Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dry spell offers ray of hope for vintage

You've seen some of the correspondence from Pennsylvania wine grape educator Mark Chien to his many clients regarding issues in the vineyard. His assessment a month ago was that the persistent rain, particularly in the southeast part of the state, could really make this harvest and vintage tough to salvage. His update sounded more optimistic, as the spigot has been tightened, at least over the past couple of weeks.

He writes: "I'm always delighted to have to eat my words even though it happens more requently that I would care to admit. The rain has not abated entirely but certainly lessened around the region recently and that means that grapes are hanging on and, well, sort of ripening. A lot of growers are calling me asking me when they should harvest their grapes. The simple answer is that I can't decide from my office. But there are some pretty standard guidelines for determining grape maturity, even in a crazy vintage like this one. I'm really encouraged by positive reports about fruit quality from Long Island, the Finger Lakes and Virginia.

"Once again, if you minded your viticultural Ps and Qs during the growing season, now is when you reap the rewards. It wasn't easy. Frost could be in our future and that may force some harvest decisions, but as long as the fruit is clean and not being picked clean by birds, deer, raccoons, etc. it will probably benefit from some 'hang time' even if the temperatures are in the 50s. I have heard of beautiful Chambourcin on the vines but they have a way to go. It's still a low sugar year but that doesn't mean it has to be low flavor. The numbers are a bit wacky and wine makers will have their palates and imaginations tested but hopefully the wines will find a good balance by springtime. Just about any maturity index but sugar should be used as a guide this year. pH will hold more sway as an indicator of physiological ripeness. Acids will almost always be on the high side.

"Flavors are the most important wine quality indicators. For reds, skin and seed tannins are critical and in this cool and extended season may be quite well resolved. Other indices such as seed and stem color (brown is better) and the onset of shelling of berries are all signs of ripeness. The best thing to do is to spend time in the vineyard with someone who really understands the nature of ripe fruit and knows how to balance these traits with other conditions that influence a picking decision. Tasting berries is such a refined skill. I always tasted juice samples after an overnight settle for color, texture, acid, sweetness, balance and flavors.

"It really makes a big difference where your vineyard is located this year. Some area got a lot less rain than others this summer. Yields are completely unpredictable. A grower told me about a block of Seyval that normally yields 8 tons and this year they only got one. My sense is that most of the grapes will come off in the next week or two, except on Long Island, of course, where they like to harvest in the morning and then enjoy their Thanksgiving feast.

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