Archive for the ‘Harvest’ Category

Picking based upon sugar levels, or an exercise in total stupidity

Monday, January 20th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

While reading through my usual list of blogs for Good Reads Wednesday, I got led to this post: The Problem with ‘Physiological Ripeness” by Paul Lukacs.  It can be found at:

The following quote sums up the sum and substance of this article:

Perhaps when that happens, vintners will return to common sense and admit that seeds, skins, and pulp have little to do with ripeness, which as everyone has known ever since Antoine Lavoisier proved it so, refers to the appropriate concentration of sugar in the fruit–no more and no less.

In a minute, I’ll get around to my objections to the substance of the article. But before I turn to that subject, I think there is a question that needs to be asked: “Has this guy ever grown even one grape?”

To try to satisfy myself on that point, I googled the author’s name, and while I could find that he had written several books related to wine, I could find no evidence that he has actually engaged in the subject that this post is about, namely, growing grapes.

I will grant that you don’t need to know how to grow a grape in order to drink a wine. Or, to render an opinion as to the quality of the wine that you’ve just drunk.

But it’s one thing to consume a wine, and something else altogether to make one.

Aside from the lack of any indication on my Google search that Mr. Lukacs has ever grown a grape, the content of this post would seem to confirm my suspicion.

So let me turn to the post itself.

The gist of the post is that vintners should be guided by the sugar level of the grapes rather than other factors such as the condition of the seeds, skins, and pulp. Which, as I’ve quoted above, Mr.Lukacs feels has nothing to do with ripeness.

Not sure exactly how to describe Mr. Lukacs’ view. A few words jump to mind, however: “crazy, nuts, insane”.

I don’t think any vintner or grower would say that sugar levels are irrelevant. But there are lots of things that factor into sugar levels that really have nothing to do with the ripeness of the grape. As just one example, since sugar levels are determined simply by the ratio of sugar to water in the grape, as water content declines (as, for example, as a result of a heat wave), the sugar levels will rise. Conversely, as the water level in the grape rises (as would result from an irrigation), the sugar level will decline. Neither a short heat wave nor an irrigation is going to reflect much on the ripeness of the grape, though it will certainly affect sugar levels.

For various reasons (or for no particularly discernible reason) sugar levels can vary from year to year in ways that don’t correlate with the ripeness of the grape in other respects.

Certainly, there is a lot of variation in harvest sugar levels from one grape variety to another, from one site to another, from one clone to another, and pretty much from one of anything else to another. Whether, and to what extent, these changes in sugar level reflect changes in grape ripeness is often not at all clear.

So it is entirely possible to end up with a grape that, when you measure the brix, seems just fine. But that grape can have green seeds, tough skins, and bitter unpleasant flavors.

If you harvest that grape, you’re going to get a wine redolent of green peppers, super high in acidity, with tight green tannins. Now, if that’s how you like your wines, all is good.

But if you prefer (as I and almost everybody else does) a wine that reminds you of fruit rather than veggies, then picking that field is a big mistake.

Lukacs seems to feel that the switch to making harvest decisions based on physiological ripeness of the grape has led to the phenomenon which we are all too aware of, the increasing ripeness of grapes at harvest which results in higher alcohol, lower acid, “floozy” wines. But it’s a mistake to confuse the measuring stick (whether it be physiological ripeness or sugar level) with what you are measuring, i.e., the ripeness of the grape. There is no question that there is a wide variety of opinions among growers and vintners as to when a vineyard is ready to be picked. Some, who seek a lighter, more elegant, style, will pick sooner than others who seek a more powerful, concentrated style. There is no right or wrong – – there is just personal preference.

But whether you want a lighter or a more powerful style, to rely upon sugar levels as your measuring stick makes no sense. Focusing on physiological ripeness does not require you to pick late anymore than focusing on sugar levels requires you to pick early. If you are seeking a lighter style, then you will tolerate a few more green seeds, a somewhat crunchier skin, etc. etc. You will almost certainly seek higher levels of acidity, which has little to do with sugar level.

But if you rely, instead, on a test of, say, 21 brix sugar at harvest, then instead of getting the lighter, more elegant style that you sought, you may end up with something that is simply repugnant.

Winery/Tasting Room update

Monday, October 14th, 2013

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

Just for curiosity, I went back into my Winery/Tasting Room file to see how long we’ve been at this.  Our first files date to June 2012.  It had seemed like we have been plugging away for a year, but it’s really been 1 1/3 years.  How time flies when you’re having fun.

It would seem like a year and a few months should be enough to get us through all this, but it’s not. We hired a new architect and he resubmitted our plans about a month ago. Instead of getting an approval, we got a whole new set of comments. The architect is pretty sure he can make most of the new “requirements” go away. But I’m feeling like a passive bystander in my own project. I guess lots of people feel that way.

At this point, we can pretty much write off 2013. Even if we could get open, we’d be in the worst part of the year. Harvest over, people turning their thoughts to the holidays. Bad weather. Not a great time to get a tasting room going, and certainly not a good time to think about crushing some grapes, except to make advance plans for 2014.

Talking about crushing grapes (and to totally change the subject), I mentioned in a resent post that I’d added acid to the merlot, and I’d check the pH to see what the effect was. Well, I checked the pH, and basically, I don’t know the answer.

Since we’re fermenting in macrobins, each bin yielded a different pH. This to some extent could be due to the addition of different amounts of tartaric to each one, something that when they are all combined won’t make a difference, but do now. Also, since we’re using submerged cap fermentation, we can only measure the acidity above the screen that keeps the grapes submerged. I would think that the acidity level above and below the screen would be about the same, but who knows for sure.

For what it’s worth, the acidity in terms of pH varied from 3.35 to 3.65. Even the 3.65 seems a little low for the amount of tartaric added, but pH can be tricky to predict. The 3.35 is hard to fathom. It’s certainly hard to see how the pH could vary so much, and how such a small addition could result in such a great change in pH.

At any rate, until we press off, it will be hard to know with any degree of certainty what the real pH is.

The Merlot Harvest (Part 2)

Monday, October 7th, 2013

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

Moving on from the acidity issue I discussed last week, the must just reeks with color, something I think is really important in a wine. So I couldn’t be happier with that. At least for the wines I make, which tend toward the hardier, lusher end of the wine spectrum, I’m really trying to pick my grapes at the tail end of the optimum period. So you can put me in the “let them hang” category. I like very soft skins, a minimum of green seeds. I don’t want shrivel or dehydration, which would probably be the case if I waited much longer. Though this year there’s been so little of that maybe it probably wasn’t too much of a risk anyway.

But my Merlot this year really fit that “tail end” criteria. So I have to notch this year’s harvest as pretty good.

I started the fermentation on Friday. I’d intended to start it on Thursday, but things just got away from me. I’m not a big believer in cold soaks (the period between crush and inoculation), but as long as it’s not too long I don’t have problem with them either. I usually only wait a day, two at the most. So this three days was pretty long for me.

I used to spend a lot of time playing around with different yeasts to see what they would do as far as the flavor in the finished wine. My conclusion from all that they don’t make much of a difference. (Most winemakers I talk to find that total heresy, by the way, so I represent a minority view.) I think maybe yeasts do make a meaningful difference in whites, particularly if they are bottled early. But for full bodied reds, I’ve never been able to detect a difference that rose above minuscule. And even those tiny differences pretty much disappear over time.

So if you discount the effect of the yeast on the flavor of the finished wine, as I do, then you’re just looking for the yeast that will get you from point A (the must) to point B (end of alcoholic fermentation) with the least potential for problems. So I’m really looking for two things. First, a yeast that can handle higher alcohols (since a stuck fermentation will stick usually when the alcohol levels get higher). And, second, one that isn’t prone to producing hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas). So I’ve settled on Rock Pile (RP15). I now use it on pretty much everything, and it gives me what I want, an uneventful fermentation. Boring fermentations are good fermentations.

Pretty much all fermentations use one of two methods to make sure the grape skins stay in contact with the juice. The first is pump overs, which is pretty much like what it sounds like—you pump the juice over the cap. The second is punch downs, and it’s pretty much like what it sounds like as well—you push the skins down into the juice.

A tiny tiny minority use a third method. Count me in that minority. It’s called submerged cap. It involves using some apparatus or another to keep the cap permanently submerged below the top of the juice. I have to admit that my method is pretty rinky-dink. I would post a picture, except it’s too embarrassing. But it works, which is what counts.

I use a plastic sheet about 3/8” think that I cut out to fit in a macrobin. I drilled holes in it to let the CO2 escape, though I suspect it would have escaped just fine even without the holes.

I lay a mesh over the must, but the plastic sheet over the mesh, and then use straps to keep the sheet in place. I use mostly picking bins on top of the sheet as spacers. Not pretty, but it gets the job done.

The submerged cap gets me much better extraction than the other two methods. I ran some tests comparing the amount of color in the must using the submerged cap vs. punch down methods, and found I got 17% greater color extraction on average, which is huge. My working assumption is that many of the flavor components of wine achieve a similarly greater level of extraction, though I can’t prove that.

Another benefit of the submerged cap is that it saves a lot of time and effort. Instead of punching down the cap two or three times a day, I set up my submerged cap and walk away. I do check to make sure everything is staying in place, but the amount of work is minimal.

So that documents the first few days in the life of the grapes on their journey to becoming wine. It’s not a lot of sound and fury, but when you’re actually there viewing and tasting as the process plays itself out, it gains something that you can’t really put into words.

The Merlot harvest

Monday, September 30th, 2013

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

Well, we got the Merlot in this week, Tuesday to be exact.   The harvest and crush were uneventful.  I like it that way.

I have to admit that things that once got me all bent out of shape I now take in stride. We had rain last Saturday, and the normal rule of thumb is that botrytis mold can develop within 48 hours. So three days until harvest is a day longer than you’d optimally like. But having been through this before and never having had a problem, I wasn’t going to lose any sleep over this. And in fact the grapes came in perfectly clean. Maybe it was the sunny Sunday after the rainy Saturday, but bottom line I’ve just never had a problem so I wasn’t going to get all hot and bothered about a little rain.

I was hoping that the actual must would show a little higher acid levels than my last berry sample predicted. Unfortunately, it was the opposite. The first pH reading I did on the must came in at 3.77 (the higher the pH the lower acidity). I don’t really like to see a finished wine with a pH above 3.8, and I would prefer 3.7 to 3.8. And since the pH tends to go up some between now and the end of malolactic fermentation, the 3.77 was too high.

So I made a relatively modest tartaric add (.5g/l). Since there’s no hard and fast rule on how much of an add results in how much reduction in pH, it’s a little bit of a guess as to where my pH will end up. A rule of thumb I use is that 1g/l of tartaric will reduce the pH by .1, but that rule is almost useless as the actual results are totally unpredictable. So we’ll just have to see. I’ll run a pH in a few days and see what the actual effect was. I suspect I’ll make another acid addition at some point.

I am temperamentally opposed to manipulation of wine any more than is absolutely necessary. There’s a lot of manipulation that is absolutely necessary though. But my experience is that things you do to the wine never seem to have quite the beneficial results you hoped for. So when in doubt I do nothing. So even acid additions, which are probably one of the least objectionable of additions in the grand scheme of things, I have done only rarely. But here the add seemed called for, so I did it.

I also got a TA (titratable acidity) reading on the must of 6.0. For reasons I’ll discuss in a future post, I pretty much ignore TA, as I did here. Though, for the record, the 6.0 reading would also suggest a small tartaric add.

More next week…

The perfect harvest

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)The skies are clear.  It’s 78 degrees out.  I do a berry sample.  The brix are 25, the pH is 3.45.  The juice I squeeze out of the berries is very pretty medium red.  The seeds are all yellow and brown, not a green seed to be found.  No pulp sticks to the seeds. The skins are soft but not mushy.  The 10-day weather forecast is sunny and clear, with temperatures hovering between 75 and 80.

It’s the perfect harvest.

And, like most perfect things, it never really happens. It’s a fantasy.

As I write this, the rain has finally stopped. With luck, we’ll get sun and, even more important, wind, to dry out the clusters. Nothing like a little rain while the grapes are ripening to throw a monkey wrench into things. A perfect grape cluster except for the fact that it’s covered in mold isn’t an appealing sight. But that’s what rain can do.

And that berry sample, it never happens either. Invariably something is off. The juice a little lighter than I’d like. The brix a little low (or high), the pH not what you really want it to be. The seeds may be mostly brown and yellow, but there’s always some green from the berries that are lagging behind. The skins are maybe a little softer than the other grape parameters would predict.

So deciding when to harvest is always something of a compromise. I just did a berry sampling of some merlot, and it was really pretty good in one sense. But it really didn’t matter since the rain is dictating that that fruit should come in. When you balance the possibility that the grapes will get even better (low considering they seem to be pretty good right now) against the possibility that they will get worse (rot at worst, but even going from ripe to overripe is bad enough), it’s a no-brainer.

But even without rain, it’s still a compromise. The berry sample produced a brix of 24.4, pretty much perfect. pH is 3.58, which is really higher than I like (meaning the acidity is lower than I’d like), so leaving them out will move them even further out of where I want to be acidity-wise (since the acid levels decline over time). The juice is a medium to light pink. I really would like to see more color, but it’s good enough. There’s still some pulp sticking to the seeds. Not what I would most like to see, but, again, it’s not that big of a deal when balanced against the possible downside of leaving them out for longer. At least the flavors seem to have come along considerably from my last sample, when there was still a lot of greenness.

So if there were no rain, whether to pick or not wouldn’t be a clear, no questions asked, proposition. If I could keep the brix and acids where they are and get a little more juice color, without getting any prune or raisin flavors, that would be my choice. But the berries don’t stop maturing when, on any one parameter, they reach optimum. They go beyond optimum to suboptimum and eventually to just plain bad. So you need to make a choice. Here, the rain made that choice an easy one. Even without the fear of rot, though, I would bring these grapes in now rather than wait.

In fact, even though imperfect, this berry sample is probably about as good as it gets. The good thing is that here in California as long as your grapes don’t suffer some serious problem (i.e., don’t ripen fully), the fact that they aren’t perfect in every regard doesn’t really effect the ability to make really good wine. And there’s no one day that is the perfect day to harvest—there’s more like a window where, if you pick in the early part of it, you get one style (more acidic, lighter, more elegant) and if you pick later you get another style (more concentrated, lusher), but both styles are perfectly good wines. But as for that perfect combination of everything going right at exactly the right time—well, that never happens.