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...