Monday, December 29, 2014

Pruning time!

I know I have written previously about the pruning process in a fair amount of detail, so there isn't much to add here except that I have just completed all the pruning for this season and the vines are now ready to go for next season.  I am always amazed by the sheer volume of shoots produced by the vines and how many cuttings I have to burn every year.  I get plenty of use out of my burn barrel.  Now I'm anxiously awaiting spring, warm weather and the next vintage!  Every year I learn a few new things and get a little better at growing grapes and making wine.  It's exciting, humbling, and a constant source of both wonder and stress!  A vineyard is an absolutely astonishing amount of work and you are at odds with critters and weather for 3/4 of the year!  Fortunately, the winter is a time of low stress.  The vines are pruned and dormant.  They will be fine until I have to start worrying again--about things like frost after budbreak, rain during flowering, fruit set, birds, yellowjackets, nets, hail, rain, and harvest.  Oh well, it's all part of the adventure!


The burn barrel is consuming all the cuttings.

"Le Grand Oiseau" from the west end.  Pruning almost done.

A pruned vine ready for spring.

The oldest vines (from 2009) are getting thick!

Marquette is tricky...or at least mine is!

With harvest numbers around 23 brix and a pH of 3.3 on my Marquette, I was worried about the fruit not being ripe enough.  Well, after fermentation and MLF with VP41, my post-ferment pH rose to an astonishing 3.8!  Unfortunately, I neglected to measure the pH between the alcoholic fermentation and the MLF.  So either a lot of potassium came out of the skins during primary fermentation or there's a ton of malic acid in the grapes that turned into lactic during MLF.  Either way, this is the second year that I have seen such a substantial rise in the pH during vinification with my Marquette.  (Never seen this with other varieties).  I ended up having to add some tartaric acid to allow the wine to be stabilized with a reasonable dose of meta.  I brought it down to 3.7 (any lower and the tartaric really impacts flavor).  Who would have thought that harvesting at a pH of 3.3 was too ripe?  I have asked my friend David Neilson, winemaker and owner of Coastal Vineyards about this issue and he has never seen this in his Marquette. Anyone got any ideas?

So right now I have 17 gallons of wine, my first decent batch of Marquette.  Half is in my barrel and the other half in glass.  I'll swap them out after 3 months in oak.  (My small barrel over-oaks a wine easily if you aren't careful).  So far, taste testing shows that my Marquette is pretty low on tannins, a lot like Pinot Noir.  This is definitely not a Cab or Zin-like wine.  It has good color, and a cherry-like aroma.  I'm concerned about the pH though, the taste is a little flabby and bland. Hoping it comes around a little in barrel.


Monday, September 22, 2014

2014 Marquette Harvest!

Every year that I have been growing grapes has brought something different.  In 2012, I had the summer hail from hell which destroyed much of my crop.  Later that summer, I lost most of what remained to evil grape sucking yellow jackets.  In 2013, I switched to insect netting (instead of plain bird netting) in an attempt to exclude both birds and yellow jackets.  But the nets, with finer weave, do not tangle the birds up as much.  As a result, they are not afraid of it.  They persistently attacked the nets until they got in at the ends, and devoured at least half the crop.  I got a crop, but it was only 80 pounds from 30 vines.  (Admittedly, many were immature vines.  I was expecting about 150 pounds).

This year there was no messing around!  I stapled the nets at the end of the rows right to the posts of the trellis.  Taking the nets off took a little longer but no birds got in.  No yellow jackets ate my grapes either.  :-)  Happy Jacques.

But all was not perfect this year!  There is always something.

This year started with a fairly mild winter, but spring was late.  In fact, my Marquette vines budded more than a week later than usual, and flowering was over a week later than usual.  Veraison was more than a week late too!  On top of that, it was a cool summer.  Last year I harvested in the first week of Sept and the grapes were over-ripe.  This year when I checked the brix at that same time of the month, they were barely 16 brix!  So much for global warming.

So I let them hang.  Unfortunately, I have one of those things called a job, and for my job I travel frequently which often means I'm not home on the ideal day to harvest.  Last week I was out on two back to back TV shoots and when I got home, I ran out to check the grapes.  I expected them to be hanging another week, but in fact two of my "blocks" of vines were probably about as good as they were going to get.  (The third block of just 5 vines, in a slightly less sunny spot, was running a week later than the other two blocks).  While some of the grapes were only showing on the refractometer as 20 brix, others were raisoning up, so they were over-ripe.  I hoped that by harvesting then, I would get decent numbers averaging between those two.  My goal in an ideal world is 24-25 brix and pH of 3.4.  (In my limited experience, there is a fair amount of malic acid in Marquette and many cold-hardy varieties.  As a result, pH rises quite a bit through MLF.  If you want to end up in the ideal pH of 3.6, you need to start around 3.4.  Maybe even lower.)

So I put the word out to my friends via facebook that I was harvesting that day with last minute notice.  A few people even showed up to help!  (Thanks Suzanne, Chris, Mia and Peter!) We pulled off the nets and started cutting the fruit off the vines.  I have to admit, after 6 years of relentless work tending the vines, it was really cool to finally have a good harvest, and a few friends here to join in the fun! From the two blocks we harvested, I got 200 pounds of fruit!  Hey, that's enough to warrant getting out the crusher/destemmer!  So we crushed it all, and it nicely filled a single large "Brute" fermenter.

I added the requisite dose of meta and a dash of enzymes (need to extract those tannins!) and waited 12 hours for the moment of truth:  a solid analysis of the brix and pH.  And the result? 23 brix at a pH of 3.3.  A couple more days to get the brix up to 24 and the pH up to 3.4 would have been perfect, but honestly, I'm not complaining.  These numbers aren't bad at all.  I decided to make absolutely no adjustments to anything.  It's close enough!

I am fermenting with plain old BDX.  I love that yeast--wonderful flavor.  I tried 71B last year for its malic acid-eating performance, but I just don't think it's a great yeast other than that.  I ordered some VP41 MLB which will take care of that malic acid just fine!

So 200 pounds should give me about 12 gallons, more than enough for my 8 gallon barrel.  The real question is, how do I handle the piddly 30 pounds or so that will come off the last block next week?


Pulling the nets and time for harvest!
My daughter joins the harvest!

My friend Suzanne Nobile poses by some of the harvest.

Elise turns the crank and the grapes get crushed!  Neighbor Peter Brayton looks on.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What is Real Winemaking?

This simple question can be answered in many ways from a philosophical answer to a technical one.  But the issue I'm talking about is one that comes up all the time in home winemaker circles:  What constitutes making your own wine?  Is making wine from a kit really winemaking?  Do you have to grow your own grapes to be considered a real winemaker?  And of course the answers are all over the map.  Analogies are drawn between cooking and winemaking.  Comparisons are made between professional winemaking and amateurs.

The most common argument I like to make is a cooking analogy.  You should know that I make a mean Mac & Cheese!  My kids love it, they think it's the greatest food ever!  It's Kraft Mac & Cheese.  Anyone can make it.  It's a kit in a box.  You follow the directions and, in under ten minutes, you have a meal kids love.  Does this make me a good cook?  My kids prefer this Mac & Cheese to the homemade one that their grandmother makes.  If we entered our Mac & Cheeses in a competition and I won, would that be fair?  Would I really be an award-winning Mac & Cheese maker?  I personally have no problem with anyone who wants to make wine from a kit, but it's not true winemaking, just like making Kraft Mac & Cheese is not really cooking.  I personally do not feel that wines made from kits should be judged up against wines made from fruit in wine competitions.  They are different classes of winemaking.  I'm not saying that a kit can't be as good or better in many cases than a wine made from fresh grapes, or vice versa.  They are just different entities.

But when you make that argument, someone is bound to say..."Well...grandma didn't grow the wheat to make the pasta in her Mac & Cheese.  She bought the pasta at the store."  This starts the inevitable argument about what constitutes "home-made."  For example, my dad makes killer tollhouse cookies--we're talking the best on Earth.  But he buys all the ingredients (sugar, flour, chocolate chips, etc.) at the grocery store.  So are they really home made?  I can't seem to replicate them exactly right.  There is something he does that I can't manage to reproduce, so clearly there is skill there.  But he still didn't grow any sugar cane to make them.

We often have a classic "French chateau" idealistic view of the wine industry--where the grapes are grown on the estate and the wine is made in the cellar.  But here in America, let's face it, that's not as common.  Some people specialize in growing grapes and some specialize in making wine.  Sometimes specialization is better.  But that means that many of the popular brands we like are made by professional winemakers who didn't grow their own grapes.  They contracted with a nearby vineyard for grapes.  They may have been involved in the decisions made throughout the development of the vineyard such as which clones were planted, which rootstocks were grafted, how the grapes would be trellised and cropped.  They most likely had a say in when the grapes were harvested and how.  But the fact is they were grown by someone else.  Still, we can probably agree that these wines were made "from scratch."

As home winemakers though, is it the same for us?  I live in Massachusetts.  Until I was growing my own grapes, I bought them from a distributor in Connecticut that bought them from a wholesaler in California or Chile.  They were brought in from California or Chile on a big truck or ship.  By the time I got them, they were between 2 and 5 weeks old.  They were refrigerated, heavily sulfated, and usually not in very good shape.  They were most often over or under-ripe.  I always got the feeling that the home winemaker market is a dumping ground for crappy grapes that no commercial winemaking operation would take.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Anyway, I'm not sure that buying grapes from the back of a truck, 3,000 miles from where they were grown is a great idea.  To me, this is analogous to stopping down at the grocery store for some flour and sugar to make cookies.  You are making wine from scratch, but the ingredients are not fresh and local.

So I guess to me a "real winemaker" makes wine from local grapes.   I don't care if you grow the grapes yourself or buy them from a nearby vineyard.  Just as many people tend to agree that local produce is best for your health and the environment, local wine is the most natural expression of true winemaking.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Finally the first vintage of Marquette is Bottled!

It has been a long time coming!  Five years since I planted my first Marquette vines.  In spite of the very challenging conditions I've endured over the past five years (particularly 2012!) tonight I finally realized a dream--to bottle my own estate-grown wine.  Here it is: the 2013 Chateau Oiseau Marquette!  Is it the best wine I have made?  No.  Is it the worst?  Far from it!  But I'm proud of all 21 bottles! (Just over 4 gallons came from the vines last year).

Fortunately, things are looking much better this year.  The vines are about a week behind last year in terms of fruit maturity, but they are now netted, and this year I'm not taking any chances with those wily oiseaus, I have stapled the nets on the ends right to the posts.  They are not getting in!  Also, I have a larger crop this year due to more vines being mature.  I'm hoping for a solid 200 pounds of fruit this year, enough for 12 gallons!  But I will be delighted with 9 gallons--enough to fill my barrel and a little extra for topping.  When the vines are fully mature, I might hit 300 pounds of fruit.

I have discovered about 5 years too late that I should have done vertical shoot positioning, because Marquette really seems to want to grow upward rather than downward as they do on top-wire cordon trellising.  So I am going to slowly start converting the vines over to a different trellis system, which will take probably another 3 years!

In the meantime, I am working towards a great 2014 harvest in about a month!


Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Winter Pruning

When the vines lose their leaves in the fall and turn into rather whispy-looking collections of twigs, it's time to start pruning.  Pruning is an essential part of growing grapes because without correctly pruning the vines, you will not be able to control the fruit production.  Because fruit only forms on shoots from one year old wood, there is a very specific way of pruning vines to be sure that the right amount of fruit is made in the spring when the vines flower.  Without pruning, you would get a lot of leaves and not much fruit, or sometimes a lot of leaves and way too much fruit (which the vine might not be able to ripen) as well as fruit being formed all over the place...on the ground, etc. where it couldn't ripen or would be eaten by critters.

My vines are being trellised in a top wire cordon system, and the pruning method therefore is spur pruning.  (I'm going to experiment with starting another row of vines next year which will be cane pruned on a Vertical Shoot Positioning trellis.)

Pruning might not sound all that exciting, and perhaps it's not, but I really enjoy it.  First of all, it gets me outside on a nice winter day.  It let's me spend some time with the vines really seeing what they did in the summer, without all the leaves in the way.  I go slowly, taking my time, readjusting all the ties on the trellis as I go.  I like to fire up my "burn barrel" and get a good fire going in there to burn the cuttings as I go.  This is a technique I picked up in Burgundy.  It has multiple purposes.  First, it gets rid of all those cuttings, and believe me there are a lot of them.  Also, by burning the cuttings, we remove a potential source of year-to-year disease/fungus/pests from the vineyard.  Finally, the ash can be sprinkled on the vineyard, bringing those nutrients back into the soil.  And hey, the fire keeps me warm!

The difference between the starting and finishing look of a pruned row is pretty impressive.  It looks like I have killed the vine, but trust me, in spring these things will explode into life and fruit production!


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Finally! A Real Harvest at Chateau Oiseau!

I never thought the day would come, but it finally happened—I managed to harvest a crop of Marquette large enough to make a batch of wine.  It took five years!  It was a bit anti-climactic though.  I had imagined the harvest taking place with a bit of advanced notice and with the help of many friends.  Yet, that was not how it turned out.  I guess I need to back up and tell the whole story.

My summer and fall is crazy hectic this year with business travel.  I was away for 10 days in August and when I returned, I discovered that some critter had gotten the clothes pin clips off the bottom of one row of vines to get at some grapes that had fallen off the vines and collected in the bottom of the netting.  This in turn allowed birds in and they ate all the grapes in an entire row.  Scratch that row.  What a heartbreaker.  Birds suck.

Another two rows had somehow been opened on the end and birds got in and ate as far down as they could get before the vegetation got too dense.  Overall, I learned some serious lessons:

1.     Clipping the nets closed with clothes pins doesn’t cut the mustard.  They need to be closed much more securely than that.
2.     Determined critters are trouble.
3.     Insect netting doesn’t discourage birds as much as bird netting.  The birds get all tangled in the “gill-net” like bird netting and they hate the stuff.  Insect netting keeps out the bugs better but is not as discouraging to the birds.
4.     The insect netting combined with the yellow-jacket baiting program really worked.  I have one row of vines that is only in the second leaf and so I only allowed each vine to make 2 clusters of grapes each.  I put bird netting on them because I didn’t have enough insect netting.  I assumed I would lose all the grapes to yellow jackets.  Yet there was no yellow jacket damage at all because I kept the yellow jacket population at bay.

Lessons learned for next year are basically that I need to close the nets better.  I am thinking of actually “stitching” them closed with fishing line or something.  Each year I get a little better at this.

So anyway, now back to my story….

I lost at least 1/3 or more of my crop to critters again.  Not happy.  But I closed the nets back up and started taking refractometer measurements.  On 8/17, the grapes were averaging 20-22° Brix and I was shooting for 24-25 Brix to get the acid down.  (These hybrid grapes are known for high acid.  Getting the acid down sometimes means letting them get a little high on sugar if you can, and then watering back the sugar a little).  I figured I had a long way to go to get these final numbers where I wanted them, and I would let them hang until after a business trip I have this coming week.  Well, a few days ago on my morning inspection of the grapes, I noticed that all the sudden within just a day or so, quite a few of the grapes were starting to raisin a little.  I did some quick refractometer measurements and realized that they ripened much sooner than I expected (maybe because the clusters were “thinned” for me by my bird friends?) and they were not going to be able to hang until after this upcoming business trip.  If I was going to get them through primary fermentation before the trip, I had to harvest right now!  So I literally dropped everything I had planned to do last Friday and started the harvest alone!  No friends, no celebrations, no helpers (even my kids were at school, so no forced labor)….just:  Get those nets off the vines and harvest those grapes ASAP!

The harvest took about 90 minutes.  I carefully cut each bunch off the vine with a pair of pruning shears and lovingly placed it into the lug.  I was pleased to see that I got about 80 pounds.  Without the loss to critters at the last minute, it easily would have been 120+ pounds.  Next year, if I can reduce the critter loss and get the last couple of rows productive, I am easily looking at 150+ pounds (9 gallons of wine).  My most productive vine (which also miraculously didn’t lose fruit to critters) produced about 15 pounds of fruit.  If all my vines were to average just 10 pounds, I would be looking at 300 pounds, which is a good 18 gallons of wine.  That’s starting to become worth all the trouble!

As is common with young vines, I had a couple green berries on most of the clusters, so I decided to hand-destem the grapes and pluck the green ones off.  This would keep from contaminating the must with the vegetal high-acid juice of unripe grapes.  It was time consuming (took 2 hours) but a labor of love on my beautiful estate-grown grapes!

When it was all said and done, the must was 25 Brix (perfect) with a pH of 3.6 (!) which honestly is so perfect that I didn’t believe the meter.  I was expecting 3.2 from Marquette, which was why I had selected 71B as the yeast.

71B is a strain known to be good for high-acid grapes because it actually metabolizes some of the malic acid in primary, to get the pH into a range that the MLB can handle during malolactic.  As it turned out, this was entirely unnecessary with my grapes so next year if I can manage to duplicate these numbers, I may use a yeast more well known to produce better flavors (I love BDX for Bordeaux grapes and Assmanhausen for Pinot Noir.  However Marquette is more often compared to Syrah, so perhaps Clos is a good choice?  I have no experience with this yeast and I welcome advice from other Marquette winemakers.)

Right now the wine is bubbling away in primary fermentation and smells absolutely delicious.  After the five years of hard work, worry, sweat and tears (well, maybe not actual tears, but some pretty depressing moments) right now I am super happy, excited and proud.  I grew grapes.  I am making wine.  My wine.  From my vineyard.  Chateau Oiseau estate grown!

A few pictures here...