Massican opened Harvest 2009 at Larkmead on Thursday, August 20. On said day, I ventured to Pope Valley to bear witness to Sauvignon Blanc being harvested for my private wine label. The pick at Juliana Vineyards was on the short list of grapes being harvested that day. Interestingly enough, it opened the season for the vineyard team and in turn said winemaker at his place of worship, Larkmead Vineyards. So, firsts abound – on the schedule for one of the first picks at the vineyard, the first fruit processed at Larkmead and the first of my anticipated wine grapes that will be part of my inaugural vintage. These facts alone didn’t direct my decisions, but they did make me feel that this wine has a chance to be a bit ‘special.’ Hopefully an auspicious decision on my part.
Prior to the harvest date I’d been visiting the vineyard - to walk amongst the vines, taste grapes from the clusters, monitor the health of the canopy and regularly remove clusters from the vines to bring them back to the winery for analysis to determine their ripeness. “Ripeness” is a loaded word in the wine world. But for the sake of harvesting grapes, it means determining whether there is balance in sugar development, acid and skin structure. Up to this point in the year we have all been pleased with the fact that we are dealing with a long, cool growing season. Long and cool equals balance and elegance. No one likes to put their pen to paper and declare a vintage’s success before the first grapes have been harvested, fermented and are in early stages of maturation; however, it is quietly agreed in these parts that the consistency of the weather with little or no elongated peaks and valleys in its pattern is going to produce a phenomenal set of wines in 2009.
In Pope Valley, in Northern Napa County, the weather can be admired for its consistency; albeit brutally hot for stretches of days on end. Part of making harvest picking decisions is watching the weather – hoping for continued, optimal ‘ripening’ weather which calls for consistent sun filled days ranging in temperatures from 85 to 90 degrees and cool, rejuvenating nights that fold into misty, fog covered mornings. .
A week before harvest, the grapes’ sugar levels were skyrocketing towards 24% because of a stretch of 100 degree days. For a white wine to be picked at 24 degrees sugar, you are looking at a bottled wine that would exceed 14.5% alcohol – not something that any white winemaker would strive for. With the sugars increasing at a daily clip, there was not enough time for the grapes to develop their acid and skin structure to align with the sugar content. And there appeared to be no end in sight to the stretch of wantonly warm weather, the dog days had arrived and they were moving fast and furiously; so, I needed to make a decision when to harvest. I originally wanted to pick on Wednesday the 19th, but after talking with the Vineyard Manager, they were planning on irrigating the vineyard on Monday the 17th to help the vines beat the heat. Watering at this stage of the vine’s development would have no impact in soaking up some of the sugars; we could only help to contain them. It is general picking strategy not to, if you could practice patience, pick immediately after irrigating, because irrigation will help buy you some time to allow the vines to bolster them selves to beat the heat.
So, there was nothing to do but to admire the weather at a distance, continue to visit the vineyard and keep an eye on the grapes’ development and their general happiness on the vine while praying that the sugars plateau for a brief period so the acid in the wine can mature properly and settle down to a reasonable level. I postponed my picking decision one day, the third day after irrigation and the first day after the weather was to break and drop to a ‘cool’ 90 degrees.
With a little water energy to help the canopies and clusters survive the heat, and a cooling off period to follow, it was the optimal time to pick in my opinion. So, on that Thursday at 6:30 a.m. Massican’s Sauvignon Blanc was harvested. I am happy to report that the sugar levels stabilized and the tart acid levels softened and the general happiness of the clusters presented themselves with a deep, rich, delicious flavor profile.
Although I am not head-over-heels to have picked the grapes at such a high potential alcohol, I am impressed with the flavors and am willing to compromise as the intention of the wine from these grapes will be blended with Tocai Friulano (Sauvignon Vert) that tends to ripen at much lower sugar/alcohol potential, coupled with cooler climate Chardonnay from Carneros and the secret weapon, Ribolla Gialla, which will offer subtle fruit and floral flavors and a backbone of structure (Ribolla is touted to be one of the most tannic white grapes around). Thus, I feel the sum of all the parts will make a balanced, blended white wine. .
So, it’s almost a week post picking and I am happy to state that the Sauvignon Blanc has begun a cool fermentation cycle in order to preserve its fruit and freshness. The wine was whole cluster pressed to a stainless steel tank. After a soft mixing of the tank, the grape juice was drawn off and placed in barrels where it will stay until weeks prior to bottling where it will be blended, fined and filtered. Stainless steel barrels and old French oak are being used to conduct the fermentation and maturation of the wine. [Note, the day after the juice was put to barrel, it was inoculated with a non-intrusive white wine yeast because I did not want to take any risks with fruit from a vineyard source that I have not yet worked with.] The hope under this collected method is to continue to build the wine’s complexities with close contact with its flavored and textured lees during and after fermentation. I’ll keep you posted on the wine’s development and the upcoming harvesting of the other wine grapes for this project, but for the time being, I’ll be busy (and have been busy harvesting Sauvignon Blanc from Larkmead’s estate vineyard). Until next time, visit Snooth often; find some fun wine and drink.