drought year. Quality looks good. We are just having to work harder to keep it than in 2013. It also seems to be a year of slow yeast. Very few fermentations are “finishing strongly” with most going well until 3 or 4 Brix then slowing down to a crawl to the finish line.
For myself, I’ve signed up for a 10K on November 9th in Calistoga. I wanted something to look forward to and work towards now that the Master of Wine program is no longer in my life. Personally, I really can’t stand running. I much prefer dancing, Pilates, Yoga, or even biking to running. However, if I want to push myself I can’t stick with the easy stuff. I have to motivate myself to do it. Unfortunately my training has been hindered by an fateful run in with a tick sometime last month and fighting the resulting infection that may potentially be Lyme disease. Why am I posting this? One, if one person who reads this blog remembers to check for the beastly buggers after wandering around in the outdoors it was worth it. Two, I believe in being open, honest, and fully authentic. In this blog I’m not only writing about wine and winemaking but also its affect on my life. Fortunately and unfortunately, one of the requirements of the job is being outdoors much of the year with all the highs and lows that come with that. I’m under good care and well on my way to making a full recovery however prayers are always appreciated!
Stay safe my friends!
After the events of last week, my thoughts are that we are pretty much finished with the normal ripening process for this harvest. We had another rain storm that dropped an additional 1/2 in of rain on Calistoga and thunderstorms on Friday that brought a massive hail storm and lightning to the valley. Luckily it doesn’t seem that any fruit was severely damaged from the hail but all the moisture in the air has started to take its toll and some of the green mold that comes with rain is starting to show up. The canopies look tired and the vines have fully lignified signaling their start towards dormancy.
When one looks around the valley more often than not the vineyards are picked now and slowly turning to the beautiful yellow of fall. Harvest now becomes a logistics game. Who has tanks? Who has crews to pick? Who has trucks to haul the fruit if the first two questions are met with answers. With the rain during week 7, some of the high Brix that we had been seeing went backwards a bit so we aren’t going to be seeing the incredibly high brix harvest that I had feared. Flavor concentration still looks good so that is a blessing.
I couldn’t help but think about anyone doing dessert wines because I bet this year would be stellar for botrytis and combined with the ripe fruit concentration that was reached before the rain, it has the potential to be a fantastic year for desserts. I’ll have to reach out to my winemaking buddy and dessert specialist, Roger Harrison, to get his take on it.
Some growers are already seeing the end to their season while for the rest the end is almost in sight. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and barring any major fermentation issues this harvest should wrap up smoothly and very early.