Cold, Cold, Cold: A Harvest Freeze in Paso Robles
Appellations of Origin

Harvest, weeks of October 6th and 13th: Lignification, Whole Cluster Fermentation and a Yield Assessment

We've had two busy weeks of harvest surrounding last weekend's cold snap.  Before the freeze, we pushed to bring in the last of our Marsanne, Syrah and Grenache Blanc, our Picpoul, the bulk of our Grenache, and a significant chunk of our Roussanne.  We figured that anything that we could bring in that was ready we should, to avoid a rush after the frost. 

After the frosts, it warmed up again nicely and last week we brought in the rest of our Grenache, some more Roussanne from the frost-impacted section of Nipple Flat, and our first Mourvedre.  It only looks like the frost really hit the coolest sections near Tablas Creek and the bottoms of some larger hills.  But, in those sections, the vine leaves are dried and brown, the grapes are starting to fall away from the clusters, and there's no point leaving them out.  Most were ready anyway.

We're now done with our Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Vermentino, Syrah, Grenache and Tannat.  It gives us an opportunity to compare yields with last year.  The picture is not particularly pretty:

Grape 2008 Yields (tons) 2007 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 19.4 9.2 +110.9%
Marsanne 9.8 6.2 +58.1%
Grenache Blanc 23.5 19.6 +19.9%
Picpoul Blanc 6.6 4.9 +34.7%
Vermentino 2.8 3.9 -28.2%
Grenache 45.6 54.8 -16.8%
Tannat 5.4 5.5 -1.9%
Syrah 30.1 41.6 -27.6%
Total 143.2 145.7

At this stage of harvest, any assessment is necessarily a snapshot.  We are still waiting for most of our Mourvedre, much of our Roussanne and some of our Counoise.  Still, it appears that the later-ripening varieties are if anything going to be below last year's quantities.  So, our hopes that yields would recover from 2007's historically low levels do not appear likely to be fulfilled.

In the cellar, we have taken advantage of the unusual year which has produced completely lignified stems in our Mourvedre.  Lignification occurs when stems turn from green to brown, and is one sign of physiological ripeness.  Two photos below show clusters of Mourvedre, with the cluster on the left fully lignified and the one on the right still mostly green:

Harvest_08_oct_0001 Harvest_08_oct_0002

In Paso Robles, grapes generally achieve ripeness (by most measures, including sugar and acid levels, berries softening, and seeds turning brown) while the stems are still green.  So, we de-stem our reds because we feel that fermenting in whole clusters is likely to transfer some green-tasting tannins from the stems into the wine. De-stemming is standard practice at Beaucastel, and we have de-stemmed every year.  Until now.

One of the several novelties of 2008 has been that the stems of our Mourvedre are more lignified than we've ever seen before.  This has allowed us to try some whole cluster fermentation as they do in traditional Bandol. So, we dumped the grapes into an open-top fermenter and have been crushing them by foot.  Cellar Assistant Chelsea Magnusson demonstrates:


We split this Mourvedre lot in half, and did the other half in the traditional de-stemmed method.  We'll keep the lots separate and hopefully be able to isolate the contributions of the whole clusters.

It's interesting to note that in recent years, producers in Bandol have had to abandon their traditional whole-cluster fermentations in favor of destemming.  They suspect that this is because the grapes are achieving sugar ripeness faster than ever before due to a warmer and warmer climate, and the sugar accumulation is outpacing the signs of physiological ripeness.  That we have seen such complete lignification is one of the best pieces of evidence that 2008 is properly termed a cool-climate vintage.  Given that, it's probably not a bad thing that yields have been low.  If we'd had higher yields, we might still be in the early stages of harvest.