Yesterday we harvested our late-harvest Pinot Grigio and pressed the last three barrels of Pinot Noir. It was a long day, but what a nice feeling to be in the home stretch. After my last post, in which I believed that rain was imminent for Thursday, the forecast models backtracked and the predicted rain did not materialize. Based on the condition of the fruit, the cold day presented, and future weather conditions, I went ahead and pulled the Pinot Grigio in.
The day started at 3:30 a.m. lubricating the grape clippers with a few drops of olive oil, and ended at 11 p.m. with the bubbling of nitrogen through the late-harvest Pinot Grigio juice to remove oxygen and to thoroughly mix the sulfur dioxide that was added to the juice. This nitrogen sparging and mixing prevents oxidation, preserves freshness and binds some of the volatile acidity.
Late-harvest fruit is notorious for volatile acidity due to the extended hang-time on the vine. Native populations of wild yeast in the vineyard are able to start fermenting sugars exposed by any kind of damage to the grapes caused by birds, animals or natural exposure to wind and sun. The alcohol produced by the wild yeast then is used by a bacteria, called Acetobacter, to produce acetic acid (vinegar) and for the Acetobacter to increase its population.
It is always important to control Acetobacter in wine production, but in late-harvest winemaking even more so because after pressing, the juice has a much higher viable population of this bacteria present and ready to convert alcohol to vinegar in the presence of oxygen. The use of sulfur dioxide and settling helps to reduce cell counts and to clarify the juice prior to fermentation. Because they require oxygen to metabolize alcohol to vinegar, the removal of oxygen by nitrogen sparging or with carbon dioxide is also important.
Plus it's always fun to make juice roil, boil and bubble ... there is a certain element of alchemy and sorcery in making wine. Whenever I am using nitrogen gas or carbon dioxide in the form of dry ice to remove oxygen or to cool juice and grape must, it always reminds me of the cavern scene from Shakespeare's Macbeth with the three witches. You know the lines I am talking about? "Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble." When the cauldron bubbles, no matter how late at night it is, you know you are having fun. (Or are you delirious from oxygen deprivation?)
The three barrels of Pinot Noir we pressed were from our last fruit picked on Oct. 24. Just like the previous lots of Pinot, the wine was inky black and concentrated. In talking to other producers up and down the California coast, based on early assessments as wine went into barrel, the 2009 Pinot Noir vintage looks excellent.
I think that I can now say with conviction that for California Pinot Noir, 2009 is clearly the vintage of the century. What is amazing is that following the excellent 2007 and 2008 vintages, the 2009 is the third vintage of the century in a row, and the fifth this decade!