Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Fall 2011 Winemaking begins!

Well, the summer seemed to fly by and I haven't posted an update here since the end of June. So what has happened?

Well, around the beginning of August we had veraison in the Marquette, the time when the grapes start changing color. Grapes do this to signal the birds that they are ready to eat. That way the birds will spread their seeds around. Of course we don't want the birds to eat the crop, so we have to put bird netting on the vines. What a pain that is (but nothing compared to getting them back off again!)

Due to my travel schedule, I had to harvest the Marquette a little earlier than anticipated at around 22 brix because I had a trip to the Maldives and I was afraid they would hang too long otherwise. In addition to the rain during flowering which made for some bad fruit set and small, loose clusters, we also had a solid week of rain in late August that caused a lot of grapes to split. Overall, 2011 was a terrible year for growing grapes in Massachusetts. At least for me. Fortunately, I only had a few vines making fruit and there was no way I was going to get enough for a batch of wine anyway. So this is just an experiment year.

My Reliance (seedless) vines made a ton of grapes, and then right before they were ready to harvest, they all fell off the vine. Some had bee damage, but most just literally fell on the ground and got eaten. The vines were well netted. I have no idea what happened, but it has shaken my belief in Reliance. I have decided to remove the whole row of them in the spring and replace with Marquette. Reliance is not for making wine and I have no idea what to do with 40 pounds of Reliance if we ever get a harvest.

By the time Marquette harvest came (Sept 15th) I was down to about 2 pounds of actual harvestable grapes. But it was still a thrill to make my very first (tiny!) harvest. I froze the grapes to be added to my next wine batch. (More on this...keep reading)

Because I was going to be in the Maldives during the time when the California grapes would arrive for us east coast winemakers, I made the decision to order Washington state grapes for my fall winemaking. They wouldn't come until October, and I would be back from the Maldives. Since Washington Pinot Noir is not an option from my local retailer, I ordered Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to make a "Bordeaux blend." I find it odd that we can get Cab from Washington but not Pinot noir. It seems to me that it must be hard to ripen Cab that far north, but that is a great climate for Pinot Noir.

The grapes arrived yesterday so I had to drop everything and go into wine making mode (something I enjoy!) As usual, I manually de-stemmed all the grapes. My daughter helped for about 10 minutes then got bored and left. My fingers were sore (and purple) all night afterwards. I really need a destemmer. For the most part the Cab looked as Cab should--tight clusters that are hard to de-stem, with dark blue berries. But when I crushed them, the seeds were still green--a sure sign that they are not ripe. My refractometer (see pic here) indicated between 22 and 23 brix on all the berries I tested, which is to say definitely not ripe. I can only imagine the pH. Fortunately, I'm doing a co-ferment blend with the Merlot and those berries had nice brown seeds and tested out at 26-27 brix (nice and ripe) so with any luck, they will cancel each other out and end up good. I also tossed my 2 pounds of frozen Marquette in there. So my wine will be 1.3% Estate Grown! LOL!

After destemming and crushing, the pH was 3.25. Egads, that's low! A small treatment with Potassium bicarbonate brought the pH up to 3.4 which is a lot better. In addition to a tiny dose of meta to kill bacteria, I added Lallzyme EX, my first attempt with an enzyme. The point is to try getting more color and tannin out of the skins. My previous attempts with really dark grapes (Merlot, Malbec) ended up looking more like pinot noir. On this batch I'm using several different techniques to get some extraction: an enzyme, a peak ferment temp into the 90s for a day and some tannin added before ferment to bind color and hopefully deal with the expected "vegetal" character of the unripe Cab.

This morning after the must had sat at 60 degrees all night, I couldn't believe the extraction of color I already had just from the enzyme! This is encouraging! Next I added the tannin and some Opti-red (again, to help with color) and started my yeast hydration. I have been using Go-Ferm for yeast hydration and Fermaid-K for nutrients along the ferment and that seems to work great. Now I have inoculated the must and I'm waiting for the ferment to start (at low temp) before bringing in the heat. This helps the yeast to get going before any bacteria can because the yeast will get going (slowly of course) at low temp much better than bacteria. Applying heat to the must before the yeast is in there is an invitation to bacterial growth.

Once the must had been inoculated, it was time to bottle my Fall 2010 California Pinot noir in order to clear out a carboy. This is the third wine I have bottled. Tasting notes? Well, it's flawed but not as badly as the previous two. I consider it drinkable, which is more than I can say for the spring 2010 wines. However, I still detect that "home winemaking aroma" that I detect in a lot of home-made wines, not just mine. I think it's the slight leftover taint from hydrogen sulfide. As well, the wine is pretty thin and lacks character. You can drink it, it tastes like wine, and a person who hasn't got much palate for wine (you know who you are Tim) would think it's fine. But it's flawed. I certainly won't be entering it in any wine competitions.

So anyway, I disinfected a bunch of bottles, put them on the bottle tree to dry, and started filling and corking. I ended up with 34 bottles. I'll label them and put on the heat-shrink capsules tomorrow. More wine in the cellar that I seriously doubt will improve with age!

Next I racked the spring 2011 Merlot. This is 6 months old and was ready for a racking plus the addition of some oak spirals. Christine and I tasted it and here's what I can say. It has no noticeable flaws! Which is a first for me. And it tastes okay. But for Merlot, it's pale and lacking tannin and body. If I handed a glass to a wine lover and asked that person to identify it, any sane person would conclude that it is pinot noir. It's not dark and "thick" like Merlot should be. For some reason, no matter what grape I start with, I keep making "pinot!" Hence you can see that I have a problem with getting good extraction. Keeping my fingers crossed on the extracting of this new Bordeaux blend! I'll keep you posted, and thanks for reading!


Monday, June 27, 2011

Grapes are coming along

Growth in the vineyard has been excellent this spring with plenty of rain periodically mixed in with some nice warm sunny days. The Marquette flowered over a week sooner than the Reliance grapes and are about a week further along. I'm enjoying getting out into the yard every few days to tie up the shoots as they travel down the trellis wire, and watching the baby grapes get bigger and bigger. It won't be long before I'll need to net the vines to keep the birds off.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vines are smart!

Vines might be plants, but they aren't stupid. They know when they are ready to make grapes. After three years of careful planning, planting, trellis-building, watering, grow-tubing, irrigation-system building, pruning, bug spraying, etc. I finally have a couple vines with grapes! They are teenie-weenie little baby grapes. And they are only appearing on about 8 vines out of 26. But there are 8 vines in the yard that feel confident they are ready. (Two of them are only in their second year, and I should probably pluck the grapes off so the vines will spend more effort on growing than on making grapes. We'll see.)

This year has been mostly good for the grapes this spring. It was a reasonably early spring with no frosts. The only hitch was a solid week of rain right during flowering (which can tend to reduce the crop because the rain washes the pollen from the flowers before they get fertilized). I'm not going to get too upset about it since I'm not really planning on a real crop of grapes until next summer. Still, I'm excited to see what I can get this summer. Not enough to make a batch of wine for sure, but at least enough to see how ripe they get, when they need to be bird netted, etc.

Check out the pics! Also, I added a picture of the first bottled Chateau Oiseau.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

A day in the Vineyard

Anyone who thinks growing grapes is easy clearly hasn't tried it. I have been slowly planting vines in my yard for 2 years now. Since I have a lot of trees and shade, I can't just plant a huge area and be done with it. I'm using all the sunny spots that can't grow grass because it's too hot. Perfect for grapes. The problem with grapes is they grow on vines. Not trees or bushes. Vines need to grow on something. In the wild, grape vines grow up trees until they get to the top. Then, while stealing the tree's sunlight, they produce yummy grapes for the birds to eat and disperse their seeds. Pretty clever huh? Well, we humans want to trick the grapes into thinking they have climbed a tree and are now ready to make grapes for our wine. To do this, we build trellises that hold the vines up and allow them to spread out in the sunshine. There are all kinds of trellis designs from the simple to the complex. I have chosen to go for a very simple Top Wire Cordon (TWC) design because it looks nice in the yard, is easy to prune, relatively easy to build, and easy to train the vines. It is not the best in terms of overall performance, but it's a good compromise for me.

The vines grow up from the ground and reach a wire about 5 feet off the ground. The vine has one "arm" (cordon) that goes one way, and another that goes the other way on the wire. This "T" formation is the basis for all the other shoots that come off to produce leaves and grapes.

The problem with building a trellis is that the wire has to be held up by something. On each end of the wire is a post that goes deep into the ground so it will hold the wire securely. So far, my three "vineyards" scattered around the yard have (are you ready?) 14 posts. That doesn't sound bad...14 posts. Well, every one of them, 3.5 feet deep in the New England rocky soil was hand dug, and let me tell you, that is a lot of work. Now if I was crazy enough to do all 14 at the same time, I would rent a post-hole auger like I did when I built my deck last year and needed to produce 9 holes four feet deep for the concrete footings. But since I have been picking away at this vineyard thing, a few posts a month for 2 years, I have dug them all by hand. Ugh.

Anyway, a few weeks ago my good friend Pierre was here and he noticed that I had quite a bit of room between two of my rows and suggested squeezing another in there. I groaned at the thought of yet two more post holes, but today what do you think I did? Yeah, I got out there and started digging. Ow, my arms hurt.

I have 4 more vines coming from Northeastern Vine Supply next week to go on this trellis. But I also had a couple empty spots for vines that I have been growing in the house since March from cuttings. So I planted those today too.

Here's the thing that's cool about North American and Hybrid vines--they are immune to Phylloxera and can grow on their own roots. No grafting. So they are easy to replicate. Also, grape vines are really easy to root. If you take the cuttings from your winter pruning and just chuck them in the woods, chances are one or two will take root in the spring. So if you take the cuttings from your most productive vines and simply stick them in a pot of soil and water them, guess what happens? Roots pop out in a few weeks, buds form, leaves sprout and you have new vines to plant. This is how commercial nurseries replicate vines by the thousands.

My vines are not mature yet, so I only had a few that had much of anything to prune last winter. But I waited on those until early March to prune. I took the best cuttings into the house, potted them, put them in a nice sunny window and waited. Today, 2 months later, I planted them in the yard. I'll keep you posted on their progress.


Merlot? Merlot, you ask? Well, I'm not a huge Merlot fan to be honest. I ordered Chilean pinot noir. But my local winemaking place called and said the Chilean Pinot noir looked really bad this year and M&M wine grape in CT didn't send it to MA because it was so bad and they knew my local retailer would refuse it. So they called and offered me Merlot or Malbec. The last batch of Malbec from Chile had some pretty bad numbers to be honest, so I decided to try Merlot, which is a lot easier to ripen. It was a tough year for Chile so I'm looking for something that will actually make decent wine.

I took delivery of (8) 18 pound lugs of Merlot. They didn't look terrible, but not great either. A few fuzzy grapes with mildew and a few rotted ones here and there, but not as bad as the Malbec as I was told by my local winemaking buddy Steve. I sorted them carefully and also did something I have never tried before: rinsing. In the past I have had issues with Hydrogen Sulfide in my Chilean wines. I got a tip to rinse the excess sulfur off the grapes that is added as a preservative for shipping. We'll see if it happens.

As I was rinsing and sorting, I pulled out my trust refractometer to measure the brix of a few sample grapes from each lug. It was interesting that it was very consistent within each lug. For example, I tested about 5 grapes in one lug from different bunches and got 25 brix. In the next lug I got very consistent 27 brix. In the next, 24. The rinsing probably adds a tad of water to the mix, slightly diluting the must, but with grapes ranging from 24-27, I'll be ok.

Of course, once again I enlisted the kids to be my destemmers (slave labor true, but they enjoy it). I let the must warm to 60 degrees in the cellar overnight before adding the yeast (RC212 with Go Ferm starter) and now we have a nice ferment going. The numbers were about perfect on the Merlot though. Once I had enough juice in the morning to get a hydrometer reading and a sample for the pH meter, I got a Brix of 24.5 and pH of 3.55. Can't really complain about that. Once it hit 65 on it's own I turned on the heat and set it to 75. The cellar smells wonderful and I'm punching the cap three times a day.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spring is here finally!

The past two weeks have seen the re-awakening of the vineyard! On April 28 (see picture) the Marquette vines were just starting to break buds. Today, 2 weeks later, we have lots of leaves and even a few inches of growth on many shoots! I doubt I will get grapes this year. The vines are still too small. My Clos Oiseau vineyard in the side yard is entering the third year, but since the first year I didn't use grow tubes, they are only modestly larger than the 2 year old vines on the other side of the yard that did use grow tubes. For all practical purposes, the Marquette is all 2 years old.

I have ordered a few more Marquette vines to replace a couple that did make it, plus some for another small site out back. (Yes, I'm squeezing grapes everywhere there is light!)

Last night, with the knowledge that the Chilean grapes are coming in the next week or two, I decided to bottle the 2010 Chilean Malbec to clear out some carboys. So now I have 40 bottles of truly not-that-great Malbec awaiting labels. I considered not even bottling it, but I needed the practice with the corker. Also I have a ton of bottles, and corks that will go bad if I don't use them. So what the heck. I'll give the stuff a couple years and see if it improves. If nothing else, it makes a good picture.

Working on labels now...


Saturday, April 9, 2011

Finally it feels like spring!

It has been pretty cold this spring in Massachusetts. We even had a snowstorm on April Fools day, just to throw us for a loop. But today it was beautiful--sunny and 65 degrees. It was time for a little yard work. I installed my new drip irrigation system on my vines. I bought the kit from drip depot and it wasn't even very expensive. For about $150 I have a system that will automatically water the vines precisely every day to my programming specs. Each vine has a 1 gal/hour dripper on it. I will not be watering the weeds with soaker hoses. But most importantly, hopefully the vines will make better progress than they did last summer when my watering system was by hand with a hose. We went away on vacation for a week during a hot spell and one of the vines croaked. (Replacement on the way).

After my new irrigation system was in, I put some composted cow manure around the bases of the vines. Not only will this allow good nutrients to seep into the ground, but I find that weeds do not readily grow up through the manure and it keeps the area clear most of the summer.

Now we just need some prolonged warm weather so these babies can start budding--and no late freezes!

A few of my vines grew enough last summer that they needed pruning, so I stuck the pruned shoots into a pot with dirt in the house in a sunny window and they are already sprouting leaves. This could be the start of my nursery. The problem is I don't have any more good places to plant any more vines with enough light, so I may be starting another vineyard at my dad's house. He doesn't know about this plan yet though.

In the cellar, the 2010 spring Chilean Pinot Noir and Malbec is going to be bottled soon. It's really not that good at all. I almost considered pouring it all out--what's the point of bottling wine I don't really like? But I figured I need to practice the whole bottling thing, and who knows, in a few years maybe it will be more palatable. I'll never know if I don't bottle some of it.

The 2010 fall California Pinot Noir tastes good. It didn't finish MLF so I'm going to try to get it to finish with a nutrient addition and warming it to 72 degrees. This will probably be the first wine I have made that I actually might drink. It's all about learning.

I ordered my 2011 Chilean pinot noir grapes last month and they should be here around Mother's Day so I can start a new cuvée. I'm hoping that I have learned enough by now to make this batch really really good! Of course, the whole point is to become good enough at making wine that by the time I have my own grapes, I'll know what I'm doing. Looking at my sparse vineyard, I think it's going to be a while.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Winter at Chateau Oiseau!

While the 2010 cuvées are doing their thing in the cellar, winter has firmly descended upon Chateau Oiseau! We are experiencing one of the most snow-intensive winters in many years. We have had nearly 8 feet of snowfall so far (and it's only Feb 2). Right now we have 3-4 feet on the ground in our yard. Check out this shot of the vines of Cotes du Oiseau next to the driveway! Buried nearly to the top wire! Spring might come late with all the melting that needs to happen, but at least water won't be in short supply! Right now I'm counting the days until spring.