The red wines are now in tank, primary fermentations nearly complete, extended macerations underway, and the conversion from malic acid to lactic acid getting starting. While the next movement of the vintage is still being written, the personality of the growing season is now clear. Starting, as spring always does, with anticipation and hope, the rhythm quickly began alternating between moments of dramatic threat and pastoral idyll. Like Sibelius’ second symphony, the sense was that of an ongoing conversation between death and salvation, personified by increasing tension, fatigue, and anxiety before ending in a final heroic conclusion.
As we reported in June, spring was characterized by a warm March, freezing temperatures in early April, and cold temperatures during bloom that all combined to reduce crop loads by about a quarter. The cold of spring gave way to scorching summer temperatures, with more than twice the average number of days over 90 degrees than is typical. Red spider mites thrived in the heat, puncturing leaf cells to feed on the chlorophyll needed to ripen the fruit. I remember walking the vineyard in late August thinking the vines looked tired, giving the period after veraison a Sisyphean quality. The variation in ripening was startling, with green berries remaining into September in the Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot blocks, despite two “green harvest” passes to remove lagging clusters.
Phenol development was also out of sync. In temperate years, grape anthocyanins (the chemicals responsible for color) and skin tannins (responsible for structure) develop in parallel. But this year, the anthocyanins developed early and then dropped off as the skin tannins matured. Since overall structure, balance, and age worthiness are in part related to the anthocyanin to skin tannin ratio, picking decisions assumed extraordinary significance.
The next threat was posed by Hurricane Ermine in early September. While she eventually went east, we hustled to get the harvest started in earnest. The Sauvignon blocks gave a solid yield, 3.5 tons, with good acids and sugars. Like 2015, we macerated one lot to add depth and interest to the wine, and this year, we fermented a small amount in oak to add roundness for the blend with Chardonnay. As we reported in the June newsletter, the combination of frost and shatter significantly reduced the size of the Chardonnay crop to 1.8 tons, about half the 2015 yield. This year, we picked about two-thirds on September 12, when there were more apple and other ester derived flavors, and the remainder on September 21 at much higher levels of sugar and ripeness to add body and weight to the final wine.
The final push came in early October. An inch of rain on September 19, followed by cooler temperatures, replaced toil with an ethereal, peaceful tone in the vineyard. But the bliss was short. The threat of 7-10 inches of rain and then a hurricane (Matthew) came just a week later. While we were lucky to have just 2½ inches before picking the red varieties, the berries swelled and many split, motivating long hours at the sorting table to select the best fruit for the wines. The mood at the table was resolute. It helped to remember that winemaking is 90% perspiration, with just hints of inspiration mixed in.
Like Sibelius, we can end on a hopeful note, celebrating the summer and the harvest. Despite the small yields, about what we expected after bloom, the effort was enormous. The product is, however, worthy of that effort. Despite the heat, flavors and color are superb, and in an unusual twist, the acid levels are nearly perfect, giving the wines an unusual level of harmony and balance this early in their development. Sometimes early mischief in children gives way to creativity and brilliance in adults. Like parents, we’re looking forward to raising these wines, watching their personalities unfold.