No More Bad Years

by Jim Law

Over the past several years I have been attempting to learn why some winemakers are able to produce consistently good wines in every year. I grow grapes at Linden Vineyards in the mountains of Virginia where the weather extremes are much more comparable to northern Europe than to more mediterranean climates, so I have focused on the regions of Bordeaux up to Sancerre, Burgundy and into Alsace and Germany. Mention is often made of “respecting the vintage” in these areas. This means that the growing and winemaking decisions should react to the weather, flavors and structure that are inherent in the season and in that vintage’s grapes and wine. The wine should not be forced or manipulated, but rather it should conform to the best characters and personality of the vintage. As a winegrower in Virginia I have been applying this philosophy of “respecting the vintage” in my decision making both in the vineyard and in the cellar.

In The Vineyard

I have always found that the best and most harmonious wines are made by the winegrower who has a long and intimate relationship with the vineyard. Through experience he or she knows where the potential problems can arise and where there is no need to worry. So what are the specific management decisions that change in a given year?

Canopy Management:

Keeping the canopy healthy is absolutely necessary in order to optimize grape flavor and concentration. It is only through experience and observation that the grower knows that the same spray program or canopy management cannot be used each year or even in each block. At Linden Vineyards I have found that Chardonnay is more susceptible to powdery mildew – even in a dry year. Vidal with a dense canopy often has downy mildew in a wet year. Grape berry moth infestations lead to bunch rot in white grapes, especially at the perimeter of the vineyard. Seyval rots in wet years unless it is heavily leaf pulled. We typically hedge and leaf pull as much as three times a season in a wet year, but only once or not at all in a very dry year. There are always exceptions. Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc remain vigorous even in dry years, especially on heavier soils.

Crop Load:

Determining the optimal yield per acre is a difficult decision for even the most experienced winegrowers. Wine style and intensity are greatly influenced by yield. Some varieties and some years can support greater crop loads than others. Typically Sauvignon Blanc growers leave a larger crop than Chardonnay growers. Red Bordeaux growers take a larger crop than there Burgundian counterparts.

There are those few years where growers get good quality and yield, but they are rare. Most quality growers fine tune their crops according to the season at veraison. Green harvest typically happens at about 75% veraison. At Linden Vineyards in a dry year (we are dry farmed) we will start to cluster thin before this time. A few weeks after bloom we find it advantageous to start to remove fruit from shoots with less than 10 leaves, especially in the vineyard blocks where the soil is shallow or the vines are young. In wetter years we allow a larger crop to stay on the vines up to verasion. I have found that in a wet year a larger crop will keep berry size smaller, which reduces bunch rot due to compact clusters, and especially in reds, gives more intense flavors. A larger pre veraison crop will also help keep a vigorous canopy in check in a wet year.

It took me a couple of years to convince my crew that dropping clusters in August was a good thing to do. The first year we green harvested we had to do it twice as everyone was afraid of taking off too much fruit. After several years of observation and tasting grapes at harvest, they too are believers. Our yield goals range from 2.5 to 5 tons per acre depending on variety, vine age, site, wine style, wine price, and of course, weather.

When to Pick:

Obviously besides excessive heat, or cool cloudy weather, the main factor that determines the character and quality of any vintage is rainfall. Rain dilutes favor. Rain causes rot. When it rains the grapes are not ripening. A winegrower who knows his or her vineyard knows how far to push the envelope and when to gamble and when not to.

A warm rain (above 60 F) coming from the south causes sour rot. Cold rains start botrytis infections. A fast moving front from the west has little impact. Rain from the east can linger causing serious rot problems in Seyval, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Old vines handle rain better than young vines. Well-drained soils can shake the negative effects of a rain faster than poorly drained soils. Cabernet Sauvignon and Vidal can hang through just about anything Mother Nature will throw at them, while Riesling falls apart.

In The Winery

While technology continues to provide the winemaker with more and more tools to deal with “difficult” vintages, it is an experienced winegrower’s technique that can produce balanced and harmonious wines in almost any year. Keeping lots separate (by soil type, vine age, slope aspect, degree of pressing to name a few) and making ‘selections’ all along the way, are the most basic and most important ways of assembling a good wine from a wet year.

White Wines

Rot:
White grapes are typically more susceptible to bunch rot than Reds. In a wet harvest I spend much of my time in the vineyard tasting rotten grapes. I am tasting for type of rot (pure botrytis or sour rot) and the intensity of its influence. Some of the best wines I have ever made came from heavily botrysized grapes (this includes dry Chardonnays and Cabernet Francs).

Sour rot is the worst thing that can happen to a vineyard during harvest. There are usually three options for the winegrower: 1. Pick as soon as it is evident that sour rot is forming, but before its influence is too great. For most quality oriented growers this in not an option because any amount of sour rot is highly negative to quality and the grapes are often fairly dilute due to the rain that caused the sour rot. 2. Allow the healthy grapes to hang while the rotten grapes dry out to the point where they have no more juice. This can take weeks in the best of weather. 3. Sort. This is usually the best option for wine quality and the worst option for those that actually have to do the sorting. Sorting can be done in the vineyard or at the crusher. Often it is done in both places. Sorting out bad berries or clusters is probably the single best technique that allows a winemaker to make good wine in a bad year. No amount of fining agents, pressing techniques or fermentation temperatures can fix the problem better than the tedious work of dozens of hands sorting bad grapes from good.

Crush:
In Virginia most quality conscious wineries have refrigerated trailers or cold rooms to chill grapes. Processing warm white grapes is problematic even when the grapes are healthy. It can be a disaster if rot is involved. Our destemmer/crusher has adjustable rollers so we can fine-tune the amount of skin breakage. We generally shoot for a very gentle crush if the skins are not healthy, or if we find an excessively high phenolic load coming from the skins. Whole cluster pressing is a good option also.

We generally have three levels of pressing; free run, light press, and hard press. We always use the free run, and we rarely keep the hard press. It is the light press juice that in some years can make a very nice wine that eventually gets blended. However, in a less than ideal vintage we find that this juice tends to be bitter and at best “vinous” in its character. We sell in bulk any juice or wine that doesn’t make the cut.

Juice Settling and Lees Quality:
Years ago I used to settle my white juice until it looked like spring water. More recently I have been greatly influenced by the concept of terroir and wine personality and I find myself fermenting “dirty” juice with very little settling. This changes vintage to vintage depending on the health of the grapes and skins at harvest. The same is true with lees. I age most of my wines “sur lie” but have taken a cue from the French, and now I evaluate the quality of the lees by tasitng and smelling to decide how long to age the wines on their lees and how often to stir.

Red Wines

Green Harvest:
Green harvest, along with meticulous canopy management are probably the two most important influences on the quality of red wine in a given vineyard. Green harvest at veraison can sort out the less ripe clusters and reduce the crop in time to concentrate intensity and enhance optimal ripeness.

Degree of Ripeness:
Harvesting underripe white grapes because of weather pressures can still lead to some appealing wines. This is rarely true with red wine grapes. A smaller crop has a better chance of ripening than a larger crop. I have found that tannin ripeness is the most important factor in producing a harmonious and supple red wine. In Virginia we can achieve good levels of tannin ripeness in most years. Unfortunately many winegrowers are too obsessed with brix and pH, and they neglect to taste the grapes.

Bleeding:
Assuming that we were able to ripen our tannins, we would like to concentrate their influence as much as possible. In wet years we tend to have larger berry size, which dilutes the influence of the skins. The traditional technique of bleeding can improve this situation. We typically draw off 10 to 20% of the juice in a wet year. We do this as the crushed grapes are falling into the fermenters so as to minimize the juice absorbing any of the “good stuff” from the skins. Dry, full-bodied Roses are becoming popular in Virginia!

Oxygen:
We give our reds lots of air during and post fermentation. During the first 6 months of aging I taste each barrel and decide how much air to give the wine during racking based on tannin structure and “reduced” qualities in the wine. I usually find that in wetter, less ripe years aeration racking is kept at a minimum as the wines are more fragile and have more to lose in terms of aroma and flavor.

Oak and Bottling Timing:
Too many pretty eastern red wines have been assaulted with too much oak. In a delicate year, oak influence should be kept at a minimum. At Linden we use older barrels and bottle early in years where the wines are lightly structured. These wines are always popular with our customers.

For many years I felt frustrated in that California was the place I wanted to emulate in my winemaking. It wasn’t until I turned east and started studying European winemaking philosophies, attitudes, and techniques that I realized that my glass was often half-full and not half-empty.