Friday, September 29, 2017

Robert on the 2017 Harvest and when to pick

This season has been like no other harvest in my memory, 45 of them. We had four of the longest and hottest heatwave ever, one a record setter at 109° and sustained over 100° for five days. When the temperature reaches 90° the vines shut down. The stomata on the undersides of the leaves close to prevent the vine from wilting. We had more days over 90° this year than ever. We started the harvest three weeks earlier than historic normal but with the sundowns the vines are now back to historic normal for harvest. The chemistry of the fruit however has changed. You can’t judge this year by past experience. The shutdowns changed the metabolism of the vines. What we are seeing as a result is ripeness at lower sugar, higher acids and lower pH.

The question is, what is ripeness? When grapes are ripe the seeds turn brown (mature), the skins get soft, the pulp separates from the seeds and the stems holding the bunches lignifies, which means the get harder and turn brownish and break easier. We picked a vineyard yesterday that is ripe at 24 Brix, low pH and high T.A. where we didn’t use any knives. The bunches where just pulled off.

As grapes get over ripe the pH goes up and acid goes down. Is this a good thing? Not in my opinion. Do you want a peach that is over ripe, or a strawberry? No. The texture and flavor in each start to change, becoming less varietal, less balanced, less juicy, and less interesting. You need to evaluate grapes using your senses along with the chemistry. If you do it regularly enough you don’t need the chemistry at all. We all know how to pick a ripe tomato or pear or strawberry. We don’t need a lab to tell us how. Wine grapes can fool you because of their high acid. High acid makes them taste less ripe. We therefore like to measure the sugar acid and pH because these are easy to check and give us a baseline. But it is only a baseline. It is not gospel.

Every vintage is different. This one is very different. The high acids are dominated by Malic acid. How this will play out in the wine is unclear. Malic is converted to Lactic. This could mean the wines will be more creamy, not more acidic. If the acid goes down with longer hang time I think you’ll loose Tartaric acid first. Then once the Malic has converted the acid that makes grapes taste like grapes - Tartaric, might be too low, robbing varietal characteristics from the wine.

pH is buffered. See:

For the buffered pH to change there has to be very large changes in the chemical balance of the grapes. I do not believe that pH should ever be used to judge when to pick grapes. We shouldn’t even be testing for it from a viticultural point of view. You simply cannot tell ripeness by pH. However, you can tell stability by pH. This is really why we test for it. It is to inform the winemaker of the probably stability of the must and wine. We know we have to be more involved with higher pH juice and wine, than with lower. The lower the pH the more stabile the wine will be. Stable wine is a good thing.

Cecilia Valdivia, our production winemaker, says your last three field samples had the same sugar. While a heatwave will temporarily raise sugar in the grape, we have had a variety of weather during this sampling period. Cool weeks interspersed with hot weeks. Sugar would not normally be static during such periods. Another indication of ripeness is when the grapes stand still.

Lastly, vigor of the canopy will tell you a lot about conditions of ripening grapes. If the leaves are shutting down there will be no factories to make carbohydrates for the grapes. In fact the vine will start to abort the grapes.

I trust my senses more than the instruments.

- Robert Rex, 9/30/2017

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

2016 Pinot Noir Futures

by Robert Rex

John Farrington, my friend and Pinot Noir mentor many years ago, described our Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, as a “Brunette in high heels, a twinkle in her eye, seductive and sexy, on her way to the bedroom.” That fits so well. Pinot is a feminine wine, light in color for a red, delicate but memorable on the nose, complex on the pallet with soft tannins and gentle acids. It can be contemplated like no other wine. John’s mentees were myself and Michael Browne, who was then my assistant winemaker. Michael has gone on to great fame for his Pinot Noir. Much of the vintification techniques we were developing at the time were new to California winemakers, such as clonal selection, whole-berry fermentation, multiple yeast choices, lightly toasted 3-year air dried French oak barrels, and bantonage or stirring of the lees, like done with Chardonnay.

For the first-time Deerfield is offering futures on its Pinot Noir. Even though our reputation is more closely associated with red blends and Zinfandel, our Pinot Noir sells out before the next vintage is released. The 2016 vintage is aging in the barrels and will be bottled in December. Its release date is March 2018. We have 14 barrels, which will make a little over 300 cases. It won’t last a year. Now is your opportunity to reserve a case or two of this great wine so as not to miss out. The price includes a nice discount to make up for the wait.

The Vineyard: Great Pinot Noir starts in the vineyard. Of course, this is true of any wine but no wine reflects and is influenced by terroir more than Pinot Noir. Our 2016 Pinot Noir is from the Elieo Vineyard on Old Vine Lane. This is the epicenter of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. From here some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world are made. Elieo’s neighbors include Kistle, Williams Seylem, Copain, Amber Ridge of Kosta Browne fame, Sonoma Cutrer. It is a beautiful spot, with rolling hills of corduroy covered hills of vine rows, looked over by typically small homesteads and a few important but not fancy wineries. It is all about the earth and the weather. Pinot Noir grapes have thin skins. This is the secret to not only its delicate nature but its sensitivity to Mother Nature. It can’t take too much sun or too much heat and retain its femininity. The Pacific influence on the Russian River Valley AVA creates a shroud of foggy overcast most summer mornings, protecting the delicate fruit and moderating the daily temperature.

The Clones: Elieo Vineyard is planted to three clones of Pinot, 777, 667 and 115. These are not genetically modified clones from a laboratory. These are clones of the same varietal as a product of evolution and separated by growers for their uniqueness. Natural clones. We made wine from each clone, using different yeast on each small batch and kept the clones separate through the barrel aging. Each clone has individual nuances of flavor and structure. Our 2016 Pinot Noir is a blend of these three clones. Clone 777 is the most common clone of modern American Pinots. It can stand on its own, delivering a complete Pinot experience. Clone 667 is about structure. It adds backbone to the blend. It also broadens the taste profile. Clone 115 is the most delicate and focused. It helps focus the unique Pinot nose and increases the aromatics in the top of your palate.

The Vintage: No vintage is perfect for every wine but 2016 came close. Perhaps it could have been a little warmer for some Cabernets but it was perfect for Pinot Noir. Spring is coming earlier now. Bud break is in the middle of April instead of the beginning of May. Our summers have been getting cooler, due to the thicker and more intrusive marine layer. Russian River Pinot Noir and Chardonnay love this. The weather further cooperated with very few heat spikes or waves and no rain during the critical harvest period. It was a joyful and rewarding vintage.

The Vinification: The secret to the vinification technique is whole berry fermentation. This means we don’t macerate or break the berries. The grapes are left whole as much as possible. We used to put the grapes through carefully spaced rollers after destemming to break them open, allowing juice to run out and expose more of the skins to tannin extraction by the water and alcohol. During my period with Michael Browne, John Farrington and a few other Pinot devotee winemakers around Sonoma County in the early 90’s we were coming to realize that the goal of modern grape processing equipment should be to immolate what hand processing did, particularly with Pinot Noir, because hand processed wine tasted the most nuanced. Winemaking by hand also allowed for more care in culling bad bunches and bad grapes from the pick. The processes we developed now are de rigueur in high end winemaking. It started by sorting the bunches on a movable belt sorter followed by destemming without breaking the berries. Since then we’ve added two more sorters and better de-stemmers to achieve almost 100% whole berries in perfect condition, free of anything you wouldn’t feed a baby. This is the first step in making Clean Wine®

The secret to whole berry fermentation is that most of the fermentation takes place inside the berry. The yeast migrates in through the stem hole and work inside what becomes an enclosed space. This traps the small more aromatic molecules and carbohydrates that create the most interesting aromas and taste but would under the old style of macerated grapes would escape to the atmosphere. This makes the winery smell good but these nuances are lost to the wine.

We let the fermentation start on its own, from native yeast, spores and other flora that comes in on the grapes and lives in the winery. This helps create complexity. After the start, we inoculate with pure strain yeast so that we have a predictable finish. Each pure strain produces a slightly different taste and feel to the wine. We use various Pinot strains that were isolated originally from great French Burgundy wineries.

The fermentation is managed by punching down and mixing the must twice or three times per day, carefully controlling the temperature and feeding the yeast periodically with organic food and oxygen. Keeping the yeast happy keeps bacteria from growing, which is the second step in making Clean Wine®.

Aging: Barrel selection for aging is critical to the Pinot. We use barrels from French coopers who have made barrels for Burgundian winemakers for generations. We collaborate with them on the selection of the best barrel for our wines and develop barrel programs over years of trials. The new wine is pressed before the last of the fermentation has completed so that it completes in the barrel, adding another layer of complexity. After the primary fermentation is done we inoculate with a Malo-Lactic bacterium to start the secondary fermentation, which convert Malic acid (think apples) to Lactic acid (think cream). When the Malo-Lactic conversion is complete we begin the stirring of the lees, called Bantonage, which helps create more mouth feel in the final wine. We continue stirring about every two weeks until we like the taste profile. The we top the barrels and let them rest until it is time to bottle.

Bottling: About two months before bottling we blend the wines and make final adjustments. A blend of the three clones and the various barrels is done by taste trials. The stability of the wine is tested and any final adjustments made, like removing any excess oxygen by sparging with Nitrogen, raising the CO2 level a few parts per million to enhance brightness; little tweaks like any good cook does.

Aging in the Bottle: This Pinot will improve with age for a couple of decades. That doesn’t mean it needs to be aged to be good. Our wines are good when they are released because we go the last quarter mile to make them that way. A good wine should be enjoyable when young and age well. This is created by using good techniques and good science and a lot of experience.

The results: Results are always in the taste and our 2016 Pinot hits the bullseye. It is everything a great Pinot Noir should be. It’s the Brunette in high heels with a twinkle in her eye, seductive and sexy. Everything about it sings Pinot Noir. The color is correct, a beautiful shade or ruby. The nose is haunting. It brings you back again and again for another take. There is something about a good Pinot nose. It is seductive. The taste enters gently like a brook moving along in the shade. Then, when it reaches mid-palate, it expands exponentially in all in all directions like a Super Nova. The tannins are there but not intrusive. Everything is in perfect balance. It is really hard to stop drinking it once you open the bottle, so invite a lover and a friend.

Pinot pairs with a wider variety of foods than any other wine. It is great by itself, with spicy oriental, with tacos, with grill ribeye. 

Buy some, you won’t be disappointed.