Harvest Notes from Winemaker Brian Brown
Good Evening All, We are in the second full week of harvesting our Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc and I am pleased to report that the size of the crop is hanging heavy and the flavors are bright and expressive. After an early start to the growing season at the beginning of August, the weather cooled off a bit which then slowed ripening a touch; a positive development for the Sauvignon Blanc because it allowed flavors to catch up to the rapidly accumulating sugar in the berries. We started off with a single press load on August 26th to capture some natural acidity and the kiwi-like fruit profile in the developing fruit. We ramped up all last week, finishing out with three press loads on Friday that each had great peachy and guava-like aromatics. The warm weather over the Labor Day weekend put ripening into high gear, forcing most wineries to pick to capacity this week to get white varieties off the vine prior to the heat wave predicted for this coming weekend.
We have been plugging away at approximately twenty-five tons a day, mostly from Round Pond block 5 which is split between Clone 1 and the Musqué Clone. Though each clone tastes good in tank, the Musqué has a greener tint to the juice with slightly higher acid, and the Clone 1 is more exuberant aromatically. We have also brought in our Viogner which weighed in at a whopping 2.029 tons, a full half-ton more than last year. We also have approximately two tons of Clone 530 that is slated to be picked on Friday (530 is what I use to blend with the Viogner to make our Proprietary White Blend). By the end of this week we should only have part of Round Pond Block 7 left in the field, which I will use to produce our Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. Feel free to come by the winery to smell and taste the ferments—we generally have samples sitting out in the fermentation room.
As we move into the middle of the month, the vineyard crews are steadily picking their way through the Sauvignon Blanc. As of today, we are approximately half way through this year’s crop.
The vintage officially began on September 5th with a small test pick from block RP7. I like to do this in order to get a real sense of the juice chemistry and how the fruit reacts to processing at the winery. All season long the weather has been cooperating; the mild days are ideal for ripening and the lack of excessive heat has allowed us to process the fruit at a manageable pace. So far the blocks are picking out heavier than expected – an added bonus, as the quality is excellent. I am hearing much the same from other Sauvignon Blanc producers and have had about a dozen calls and emails from winemakers looking for extra white wine barrels.
In both the fruit and resulting juice, flavors are explosive, the acidity is flashy, and sugars are low to moderate. I expect the resulting wines to be above par. The berries are a little more pulpy than last year, yielding slightly less juice, so I’ve been tweaking our press cycles in order to tease a little more love from the fruit. Clone 1, which makes up a majority of what we grow, is looking and tasting great. The Musque clone, our next largest component, is progressing a little more slowly though its distinctive aromatic profile is already starting to show itself.
This week we should be close to done with the Sauvignon Blanc harvest, certainly the portion that will make up our Estate bottling. I’m holding back the portion of the crop that will go into our Reserve program allowing it to ripen a bit further and develop more melon and stone fruit characters. I will be monitoring the weather forecasts closely and walking the blocks daily to make sure we don’t overstep the mark.
Hope and optimism are redolent and welcome emotions in the vineyard this season. Just after set, a few audacious voices had already lauded the perfection of the vintage to come, their prognostications ultimately echoed however by a chorus of growers and winemakers at the conclusion of veraison. By all accounts, the growing season has progressed at a near ideal pace and with few, if any, obstacles put forth by Nature. This phenomena has been witnessed perhaps more acutely this season given the challenges Napa has faced the prior three.
A few vineyard points of note on the season thus far:
- The season got off slightly earlier than in years past, bud break started the week of March 26th this year and the week of April 4th in 2011. The weather at springtime was consistent with the past vintages except for the surprising lack of frost events.
- Bloom took over nearly six weeks from first cap drop till final berry set in 2011, which is very abnormal and caused uneven berry sizes in the clusters. This year was much more uniform and we got through flowering in approximately two weeks. The reason for this was the consistently warmer temperatures both in the day and night this year versus last year. Another interesting point - nearly all varieties flowered at the same time this year; an event I’ve never witnessed at Round Pond in my tenure.
- By June the vintage was tracking two hundred degree days ahead of where we were in 2011 and was on par with the 2007 season. A huge visual indicator of the climatic differences between 2011 and 2012 is the absence of fog this year that was so persistent last year. In 2011 the marine layer wouldn’t burn off until noon. This slowed the metabolism of the vines and the speed to which they ripened the fruit.
- Veraison started July 16th on the Estate this year, which was a full fourteen days ahead of when we started noticing berries coloring last year. We’ve also commenced through veraison, and at a heightened pace, which should get us to full maturity quicker. At this point, most of the Cabernet blocks are 90% through. What’s interesting is the older blocks are further along than the younger blocks, probably as a function of crop load. The Sauvignon Blanc is 95% and moving quickly. Petit Verdot is lagging the most and is 40%-70% depending upon the block.
While I’m not the type of person to count his chicks before they hatch, I must admit that I’m feeling rather bullish on the prospects of a high quality vintage. Sauvignon Blanc is two to three weeks out and the crop, while not large, looks to be in great shape.
Wish us luck.
As I sit at my desk patiently waiting for a high pressure system to brush aside the upper level trough that has brought us this less than welcome wet weather, our Estate and Reserve Sauvignon Blancs are quietly and coolly fermenting in tank, drum and barrel. The white wines of 2011 are looking marvelous as they progress through primary fermentation. Being an optimist to the core I am hoping that the quality of the Sauvignon Blancs are tea leaves for the rest of fruit that has yet to come in.
The phrase “when will we start bringing in the Reds,” has recently been replaced with “will we ever bring in the Reds?” To that, my coy response has been, “We’ve already harvested some red fruit.” And indeed we have, albeit not for red wine production. We have picked part of the Sangiovese and Nebbiolo crops to produce Rose. While the Sangiovese was predetermined to be a Rosato, the Nebb’s fate was a bit more ad hoc.
Because the weather has been so inclement, rot has started to form in tight cluster varieties such as Nebbiolo. Faced with the prospect of losing the fruit to mold and being forced to cull it onto the ground, where it would then release more spores into surrounding vineyards, I thought it best to bring the fruit into the winery and press it in the same fashion I did the Sangio. This has the dual benefit of preventing cross contamination in the vineyard and allows us to experiment with the Rosato di Nebbiolo. I am excited about the prospects of producing another refreshing wine to serve on the terrace, and as they say, when life gives you lemons you should make Rose…
Back to the Reds, yes, we will bring them all in. At this point we are watching the forecast fastidiously and walking our vineyard blocks compulsively. From a management stand point we have applied all the protective sprays applicable at this phase in the season; we have leafed out the fruiting zone to promote airflow; we have even gone to the point of using leaf blowers like large hairdryers to dry out more susceptible varieties like Petit Sirah.
I mentioned in earlier updates that the Winegrowing team learned much from the previous two cool vintages. One of those lessons was “don’t put your eggs in one basket.” As such, we have diversified the blocks from where we pull fruit. Should one block ripen quicker than another, we can capitalize on this phenomenon. This is indeed what we are seeing and as we enter into the final phase of the growing season we will segregate each pick according to its potential to produce Reserve, Estate, and Napa Valley styled wines.
I suspect that we will be bringing in fruit towards the end of the week and certainly the week after. I will update you again in the near future with developments as they occur.
After patiently waiting nearly all of September, the commencement of harvest finally arrived on Wednesday of this week. Sauvignon Blanc picking and pressing is in full swing and I am thrilled to report that the quality looks very good this year. As most of you know, shatter was a big factor in the size of the crop this vintage and Sauvignon Blanc was particularly hard hit. Early estimates pegged the damage at fifty percent reduction, but after harvesting the first two blocks it looks like the crop load was affected to a slightly lesser degree.
One of the challenges that we have encountered this year has been to bring the canopy and crop load into balance. Sauvignon Blanc has a naturally vigorous vegetative growth habit and when combined with the deep heavy soils where the vines are planted, the crop size can be prolific. Because of the shatter the natural balance between leaf surface area and crop load was thrown askew. Too many leaves and not enough fruit causes sugars to accumulate quicker than flavors. To mitigate this we hedged the vines early and often to remove actively growing shoot tips and control the overall number of leaves.
The cool growing season delayed the commencement of harvest by twenty six days. However this late season heat spell kicked the pace of ripening up a few notches and Sauvignon Blanc throughout the valley is being picked at a furious pace to keep sugars and flavors in an appropriate range. Round Pond’s trellis set-up has allowed us to weather this heat with minimal detrimental impact to the fruit. The fruiting zone is well protected by the canopy so that sunburn does not occur. The flavor intensity in the fruit is exceptional and the multiple picks should allow for a very expressive and complex wine. I am hoping to wrap things up early next week for the Estate Sauvignon Blanc; the Reserve fruit should come in shortly there after.
If you would like to come try some of the fermenting juice, feel free to pop into the fermentation room.
Until the next installment...
This year’s catch phrase: Cooler than normal temperatures.
In the spring, if we experience cool weather, the vines will remain dormant and bud break will be delayed. This is in itself is challenging, because like a thoroughbred getting out of the gates a furlong or two behind, it can be difficult to make up lost ground. Thus the 2011 vintage began.
Cooler temperature will also draw rain clouds in from the ocean. If, at this time, the vines are in cap drop, the effect from both the cool weather and the rain will interfere with the ability of the vine to pollinate. This is commonly referred to as shatter. On the Estate we experienced shatter in interesting patterns. Old vines were affected more than young. Some varieties were effect more than others. Some clones were affected more than others. Soil variability had little effect and rootstock was seen as being neutral. This was obviously a scion reaction to an atmospheric condition.
The cooler than normal weather persisted the entire growing season, which did not help us catch up in the ripening department. An interesting phenomenon of note is that we have not experience a single heat spike the entire growing season. An occurrence that is unprecedented according to the old timers. Marching into September, we are tracking about three weeks behind schedule and it appears that my prediction of a record-breaking heat index for this month will not come to pass…
Now that everyone is sufficiently depressed I’d like to state that not all is doom and gloom. Not even close.
As cool and late as this vintage may be, this is the third year in a row Mother Nature has dealt us this same hand. The Winegrowing Team learned much in 2009 and gained on that knowledge in 2010. We have reacted quickly and sufficiently to guarantee the growth of the most exceptional crop this Estate can produce. I look forward to what this vintage still holds in store and will update you at the major milestones. You won’t have to wait long… Sauvignon Blanc is coming in next week.