Harvesting Based on Taste
We spend much of our days walking the vineyard rows, constantly tasting grapes. West faces, east faces, hilltops – each side of the vine – and grapes from varying positions on clusters; all examined. We taste the sweetness and flavor profile, paying close attention to the softening texture of the skins and seeds – both will define the tannin structure of our finished wine.
Many winemakers make their picking decisions based on the sugar and acid levels measured from a sample bucket, but we find this both inaccurate (too small of a sample size) and we find it an incomplete snapshot of ripeness.
Appearances Can Be Everything
Walking the vineyard also gives us the chance to examine the vineyard’s maturity.
Grapes: To achieve the fresh profile we so love, grapes should be round and firm – not baggy. They certainly should not wilt and raisin on the vine.
Stems: After a long dry summer with no irrigation, the vines are out of water. We pay close attention to the stem color. Lignified or woody, brown stems indicate the option to include high percentages of whole bunches once we begin to harvest. Green stems impart a bitter, astringent profile that can mask fruit purity.
Even more important, we look at the canopy color and feel the leaves for crunchiness. Some browning leaf edges indicate the vines are shutting down for the year, and we have at most a week or two of further ripening prior to dormancy. A canopy that is largely yellow indicates more urgency, as once the vine stops photosynthesizing, flavor development ends and the grapes will begin to dehydrate.
Plan of Attack
In early September we began picking small one-ton lots from the crowns of each of our Syrah blocks. With less topsoil, more sun exposure, and lower yields; these grapes are riper than the adjacent hillsides. We use the small hilltop lots as “starters” – we de-stem the clusters and put each lot in the bottom of its own concrete fermenter. After foot trodding to break out the juice, native fermentation quickly begins.
With a full ton of fruit crushed in the winery, we can then take accurate measurements to understand the exact level of ripeness on the rest of the hilltop and extrapolate our findings to the lesser ripe hillsides. Much better than trying to draw conclusions from a small bucket of grapes!
Reassured that we understand the true state of ripeness, we select the ideal night to harvest the remaining portion of the block. Based on lignification, we decide what percentage of the fruit, if any, to de-stem.
Whole-Clusters are more difficult to ferment than crushed, de-stemmed fruit. Because of the mass of solid clusters, it’s impossible to break every skin. Yeast must penetrate the grapes to ferment within and trapped pockets of CO2 force anaerobic fermentation. Both factors slow down fermentation and create higher risk for stuck fermentations and development of volatile acidity.
Our new “starter” technique – using an earlier pick of de-stemmed hilltop fruit – gets a healthy fermentation going prior to adding the whole bunches on top. After foot trodding the whole-clusters we pump the juice over the newly added grapes to saturate them with the starter ferment.
Picking one ton starters not only gives us an accurate snapshot of each block’s chemistry, but also makes for smoother whole-cluster fermentation.
Because we don’t irrigate our mature vines after fruit set, our older Syrah vines’ stems consistently dehydrate and lignify prior to ripeness. Because the low yielding old vines create rich, intense wine, we feel the juice can handle high percentages of stems to grant structure. The stems frame the wine for long-term aging. The stems add a savory and serious profile to the Originals Syrah.
This year, we are carrying on the whole-cluster tradition of Originals Syrah by not de-stemming any of the second pick when we put it on top of the starter. The final wine will be 75% whole cluster. Estate Grown Syrah will continue at roughly 50% whole-cluster.
To make our Angeli and Hilltops Syrahs smoother and more luxurious, this year we will de-stem the majority, if not all, of the fruit. We are looking forward to watching the different cuvees age to see which methodology we prefer for the long run. Stay tuned.