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.
Damian North may be Australian, but don't assume that Shiraz is his specialty. He developed a taste for cool-climate wines first as a waiter, then as a sommelier, and he started off as a vintner by making Pinot Noir in the Yarra Valley. Though he joined Oregon's Benton-Lane only in 2003, the winery has a long history of earning very good ratings on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. Here, he talks about picking, the day after his first block of Pinot Noir was harvested.
"We had some very poor fruit set due to some late spring rains. We've got lots of hens and chickens, so it's a little bit of an irregular crop, which makes it a little bit harder. It kept raining here from May all the way into June, but the past two months have been absolutely glorious, late-summer weather here—mild days and cool nights. We've had really good acid retention in the Pinot Noir. With this long, slow ripening, we've had excellent flavor development in the grapes. In hot years what tends to happen is things ripen too quickly. The sugar levels come up too quickly before you get good flavor development. This year, we're having kind of the opposite: long, slow, cool ripening, with slow sugar development and that excellent acid retention. In fact, the biggest decision on picking is when the acid drops, rather than when the sugar comes up.
"In those hotter years you get lower acids, the high sugars come up and the alcohol is a bit out of balance. They don't tend to age as well as the wines you make in this kind of year, when you get that excellent balance and good acid structure from the start.
"Everything off the estate is picked by hand, starting in the cool of the morning. The temperature of the fruit coming into the winery has a direct influence on quality. The warmer you are, the quicker oxidation occurs, so cooler must temperatures equals less oxidation equals better fruit flavors.
"We picked about 20 tons yesterday morning. That's a slowish-to-medium day for us. When we really get going, we could pick anywhere up to 40 tons in a day, and [this year] we're projecting about 240 tons off the estate. The nice thing for us, about having an estate vineyard, is that the fruit comes directly to the winery. The winery is at the bottom of the vineyard. It comes directly off the vine and into the winery, without spending hours sitting on the back of a truck, getting transported. I really feel that's a huge quality jump. Lower maceration, less oxidation. The fruit's fresher when it gets processed.
"We tip right out of the bins onto a sorting conveyer, where we do a hand sorting, removing any leaves, stems and any less-than-perfect bunches that have come in. [The grapes go] straight into a destemmer, so no crushing—we're looking for a high proportion of whole berries in the must. It helps us maintain those fresh berry flavors we're looking for. With Pinot Noir, you try to minimize the extraction of harsh tannins. If you're making full-bodied red wines like Cabernet and Syrah, you really want to mash those skins up and get every bit you can out of them. With Pinot Noir we want to handle the fruit more gently, and extract those softer, fresh berry characters and those nice cherry characters we're looking for."
Next week, while his wines are fermenting, North will talk about the techniques he uses and the decisions he makes with different lots as they transform from juice to wine.
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