moon over sonomaYou’d think this winemaking gig would get easier year by year. Instead, we’re starting to realize that every year brings us a new challenge that we hadn’t even thought or read about when we started this adventure. Which is how we ended up pressing out Grenache from primary to secondary fermentation on a pitch black crush pad surrounded by coyote howls. Followers of this blog are aware by now that this has been one weird weather year — and not necessarily in a good way — for makers of grape-based libations. First we had the rainy winter that never ended. Or at least didn’t really end until nearly July. That knocked a good number of the flowers off the grape vines. Then we had heat wave after heat wave from August through last week — heat periods so intense and so long that many vines just shut down and went into dormancy to survive. The result has been a grape harvest across Sonoma and Napa that’s down by as much as 40%.

Yields are down? Tell it to our Mourvedre! This is me saying, "No MORE" after crushing a record Mourvedre harvest and now pressing Grenache at 9PM.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that the transfer of crushed grapes from primary fermentation to press to secondary fermentation is all done with pumps and hoses. Until you need to break out the shovels.

Once pressed, the fermented juice is pumped into steel tanks for secondary fermentation in Dr. FrankenWine's Lab.

At the very least, the harvests are all over the map. Our vineyard manager told us that she’s got clients’ Chardonnay — which is usually one of the first harvested grapes around here (typically in August) — that still aren’t ripe. It’s a different story at Two Terrier Vineyards. Maybe it’s because we’re growing Rhône style wines which may be better able to handle the heat or maybe, because we’re perched on a hill and get our own special weather patterns, nothing about our harvests follows any of the Valley’s patterns. We actually had a record harvest of Mourvèdre and Cinsault, which isn’t as felicitous as it might sound.

Mourvèdre is a big bold tanniny grape that is used at about 60% in some Rhône blends. We’ve had all we could handle in past years, thank you very much, Mother Nature. Now we’ve got nearly twice last year’s harvest. However, the Grenache is down by at least 50%, which is a problem because it’s usually the second greatest concentration, with Mourvèdre, in a Southern Rhone style wine. Which means, we need at least enough Grenache to make a 55-35% Mourvedre/Grenache mix (the remaining 5% is usually made up with various blending grapes which are used like spices, just a dash is added for extra flavor and complexity.) One of those is Cinsault, and this was another grape that didn’t get the message about yields being down. With a short row and a half of Cinsault, we yielded more volume than we did from seven long rows of Grenache. Go figure. “So just make varietal wine out of the Mourvèdre and the Cinsault”, you might say. Well, Mourvèdre on its own isn’t that interesting or complex a grape. It’s great for adding structure and tannins to a mix, but on its own — which the French would never do — it just isn’t that interesting a drink. Cinsault is even more problematic. A little bit of it adds a touch of sweetness to a blend. But on its own, it’s so fruity and pink, at 100%, we’d have to call it Chateau Bazooka!

So back to that darkened crush pad. The strange weather has reset all expectations and planning for when harvest might happen. Grapes went into suspended animation, then accelerated. All this coincided with a time period when Andy had four or five back-to-back business trips (one of us has to have a day job). Without Cousin John and amazing good luck in securing crews, I’m not sure how we would have gotten anything picked and processed. Which put us trying to press the finished Grenache out starting after Andy left work. That pretty much got us fumbling around on a darkened crush pad with just two spotlights and a sliver of moon to guide us. But by the time the Grenache was safely pressed off the skins and hosed into steel secondary fermentation vats, it was dark, cold and scary. Since we’d already siphoned off as much Cinsault as we wanted to top up our Rose (and compensate for not enough Grenache) we had nearly half a ton of it still to press. Distinctly underwhelmed by the idea of Chateau Bazooka, we left it for another day. Maybe that will end in a loss. Maybe it will still be viable when we get around to pressing it tomorrow. Maybe it will be returned to the earth in some sort of Ceremony to the Goddess of Grapes. When it’s dark and coyotes are closing in, discretion is the better part of valor.

For what it’s worth, here’s the scorecard at Two Terrier Vineyards for the 2010 harvest.

Rosé

While last year’s was phenomenal, we’re not taking bets on this year’s. First of all, last year’s was a field blend of Mourvedre and Grenache, pulled off the skins after 24 hours and chilled for cold fermentation. The weather cooperated and the results were spectacular. Two Terrier Rosé outperformed all Rosés it was tested against except for a fine Bandol Rosé, which is pretty much the Platonic Ideal of Rosés. Ours stood up to even the Bandol admirably. The issues this year were Grenache and Mourvedre that ripened differently and a Grenache that underproduced so that we’ve had to blend in Cinsault to make up the difference. To make matters worse, in both cold fermentations (the Grenache and Mourvedre were fermented separately this year), a heat wave defeated the purpose of our glycol chiller which is to ensure a slow fermentation. The worst affected was the Mourvedre which heated up so much, even in the cooler, that the yeasts went crazy. It looks like a bubble bath in there. Andy’s being optimistic and saying extra racking will sift out the impurities. I’m not so sanguine. Once both the Grenache Rosé and the Mourvédre Rosé are finished primary fermentation, we’ll blend them and continue processing them.

Grenache

In spite of the low yield, we managed to get this harvested, crushed, pressed and into secondary fermentation exactly on schedule and when the acid/sugar balance was right. A miracle.

Mourvèdre

Well, we got it harvested, crushed and into primary fermentation. Where it is now being met with a cold snap — it’s been in the 60s by day and 40s by night for the last few days. Not the best conditions when we want the mixture to heat up and ferment! Once this is in secondary fermentation, we’ll think about the blends we want to make.

Cinsault

This grape was harvested and finished primary fermentation but we had to leave it to press another day. That’s not usually optimal and we don’t have high hopes for it. But since it’s just a blending grape, we may call that a loss.

Cabernet

Ah yes, the Cabernet! Still on the vines and now, buffeted by today’s rainstorm. Bad bad news for ripe grapes on the vine. At the very least, rain at this stage can plump up the grapes with water — which reduces the concentration of the juice. At its worst, rain at this stage can promote mildew which is deadly. We’ll be picking in a few days, which will give the grapes some time to dry out. We hope.

I’ve said it before: winemaking is about 90% farming. And farming can break your heart.

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