M’Rosé

We recently had an opportunity to circle a pair of wagons, the first of which appeared during a visit to local Shalestone Vineyards, where we tasted a wine labeled “Beyond Rosé.” The wine was a blend of 50% Lemberger and 50% Zweigelt and was distinctly dark. Co-owner Kate Thomas said it had two days of skin contact (double or more of most Rosé wines) with some red wine blended back in. We simply loved it, and Kate appreciated the positive feedback given some pushback from wine critics who thought that it just “wasn’t right.”

Fast forward a few months to a visit to the Paso Robles area, where we encountered Rosé Amphora (Amphora being a clay fermentation vessel from Italy) at AmByth Estate. This wine was made from Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Counoise, and according to the tasting notes:

The Grenache and Mourvèdre saw approximately 48 hours of skin contact, the Counoise about 2 weeks of skin contact.  Pressed Viognier skins were added to the Grenache during fermentation. There was some co-fermentation in the amphora and separate single fermentation in bins. All pressed when dry and combined to age in an 800 liter amphora in October. Natural malolactic fermentation took place. Aged for 15 months in amphora, bottled December 2013.

While raving about this one at the winery, co-owner Mary Morwood Hart noted that it was considered a M’Rosé which, in response to our “say what?” she explained meant”Man’s Rosé.” This is to say a wine that resembles Rosé but also has a depth and complexity approaching a red wine. In California this is already a trend, while in the Finger Lakes, it has not made it beyond weird, although it should. Of course, it’s also true that one cannot form a circle with only two wagons, but that discussion for another day.

Two unusual Rosé wines.

Two unusual Rosé wines.

Last weekend, we had the opportunity to taste both of these wines in ideal conditions. For the AmByth, this meant not only the right temperature (just a bit cool), but also having had the opportunity to settle, since it is unfiltered. Clearly there are vast differences in climate and very different grapes involved, but nonetheless there was a delightful commonality of fruitiness, texture, finish, and all around lusciousness.

We find more and more winemakers being willing to experiment and take risks – whether it involves orange wine, unconventional Rosé, barrel fermented Gewürztraminer, or whatever. Not all of these science experiments work out, but kudos to the winemakers for allowing us on the voyage. We invite critics that have problems to be more open minded.

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A Community Harvest

Keuka Lake Vineyards is one of those small operations that epitomizes the notion of a farm winery.  Mel Goldman came to being a winery owner from years of grape growing, and is committed to deciding about what he wants to do well, and doing just that. Much of what works here is Riesling, and KLV may have been the first winery in the area to produce single vineyard wines. Those from the Falling Man and Evergreen Lek vineyards, in particular have been very well received and are among our favorites. He also does a terrific job with the red hybrid Léon Millot, and if you want to see how good a dry Vignoles can be, KLV is the place to go. New to the lineup this year is a Vignoles orange wine labeled as “Dry Amber.”

Mel Goldman leading the picking crew to one of the Falling Man Riesling rows.

Mel Goldman leading the picking crew to one of the Falling Man Riesling rows.

On Saturday, KLV held a community harvest party, where about 25 of us picked Riesling from the Falling Man vineyard and shared lunch and dinner at the farm house. Unlike the Chardonnay we picked earlier in the harvest, this later season Riesling had developed a fair amount of botrytis – a fungus also known as “noble rot.” Most grapes are susceptible to botrytis, but Riesling actually benefits from it up to a point. It removes water, transforming the grape into more of a raisin, and it also adds flavor.

The challenge in picking is to sort out clusters or partial clusters that are clean, infected in a good way, and infected in a bad way. This is done by observing, tasting, and getting a sense of what will make good wine from just looking at the bunch. Eight hours didn’t make us professionals, but did teach us quite a bit. The right side picture below is an example of a more heavily infected but still useable bunch.

Riesling Bunch CleanRiesling Bunch Botrytis

At 5:00 on a cool, showery day after finishing Falling Man, we drag ourselves up the hill to the winery, where Mel leads us through a tasting of KLV wines. A special treat was a newly released port labeled as “Hammondsport,” which happens to be the name of the nearby village. After the tasting, it is back outside to see the grapes we picked go through the crusher/destemer and into the press. The volunteer crew goes up to the farmhouse for a delicious dinner, but it will be yet another long evening for the workers on the crush pad.

Today's pick going into the crusher/destemer.

Today’s pick going into the crusher/destemer.

Much of the fun today was working with volunteers from a local college, who were using the experience as part of their coursework. Some were business majors, one a biology major, and there were probably some others we didn’t catch. They were energetic, cheerful, and a delight to be around.

A pall over this wonderful sharing and learning activity has been the shutting down of a California winery that was fined about $100,000 when using volunteers was deemed a violation of labor laws. You can read more here. Reaction from the wine world has been uniformly you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me, but in the meaning there has been communication to wineries suggesting they stop doing this until it gets sorted out. We hope it is sorted and quickly so. Certainly, abuses in agriculture are a reason why labor laws were developed in the first play. However, that this type of activity would be deemed abusive is patently silly and makes one want to drink.

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Crush

Keuka Spring Vineyards August Deimel kindly invited me to hang out with him and his winemaking team for a few days of crush. In exchange for a heck of a lot of learning, I brought some baked goods from my oven (crush is a carb intensive activity), but I was well short of covering what the tuition should have been. The processing involved Riesling and Gewürztraminer, but previously crushed fruit was in various stages of becoming wine and also had to be attended to. Crush turns out to be an exercise in seeing how many different balls you can keep in the air, and the juggling and choreography is amazing to watch.

The mechanical stars of the show are the crusher/destemer and the press. The supporting cast includes an array of pumps, compressors, fork lifts, scales, clamps, nuts and bolts, and you name it. With everything working properly, a day on the crush pad is tiring. Add to it the inevitable complications and breakdowns, and tiring easily turns into exhausting. Crush days often go into the early morning hours. Between powerful machines and bins weighing in at over a ton, worker safety is a real concern, and you can never let your guard down.

The grapes start their journey at the crusher/destemer, which separates out most of the MOG (material other than grapes). A one ton bin is hoisted up on a fork lift and gingerly rotated, allowing the grapes to fall into a bin. Grapes, leaves, and stems make contact with a pair of rollers, and the grapes are pushed through as the rest is discarded. The Riesling came from Mark Wagner’s vineyards at Lamoreaux Landing, and was fairly close to stemless thanks to his state-of-the-art mechanical picker (more about that from an earlier post). The Gewürztraminer was more typical of fruit delivered to the crush pad, and the pile of leaves and stems showed what the machine was capable of doing.

The crusher/destemer.

The crusher/destemer.

Rollers underneath the crusher/destemer.

Rollers underneath the crusher/destemer.

What happens next depends. In the case of Keuka Spring Riesling, the grapes go from the crusher/destemer directly to the press and then to a tank where, after a few days of settling, the juice is inoculated with yeast and begins fermentation. More forklift artistry is required to move the bin contained de-MOGged grapes over to the press, hoist, and dump. As the grapes enter the press, free run juice immediately pours into the collection bin, and pressed juice follows over the course of an hour or two, as the grapes are exposed to higher and higher pressures of up to 5 bars (5 times normal atmospheric pressure). The press is rated at 5 tons, but will accommodate more or less depending on the physical characteristics of the grapes.

Riesling being loaded into the press.

Riesling being loaded into the press.

Raining Riesling.

Raining Riesling.

In the case of Gewürztraminer, the grapes and skins go from the crusher/destemer to a tank for a few days of cold soak, which coaxes out additional flavor components. Cold soak means that the juice is maintained at a temperature below which fermentation can (in theory) start. Keuka Spring mixes the grapes in the tank with dry ice, and this is intended to chill as well as help break down the skins. After cold soak, the grapes go into the press, and then into a tank for fermentation.

Gewürztraminer being pumped from the crusher/destemer to a tank for cold soak.

Gewürztraminer being pumped from the crusher/destemer to a tank for cold soak.

Dry ice added to cold soak tank.

Dry ice added to cold soak tank.

The time spent on the crush pad was (and this is probably typical) about 80 percent crush and 20 percent troubleshooting. Both the crusher/destemer and press had some intermittent issues, and the pumps struggled at times to move the solid-laden Gewürztraminer through the tubes to the cold-soak tank. August and the team attacked the problems as they arose and pressed on, knowing that shutting down the line and waiting a few days for repair is not an option. Fortunately, he had the foresight and excellent judgment to hire Meg Tipton as his assistant last year, and many of the issues were solved by handing her a wrench and standing out of the way.

Before the day’s crush begins, the winemakers are also busy with juice already in the pipeline. August tastes juice (or wine, depending on where it is in the process) from various tanks to make sure things are progressing as he expects and that nothing bad is happening (in particular, development of off notes). One tank of Gewürztraminer is progressing slowly, and between chemistry and taste August is trying to discern what is going on. At some point intervention may be needed (high temperature or an additional inoculation), but like most winemakers he would prefer letting the grapes arrive where they need to be naturally. The risk of intervention is creating a problem where none exists. In medical terms, this would be “do no harm.”

Another regular morning job where grapes are fermenting with skins (maceration) is “punch-down.” This activity is necessary because the CO2 produced by fermentation forces the skins to the top of the bin where they form a “cap.” Left exposed to air, this will create nasty flavors. Punch-down remoistens the skins and also mixes them with the juice.

Last year, August decided to improve his process by introducing a technique known as délestage. This means that instead of forcing circulation by punch-down, he and his assistants pump the juice out of the bin and pour it over the skins. Research has concluded that while more labor intensive, this approach provides better color and flavor extraction and improves flavor and mouthfeel. In the picture below, the last bit of juice is being pumped out of the bottom of a bin of DeChaunac into a nearby plastic flextank. Flipping a switch on the pump reverses the process, with the hose thoroughly dousing the skins.

Délestage.

Délestage.

Around 3:00, I need to return home to feed the dog, but work on the crush pad will continue. A whiteboard inside the cellar shows that 26% of the harvest is complete, and this will bump up at the end of the day. Our warm pattern will be continuing for a while, and there is still more ripening possible on the reds. Until then, exhilaration and exhaustion continue apace.

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Fruit Maturity

As reported in Cornell University’s Veraison to Harvest newsletter, September did in fact turn out to be lovely – perhaps even historically lovely in terms of reasonably warm, reasonably sunny, and dry. The result has been good ripening, a bit of drought stress (a good thing), and low disease pressure. We paged back through the last four issues and assembled some data points into a picture.

Ripeness of four varietals from Cornell University Veraison to Harvest.

Ripeness of four varietals from Cornell University Veraison to Harvest.

As shown above, the base (blue) bar is the degrees Brix sample from September 12. The three bars stacked above are the increments of ripening for the 19th, 26th, and October 3. Pinot Noir only has three stacks instead of four, its harvest was completed last week. Based on a review of previous years, the sugars are on track with normals years, with Riesling running a bit behind, and acids are a bit higher.

With the passage of a cold front, we won’t make it out of the 50s for the next few days, and the the rest of the week looks showery with highs in the 60s. Winemakers will spend the next few weeks playing the waiting game and seeing what additional maturity can be coaxed out of the later ripening varietals. The major risks this time of year are a hard freeze or soaking rain, sometimes related to hurricanes. Fortunately, freeze is not in the forecast, the tropics are quiet, and life in the Finger Lakes is good.

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Fall Harvest Party at Ravines

One of the joys of belonging to a wine club is having the opportunity to celebrate the harvest at member-only events. Our first of this season was held yesterday at Ravines Wine Cellars in their Geneva facility. Adding to the excitement was catering provided by Christopher Bates – a master sommelier and chef who co-owns the Element Winery and who also opened the intriguing FLX Wienery (no, not “winery”) on the west side of Seneca Lake earlier this year.

Fresh farm products and charcouterie from Christopher Bates.

Fresh farm products and charcouterie from Christopher Bates.

Chris can regularly be found around the area at wineries and farms, and also at local butchers buying up entire hogs for the Weinery. His own charcuterie, along with farm fresh vegetables and spreads, formed the delicious appetizer course to start off the meal. Lunch included a 72 hour braised chuck roast, a buckwheat salad made from Penn Yan’s Birkett Mills grain, and a delicate raw kale salad with a lemon vinaigrette that totally amazed.

Ravines White Springs vineyard.

Ravines White Springs vineyard.

During the program, winemaker Morten Hallgren gave us an update on the vineyard, where some of the varietals have started coming in. The Ravines vineyard in White Springs was in one of the harder hit areas this winter, but seems to have come through it in good shape. And we define “good shape” by being grateful for whatever fruit the vines provided, but even more grateful that they will still be with us for next year’s harvest.

Quantities in 2014 are likely to be down about 20 percent, with some varietals such as Gewürztraminer more limited, but Ravines elected not to purchase grapes from out of state, as has been allowed on a limited basis (details of the program are here). Morten explained that it is not why people come to Ravines, and this is a terrific but tough call for a winery that is growing fast and does not have any significant overhang in the warehouse from 2013.”

Field blend from last year's harvest party.

Field blend from last year’s harvest party.

Aside from the meal, guests are able to tour the production facility, do some “punchdowns,” and also help pick some grapes. This year’s assignment was to bring in some Muscat, and members were treated to some of bounty we picked last year. The label reads, “Ravinous Field Blend Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer. Ravines Wine Cellars, Harvest 2013.

It’s hard to beat a beautiful day at Ravine’s lovely facility, and the presence of Chris Bates makes it even more special. It’s not just what he is doing, but that someone who has worked in starred restaurants and achieved his level of certifications has chosen to practice his craft here in the Finger Lakes. This consistent raising of the bar can only attract more talent to the area, and this bodes exceptionally well for the future.

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Prayers Answered

Today was a joyous day on two counts. First, our remaining five rows of Chardonnay found a home after being reposted on the Cornell grape market site. The neighbors and I spent the morning filling up all of the available boxes in brilliant sunshine and will complete the job tomorrow. Deer and birds can troll about elsewhere.

Second, the forecast through the end of the month is just what the area needed. The risk this time of year is from wet weather, especially related to any hurricanes as much as a thousand miles distance. Soak begets disease pressure, and spraying toxic chemicals during the harvest is very hard to manage. The other risk is frost that we came close to but skirted, and is nowhere in the long term outlook. Especially with the winter damage and reduced yields this year, a stretch like this can give us the quality in our fruit that will make up for quantity. We will continue to think peaceful thoughts.

Heading in to the end of September.

Heading in to the end of September.

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A Picking Party

The land in front of my house was carved out of a vineyard, and my friend who sold me the land still farms the remaining grapes. No money changes hands, but the advantage to me is that I get to live in a vineyard. While most of the grapes are mechanically harvested Concords, there are about eight rows of Chardonnay that we usually hand pick, because they are worth over $1,000 a ton on the market, compared to less than $300 for Concord.

Cluster of chardonnay on its way to the bin.

Cluster of chardonnay on its way to the bin.

My neighbors and I have been doing this together since I moved here, and conditions today – dry with temps starting out in the mid-50s – were ideal. This compares with 2012, when due to some miscommunication with a winery, the grapes got a bit overripe, it was a warm day, and the yellow jackets were out in force circling around our sweet and sticky hands.

While the weather was perfect, the picking was slow going. Normally, all the vines would have had their canes (young wood from which the shoots form) tied to the wires, and we would have had a well defined fruiting zone with large, regular clusters of grapes. This year due to winter damage, pruning and tying was done with a goal of preserving whatever survived, resulting in irregular clusters of fruit all over the place. The task today was to pick about two dozen boxes that had been sold, comprising three rows. The remaining grapes are still looking for a home, which is odd considering that we should be in a suppliers market. Sadly, a quick check of the marketplace shows no activity for Chardonnay. This is possibly due to last year’s record quantities, but for whatever reason is seems hard for growers to catch a break.

Neighbors enjoying a beautiful morning at work.

Neighbors enjoying a beautiful morning at work.

After about three hours, the boxes are filled and we enjoy some lunch and each other’s company. A home made 2008 Chardonnay is tasting quite well, and considering it is not a commercial wine, it is impressive that it is holding its own after six years. The gentleman in the center is looking through a refractometer, confirming our grower’s estimate that the Chardonnay is at about 19° of brix. Hopefully, we will get another few weeks of good ripening and a buyer.

Lunch break, including a home made 2008 Chardonnay from these vines.

Lunch break, including a home made 2008 Chardonnay from these vines.

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