Post Harvest Thoughts...
I wanted to do a recap of the 2014 harvest season, which was a very interesting and unusual vintage all around.
Due to the more moderate than usual temperatures during springtime, the vines started to bud break very early in the season, a situation that translated into harvesting grapes two to four weeks earlier than an average year. This was especially true for most of the red varietals that usually need a longer hang time to ripen and develop flavors. Also, an extreme drought in California prevented grape growers from irrigating properly, a situation that in many cases was beneficial and in others brought stress to the vines.
Winemaking is all about creativity and problem solving. There is definitely no such thing as the “perfect” vintage, although we can all agree that some years are very good, some excellent and some not so good. However, regardless of the vintage, winemakers are always going to face special situations that will require our full creativity in order to succeed.
For me, this was definitely one of those vintages where nature challenged me to bring out my best in order to make world-class wines. This was one of the most challenging harvests I have ever experienced.
Everybody knew that it was going to be an early harvest season, but it is very difficult to know by how much since every vineyard site is different. This was the first challenge we encountered because we often rely on historical data in order to establish a tentative picking date. We quickly realized that even though we were indeed facing an early harvest season, it was not a predictable one. In other words, not all varietals were ripening earlier at the same rate. Some were earlier by one week and others by four weeks, throwing off all of our plans, so we needed to visit vineyards more often than usual in order to assess the state of ripening. This was especially true for dry farmed grapes that tend to ripen much quicker than irrigated grapes when faced with extreme weather conditions.
Because a lot of the red varietals were coming in at the same time as the whites, it created the second problem of the season: limited tank capacity to carry out the fermentations. We have done a lot of experimentation at Campovida to determine what type of fermentation is more beneficial for each varietal, including tank vs. barrel fermentation on whites, for example. We have determined that Marsanne, being that is a very neutral varietal, benefits from a long and cold fermentation in order to retain more aromas prior to transferring to neutral oak barrels for aging. This year we fermented Marsanne in barrel instead in order to open up a tank to ferment reds. This does not mean that because we fermented the Marsanne in barrel instead of tank that it will not be as good as it would have been. White wines that are fermented in barrel tend to gain other aspects that a wine that is fermented in tank lacks; it is a trade-off.
The third challenge came when we started receiving red grapes with high sugar levels (at least for my liking). Yeast has a very hard time finishing fermentations all the way down to zero sugar when the starting sugar levels are very high. The drought plus a heat spike in the middle of harvest season increased the sugar levels very high and it translated into having a few fermentations that were very challenging to manage and get them to go dry. Fortunately, with commitment, creativity and a bit of luck we were able to succeed and all of those fermentations were able to finish as they should and are now in barrel waiting to undergo malolactic fermentation.
Whenever there is a “sluggish” fermentation it presents a challenge for winemakers, one of the hardest to address and one that can lead to other issues greater than just having some residual sugar left in the wine. Those wines can actually accumulate excessive amounts of volatile acidity (vinegar mainly) if there are bacteria present in the wine that start consuming that sugar and making vinegar as a bi-product. That is why it is very important to be on top of all fermentations and check their brix levels and taste them every single day during the fermentation period, so that we can predict if there is a potential problem and act in a fast and appropriate manner.
All of the already mentioned challenges contributed to our last challenge of the season: the level of intensity. Because it was such a cramped season and everything came in at the same time, we felt the workload a lot more than in a regular season where the workload is more spread out. Because of the intensity of harvest, we missed seeing our families. This is part of the winemaking are we are lucky to have understanding families who support our passion.
Looking back at everything that we went through during harvest season, I can say that I am really happy with what we accomplished. We were facing a very early harvest season and an extreme drought that brought many challenges, and we had a successful harvest and we are excited and very proud about the wines we are making.
We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.