The Hardscrabble Journal
Bottling is the culmination of several years of winegrowing effort. For this reason it is arguably the most stressful aspect of winemaking. There are a lot of moving parts and players. Everything has to come together with perfect synchronicity.
Timing of bottling is important. This past week we bottled Claret and Petit Verdot 2016. We used to bottle these wines after 20 months in barrel, but have now shortened the interval to 15 months. This reflects a stylistic change and a respect for the vintage: we want to capture the fruit and freshness that the 2016 vintage gave us.
There is also a logistical aspect for choosing the week. It was very cold and windy, therefor difficult to do any vineyard work. Best to stay inside and bottle. The bottles were delivered back in December. We need to get them here before any chance of snow as a loaded 53 foot tractor trailer on our snow packed steep windy lane would not have a good outcome.
The “North Cellar” where we set up our bottling line is underground, but still susceptible to water pipe freezing. And that it did the week before bottling. Fortunately we had a brief thaw and were able to repair the burst pipes.
The bottling line has not run since August. I’m always amazed at what can go wrong as a piece of equipment just sits dormant. But we can count on some sort of problems went we start her up. Jonathan is well versed in our GAI Italian bottling line, but all it takes is one cracked “O” ring to stop the bottling.
This week my final concern was getting all the staff here on the first day of bottling. Snow was predicted that morning and these mountain roads can be dangerous. Fortunately we got just a dusting. Bottom line, we had a gloriously boring two days of bottling (with one “O” ring induced hiccup). That’s as good as it gets!
A temporary thaw did not thwart us from ice skating on the farm pond. Looks like we will have another opportunity later this week. Yesterday temps hit the 60sF. Tomorrow morning predictions are for the single digits. I’m hoping that the warm up was too short to de-acclimate the vines. Always reason to worry.
We got some pruning in. Working on the Late Harvest block which is an interplanted block of 34 year old Vidal vines and younger Petit Manseng. We are cutting back harder than usual as last year’s dry summer made for smaller vines. This block is a candidate for the magic potion: chicken manure.
We did a lot of tasting this week. Blending trials focused on Hardscrabble Red 2017. Looks like a majority of the barrels will make it to the blend with (as usual) Cabernet Sauvignon being the majority. We are still going back and forth between a more finessed blend or a more structured, powerful version. Press wine inclusion will be a deciding factor.
Also held a great tasting with the RdV staff. We did a “first/second” tasting. Two wines blind, one of which is the winery’s flagship wine, the other a lesser wine of the same type and from the same year. We tasted three flights of white Burgundies, Bordeaux, a Zin, and Barolo. I was very consistent: incorrect in my guesses. We learn more from being incorrect than from being right, so I learned a lot!
This has been the coldest week I can remember since 1994. The pond has frozen enough for ice skating and most outside wall water pipes have frozen. However, we are not too concerned about any vine damage as the coldest temperatures have “only” been in the low single digits. Additionally the cold came gradually and the vines are at peak cold hardiness. If this would have happened in late February it would be a different story.
Under these circumstances our vines can handle about -5F. They aren’t affected by wind chill factors. But we are. This has been a very physically inactive week. Nothing happening outside. Cabin fever has yet to be much of an issue due to a lot of good books and waning holiday activities. We have copious amounts of firewood stacked and the pruning can wait for nicer days. Fortunately there has been only a trace of snow, so snow removal has not been a factor.
We had put barrels of wine outside to chill. if the wine temperature gets down to the high 20sF for a period of time they become cold stable and won’t throw tartrates (wine diamonds) later in the bottle. However we brought them inside earlier this week in response to my nightmares of exploding barrels and frozen wine running on the crush pad floor.
This week is Linden’s traditional start of blending trials. We have started with Boisseau and Avenius reds (all 2017). This vintage is an easy one to blend as we have so much good material to work with. Shari, Jonathan, Richard and I get together at 3:00 and first taste taste through every barrel (of Boisseau in this case). We take notes and discuss the merits and deficiencies of each barrel, then start with three possible blends, tasted blind. After two days we came pretty close, but we weren’t comfortable enough to make the final decision, so will re-visit in February.
The Avenius lots were much easier as the Cabernet and Merlot had great synergy. The first blending attempt was spot on, but ultimately we ended up kicking out one barrel of Merlot in order to increase the % of Cabernet and give more density to the wine.
Hardscrabble blending this coming week.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.