The Hardscrabble Journal

Extraction

With the exception of one stubborn lot, The Merlots and Cabernet Francs are finished fermenting. We start our “two day tastings” today. Every two days Jonathan takes two samples of each bin we taste for the progression of tannin extraction by tasting the most recent sample along side the sample taken two days prior. We are looking for a positive progression both in mid palate density and tannin length. At the same time, we want to drain and press before the wine picks up bitterness and “gout de marc” (taste of the pomace).

The Cabernet Sauvignons and Petit Verdots are now in mid-fermentation. We have transitioned from daily pump-overs to twice a day punch downs. The Cabs are fermenting warm (around 29 C or 84 F), while the Petit Verdots are kept cooler ( 25 C or 77 F). Normally we are very hands off with Petit Verdot for fear of over extraction of rustic tannins, but this year the skins have some nice flavors and tannin maturity, so we may push it a bit.

Petit Manseng

Today we pick part of the Petit Manseng vineyard. We will harvest grapes primarily from the younger vines for “demi-sec”. Physiological ripening seems to have stalled, perhaps because of the warm weather and drought conditions. We got some rain yesterday, but not enough to have an impact. The rest of the grapes will be dedicated to a small amount of Late Harvest. I’m hoping that cooler weather coming in next week will refresh the vines. The leaves are still in good shape, but the vines are confused.

Petit Manseng, along with Petit Verdot are the two easiest varieties we grow. They are cold tolerant, disease resistant and always set an abundant crop. Petit Manseng makes an incredible sweet wine. It comes in with high sugar and high acidity. This make it almost impossible to make a balanced dry wine unless the winemaker does some serious manipulation in the winery. That is not an option for us, so we are working within the parameters that the grape dictates. Last year was too hot for a Late Harvest, so we opted for a demi-sec at about 30 grams of residual sugar. The alcohol was pretty high making the wine disjointed in its youth. We are still waiting to release it. Every few months we pop a cork and taste its progression. It is slowly evolving, but still needs time.

Vidal

Vidal was harvested yesterday and will be crushed today. In the past some Vidal has was picked as a blending partner with Riesling. The rest was dedicated to Late Harvest. This year will be different for several reasons.

We were impressed with Riesling as a mono-varietal wine as made in 2016, so we are leaving the option of not blending in any Vidal. That decision will be made this winter. Additionally, to be completely honest, Late Harvest wines have fallen out of fashion. I adore them, but the wine buying public does not share this enthusiasm. We will continue producing some Late Harvest Petit Manseng, but for now at least we are taking a break from LH Vidal.

This begs the question of what we are going to do with the Vidal juice that will be in the tank in a few hours. I do know that it will make a very concentrated and balanced wine. We thinned the clusters down significantly back in July and the growing season has been near perfect. This winter, once it is wine, we are hoping that it will speak to us. Until then it will remain a mystery.

Back to the Cellar

Yesterday was a long, tiring, but immensely satisfying harvest day. All the reds are in and they are very, very good. For the last six weeks our lives have been ruled by the weather. Our job has been to react to weather patterns which directly affect grape ripening and quality. This phase has essentially come to an end (we pick Vidal tomorrow and Petit Manseng is impervious to anything Mother Nature throws at it).

Now the pressure is in the cellar. White, rose, and red wines are in various stages of fermentation. Jonathan has been monitoring the whites and rose while my attention has been in the vineyard. He has been moving fermenting barrels as needed to different temperature zones we have created in the cellars (and sometimes moving them outside if conditions warrant). Our cellar duty now is to catch any problem early while it is easy to rectify. With the whites we smell and taste for excessive reduction notes (H2S/ rotten egg aromas) and stuck fermentation (the yeasts stop fermentation before all the sugar is converted to alcohol). So far, so good.

With the reds we now have a time span of less than thirty days to make almost all of the winemaking decisions that influence the style, balance and to some degree overall quality of the wines. While the grapes themselves and the picking decisions are most important, thoughtful extraction methods can bring out the best of each lot. I’ll write more about this over the coming weeks.

A Winegrowers Balance

Yesterday we harvested all the Hardscrabble Petit Verdot and two blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon. We will crush them this morning and then in the afternoon we will pick our steep slope Cabernet. Tomorrow will be a very big day where I am hoping to bring in all the rest of the reds both at Avenius and Hardscrabble. The picking has been going quickly due to the perfect weather (cool and sunny) and the fact that yields are down, so there is not as many clusters to pick.

With the recent cooler weather the vines seem to have “refreshed” themselves and the berries seem less stressed than last week. Having said that, we are still seeing some dimpling (golfball-like) in some berries. It will warm up towards the end of the week, so we are going to push to get everything in by tomorrow. Typically it is rain that I worry about. This vintage it is water stress. The vines look a bit weary, especially on the less water retentive soils. More northerly facing slopes are looking better than the blocks facing south (we picked the south slopes yesterday). In 38 vintages I have never seen this. I feel like we are having California issues.

Our fermentation/extraction strategies will change accordingly. What we have coming in is high potential alcohol, highish acid, good skin tannins, but somewhat under-ripe seeds. Extraction will be front ended, meaning some warmer temperatures early with a fair amount of movement (pump-overs and punch downs), but we will shorten up the cuvaison (amount of time the wine soaks on the skins and seeds). The stressed vines have produced fruit with low   yeast nutrients, so we will have to monitor fermentations carefully to make sure we don’t have any unfermented sugars at the end. If all goes well these could be the classic “iron fist in a velvet glove” wines.

Merlot Reflections

All the Merlot is now in fermenters. This could be the best Merlot Linden has ever produced. If Merlot’s job is primarily to be a supporting actor to Cabernet Sauvignon, it is definitely up for an Oscar nomination this vintage. There was one bump in the road that fortunately was caught in time: over ripeness.

Merlot doesn’t like heat. Last week temperatures rose into the 80s F. At first I was pleased that this would give us an extra boost to ripening. We picked Merlot on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As we were picking on Monday I thought that maybe we could have waited a bit longer. By Wednesday I started noticing a few berries starting to shrivel. By Friday we had berries starting to fall from the cluster stems when put into lugs (picking baskets). I’m wondering if our “panic” leaf pulling earlier in the month (because of fears of hurricane rains and resulting rot) contributed by allowing too much sun and heat get to the clusters.

This got my attention. I’ve been constantly walking the Petit Verdot and Cabernet still on the vines looking for similar signs. Starting to see some shriveling in one block of Petit Verdot and some very young Cabernet blocks. Everything else looks good. Looks like we will re-prioritize picking. Tomorrow will start with Petit Verdot and possibly young vine Cabernet. Later in the week temps will get well into the 70sF, which normally would be welcome, but I am now a bit concerned and ready to pull the trigger on bringing all the reds in by the weekend. Vidal may have to wait. Vidal excels in waiting!

End Game Plan

Today we pick the last of the Merlot along with some Boisseau Cabernet Sauvignon. So far the harvested reds have all been of “single vineyard” quality, meaning that there have been no consideration of declassification down to Claret. In fact there will probably be very little 2017 Claret. This will not be an easy drinking vintage. This should be concentrated wines built for long term aging.

I write this with (over?) confidence having spent time sampling and walking the Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon still on the vines. We have a lot of very healthy, very ripe fruit that is “in the window”. “In the window” means that we could pick them tomorrow and make a good, balanced wine. But we won’t pick tomorrow as we are looking for something much more special. I would like to see tannins soften and acids drop a bit more. However, they cannot go through a significant rain.

Monday we will pick Vidal which is simply delicious. To be honest, I’m not sure what we will do with it in terms of a final wine. Some will probably be blended with Riesling. We are also discussing making an interesting new blended white wine that could include Vidal, Petit Manseng, Semillon, and even some Viognier. Will let the vintage and the wine guide us.

Wednesday is probably Petit Verdot harvest. The berries are a bit fragile, the flavors are ripe and the potential alcohol in some cases is approaching 15%.

We are clearing the slate so that we can ripen Cabernet Sauvignon as much as possible, but still being able to logistically pick it all before a rain. This should be the ripest Cabernet we have harvested since 2009/2010.

Smooth Sailing

What a civilized harvest we are having. Taking full advantage of a very favorable forecast, we are slowly and methodically picking and crushing small lots of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Today Avenius Vineyard is up to bat. There are two very distinct blocks of Merlot that will be picked, fermented and aged separately. The 2012 block (year the vines were planted) is very, very ripe. Vine leaves are senescing, and a few berries are starting to shrivel, but the flavors are intense and the tannins supple. The 2007 block is planted in more water retentive soils and the leaves are green (not much hydric stress). The fruit is firm and crunchy. There is still plenty of acidity and freshness. The tannins are less supple than 2012, but still in the ballpark of ripeness.

When to pick Merlot has been a constant quandary. In 2010 we had the opportunity to let the Merlot get super ripe. The results were disappointing as the wine were rustic and alcoholic. If we pick early, the freshness of the wine is a big plus. However, Merlot’s duty is to be a blending partner to Cabernet Sauvignon.  Linden’s mountain grown Cabernet usually has lots of acidity and freshness on its own. I’m hoping to have some questions answered from the 2017 vintage Avenius Merlot.

Merlot Week (and a bit of Cabernet Franc)

This should be a fun week. 0% chance of rain, starting warm and ending cool. Merlot is in great shape just begging to be picked. Today we start at Boisseau Vineyard picking the Merlot and Cabernet Franc. We will then transition back to Hardscrabble and pick a couple of small blocks of Merlot before calling it a day. This dry weather affords us the luxury of “easy” days. No impending rain panic.

We’ll be doing this routine the whole week. Next up to bat will be Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. They still need some ripening time, but I’m hoping that this warm spell is having an accelerating effect of the ripening process. Normally we have to wait a week or two after Merlot harvest. It would be nice to transition right into some ripe Cabernet!

Yahoo!

For the last week I have been obsessed by the tracking of hurricanes Jose and Maria, well aware of the potential massive rains that they could inflict on our vineyards. Fortunately my staff understands the ramifications and therefor knows that I’m really not a nut job the way I keep changing my mind as to picking decisions. Turns out that Jose and Maria will stay off shore. In fact their positioning will be responsible for a very positive side effect of pumping warm, dry air into the mid-Atlantic for the next week. We are taking full advantage of our luck by delaying Merlot harvest until next week. This will be the ripest Merlot we have picked since 2010.

Yesterday we picked the old vine Hardscrabble Chardonnay and “Rosé”. The Chardonnay was worth the wait. Flavors had turned a corner and acid calmed down. This should be an important component of the Hardscrabble Chardonnay. We have five distinct blocks of Chardonnay on the Hardscrabble site. All five don’t necessary make it to the flagship wine. We will decide the blend next year.

Our Rosé pick is complicated as it involves all three vineyards and four grape varieties (Merlot, Cab. Franc, Cab. Sauv, and a bit of Petit Verdot). We pick parts of blocks, corners, edges, and designated rows. This year all the Hardscrabble Cabernet Franc went to Rosé. We started seeing berry dehydration that would probably prevent the CF from achieving the full maturity needed to make a great red wine. I think that it it a result of the dry June and July, as the vines struggles for water and nutrients. We are working with VA Tech on doing some forensics with plant tissue analysis.