Each year, wine lovers wonder what the vintage will bring. Yet while we ponder, winemakers are hard at work. So, to help us better understand the challenges they face, three winemakers, one each in Napa and Santa Barbara in California and one in Oregon's Willamette Valley, have agreed to share their impressions of what the season has presented them, the decisions they've made and the techniques they've employed.
Cathy Corison spent 30 years working at other wineries—including a decade as winemaker at Chappellet Vineyard—before she started her own operation in Napa Valley. When she set off on her own, her goal was to create fresh and lively Cabernet Sauvignons that are ready to drink young but that can develop well over time, and Corison wines quickly earned very good to outstanding ratings on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. Here, Corison talks about picking, just after her first harvest of the season.
"We had an unseasonably cool summer, and then a very cool early fall, too. The longer and cooler the season, the better the wine we make, and the more nervous the winegrowers are.
"I picked my earliest vineyard yesterday [Sept. 22], and I'll probably get more midweek, next week. We're looking at so many things at once. We're looking at the sugar and acidity, because those translate into eventual balance. Far more important than that is tasting, but over the last 10 to 15 years we've learned so much more about ripeness. We're looking at the seeds especially. As the vine ripens they go from soft and green to hard and brown—that's one index of ripeness. It also affects the phenolics in the resulting wine, because the seeds can be a source of bitterness and astringency if they're not properly ripe. The seeds turned brown several degrees Brix lower than most years. The flavors are very complex and lush. Because the nights have been cool, there's good natural acidity.
"The tannins in the skins mature over time, so we're looking at the way we chew on the skins and the quality of the tannins. When a grape gets ripe, when you squeeze it the skin begins to slip off the pulp in a way it doesn't do before it's ripe. You look at the uniformity of the color. A completely black berry that is black all the way to the pedicel [is ideal]. And then, of course, flavors. And very important, I do all my own sampling because I've got to be out in the vineyard to see how the vines are doing. I'm in the vineyard every single week and, as we get close to ripening, I'm in there every couple days, watching the vines.
"It's not as simple as how big is the crop, it's what kind of balance is on the vine—how much fruit there is and where it's placed relative to the amount of vegetative growth. The exposure to the sun, especially, is key to the development of flavors and color, and air is important for the health of the vine; if it's too open, sunburn is a problem, and if it's not open enough, there get to be fungal problems and you don't develop the beautiful red, blue and black fruit characters—you tend to get more green characters. What we have is really beautiful deep, dark, inky color.
"We start picking as soon as it's light enough, and we're usually finished by midmorning. The grapes come in very cool. [We pick] all by hand, since all of my sorting is done in the vineyard. I use a crusher that is completely adjustable to the point that I can destem and not crush, or crush to any level I want. I don't want to crush them; I want to crack each berry, just so that it will ferment. We want to crush the grapes and have them be able to cold soak for a while before they start fermenting."
Next week, while her wines are fermenting, Corison will talk about the techniques she uses and the decisions she makes with different lots as they transform from juice to wine.
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