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October 2010
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Biodynamics and dry-farming: repairing the failings of "modern" viticulture

Week before last, I had the privilege of representing Tablas Creek at the Yosemite Vintners' Holidays.  This event (which I wrote about a few months back in my post 5 great events for food&wine lovers) was as usual a treat, with unexpectedly warm weather, about 175 attendees at our session and a wonderful culminating gala dinner that was probably the best meal I've seen the Ahwahnee dining room turn out.  Each attending winery is expected to present a seminar, with the topic of their choosing, and I spoke about the great 2007 vintage in the Rhone and in Paso Robles, and showed our 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, as well as the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape red and white from 2007.

One of the pleasures of this great event is the opportunity to hear the presentations of the other speakers.  At most wine festivals, talks and tastings happen simultaneously, but the leisurely pace of the Vintners' Holidays allows the attendees to sit in on the other speakers' talks.  I was followed by John Williams, the winemaker and proprietor of Frog's Leap, who chose the intriguing topic "The Worst Wine Tasting Ever: A Retrospective Tasting & Discussion of Napa Valley’s Five Worst Years in the Last Twenty-Five Years".  He showed Frog's Leap Cabernet from vintages widely panned by the critics: 1988, 1989, 1998, 2000, and 2003 [ed. note: the original version of this article mistakenly listed 1990 rather than 1988].  The older wines were very pretty, and John made the point that what often makes a Cabernet appealing when young (lush fruit, soft tannins, low acidity) don't necessarily carry through in an appealing way as that wine ages, while some of the characteristics of "lesser" vintages (particularly higher tannin levels and higher acidity) can actually allow a wine to age gracefully.  Of course, a wine needs a certain level of concentration to age whatever its other characteristics, and it seems to me that this flaw is one that never gets better with time.

But apart from John's point about the ageability of "lesser" vintages -- a point on which he convinced me -- what I took away from his presentation was his inspiringly full-throated defense of traditional viticulture.  Frog's Leap has been farming organically for more than two decades, and biodynamically for roughly a decade.  What's more, they dry farm every acre they control, use exclusively native yeasts in their winemaking, and value balance over power.  Why?  His argument went more or less like this:

Grapevines, like most other plants and animals, are principally concerned with reproduction.  It is in their interest to get their fruit ripe, because then the fruit tastes good enough that birds will choose to eat their berries and spread their seeds more widely than those of the plants they're competing with.  How does it know what the season is, and what it has to do to get its fruit ripe?  It measures the angle of the sun, the amount of water in the soil, the actions of the other plants and the pheromones of the insects in its ecosystem.  But what might be termed "modern" viticulture (the use of irrigation, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, even aggressive crop-thinning and canopy management) has divorced a grapevine from its environment and therefore confused its natural processes, leading to grapes that are over-sugared and under-flavored at ripeness.

John used the analogy of a tomato.  A modern grocery store tomato is grown hydroponically, with fertilizer and water given at regular intervals.  When you get it home, it has very little flavor, so you let it get riper and riper on your windowsill.  It does continue to accumulate sugar, but while it may get as sweet or sweeter, it won't ever have the intensity of flavor and the balance of sweetness and acidity of a tomato grown to ripeness in real dirt in your back yard.  And too many grapevines in California are grown in conditions that are effectively hydroponic thanks to regular irrigation.  Of course, there are parts of the state where unirrigated viticulture would be impossible.  But even in places like Napa Valley, whose mountain appellations receive something like 40 inches of water per year, irrigation is the norm.  And giving a grapevine regular water begins a self-perpetuating cycle.  The vine will grow more roots where there is water, and those where there is no water will wither.  Since irrigation is typically done on a schedule, sometimes as often as every week, nearly all this root growth is concentrated at the surface.  These roots can't get the minerals they need from the small cone of moisture under an irrigation line, so growers have to add fertilizer to the irrigation.  These roots are also sensors for plant and animal activity that vary with the seasons, but the topsoil of a modern vineyard is nearly devoid of life thanks to the actions of herbicides (for weed control) and pesticides (for insect control).  So grapevines continue to accumulate sugar but don't receive the signals that they rely on to move their grapes to ripeness.  To help accelerate ripening, it's normal for vineyard managers to begin to remove leaves in August, which further reduces a vine's sensory inputs.  The net result is grapes that have to be left on the vine longer for a grapevine to get the appropriate signals that they should ripen the seeds and produce the flavors winemakers want.

I hadn't heard this explanation before correlating irrigation and over-alcoholic wines.  But it makes good sense to me.  We've long been advocates of dry-farming and organic viticulture for their ability to stimulate grapevines to pull character of place out of the vineyard and give it to the grapes they produce.  And more and more I'm hearing people comment how remarkable it is that the alcohols in Tablas Creek's wines are a point or more lower than our neighbors, yet the wines have plenty of intensity and great balance.  Is the fact that we dry-farm a significant factor in this difference?  It seems likely to me.

Ladybug So how does a vineyard hope to restore balance?  Enter biodynamics.  Biodynamic farming gets a lot of press for being a little on the touchy-feely side, with homeopathic applications of micronutrients that are supposed to be implemented based on the lunar calendar.  But when John was asked about burying manure-filled cow horns (one of the most often noted biodynamic applications) he dismissed it as little more than a distraction.  The vast majority of biodynamics, he said, is the effort to restore a plant's natural abilities to sense and respond to a vibrant environment.  This includes restoring its enviroment first by eliminating chemical applications that destroy plant and animal life and then by building life back into the soil through composting, cover cropping and insect habitat creation.  These healthier soils are also better at retaining moisture.

Often, moments like this help me reaffirm the choices we've already made.  Occasionally, they suggest new directions.  We've been farming organically since we founded Tablas Creek in 1989.  We've dry-farmed most vintages, and set up our irrigation to mimic natural rainfall patterns in the years when we couldn't.  We plant a vibrant cover crop each winter, and Neil, Ryan, David and the rest of the vineyard team have been increasingly focused on creating habitats in unused parcels.  But it was just last year that we started farming 20 acres biodynamically.  I have always focused more on the homeopathic elements of biodynamics, and have been interested -- in a skeptical way -- to see what we found were the differences.  But after hearing John Williams speak, and after tasting several Frog's Leap wines that I found noteworthy for their balance and character over the three-day event, I think my position may be changing.  And I am more convinced than ever that dry-farming is perhaps the most important key to making wines of character, balance, and, yes, sustainability.

Harvest 2010 Recap and Assessment: Low Sugars, Good Yields and Great Flavors

Harvest 2010 is in the barn.  Done.  Finally.  It was a late harvest all-around, about 3 weeks late at the beginning and 2 weeks at the end.  We began harvest with a little Vermentino on September 16th, but didn't really get into significant picking until October.  The 47 tons we harvested in September, 253 tons in October, and 67 tons in November were by percentage the least in September and the most in November in the last decade.  Below, Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi presents the last cluster of harvest.  As usual, Mourvedre brings us home.


Yields in 2010 were excellent.  Over the entire 105 producing acres, we harvested 368 tons, which is almost exactly the 3.5 tons per acre that we feel allows our vineyard to produce its best expression of place.  Too much less than that can make wines so powerfully structured that they mask some of the expression of the soil, and too much more starts to compromise concentration.  Excellent.  Overall, the harvest is our largest ever, but in yield per acre trails slightly the harvests of 2005 and 2006 (which both ended up around 315 tons off of 90 producing acres).  The quantities that we have in the cellar are particularly welcome after the three low-yielding years of 2007, 2008 and (particularly) 2009, when we harvested just under 200 tons, or 1.8 tons per acre.

Every varietal saw increased yields except Roussanne.  Some of the Roussanne that was out in the vineyard never got ripe enough to pick in this cool year, and because it sprouts late and is resistant to frost, it was less impacted by the conditions in 2009 than many other varieties.  Still, we're going to be focusing even more attention on the health of our Roussanne blocks over the next year.  By varietal, our yields were:

Grape 2010 Yields (tons) 2009 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 22.5 12.2 +84.4%
Marsanne 13.2
Grenache Blanc 34.8
Picpoul Blanc 9.4
Vermentino 19.1
Total Whites 132.9
Grenache 71.1
Syrah 47.7
Mourvedre 69.3
Tannat 14.5
Counoise 16.8
Total Reds 219.4
Total 352.3

With the cool summer and the long hang time, we were able to harvest the grapes at optimal ripeness at slightly lower sugar levels than last year. This is in fact the third consecutive year that our average sugar levels at harvest have declined:

2007: 24.42 avg. Brix
2008: 23.87 avg. Brix
2009: 23.42 avg. Brix
2010: 22.68 avg. Brix

Delving deeper into the sugar levels, the average sugars at harvest of our principal varieties this year were:

Counoise: 21.9
Grenache Rouge: 24.6
Grenache Blanc: 21.3
Marsanne: 19.7
Mourvèdre: 22.7
Picpoul Blanc: 20.4
Roussanne: 21.5
Syrah: 23.9
Tannat: 24.4
Vermentino: 20.5
Viognier: 22.3

Summing across color, our average sugar level of our whites was 21.2 Brix and our reds was 23.6 Brix.  These levels suggest that we'll make some whites in the 12.5% alcohol range this year, with none likely to approach 14%.  Our reds should sit between 14% and 14.5%, and it's even possible a wine or two might be around 13.5% alcohol.  If sugar levels have to be somewhat higher to get the flavors and concentrations that we like, we're fine with that as long as the grapes are in balance.  But if we can get the flavors that we like with such moderate alcohol levels, then halleleujah.

The more I hear about what happened elsewhere in California this year, the more convinced I become that Paso Robles has a chance to make the state's best wines.  I said as much in a recent interview with Mary Ann Worobiec of the Wine Spectator.  We had a cool summer, but it was only rarely foggy, and the clement weather we had in early November meant that our latest-ripening grapes still had conditions in which they could ripen.  We had a little rain during harvest, but much less than the North Coast and it was always followed by sun and wind.  We had some heat stress in late September, but less severe than in Napa or Sonoma, and we hadn't overreacted to the cool summer by pulling lots of canopy and exposing the clusters to sunburn.

And the quality of the vintage does look very strong. Winemaker Ryan Hebert commented that he doesn't "think there's a dog in the cellar".  We're seeing very deep colors off the reds and tremendous aromatics off of everything.  Mid-November is usually a lousy time to ask winemakers what they think of their recently-completed harvest; the reds assume richness with time, and nearly every lot is somewhere in the middle of fermentation and at something of an awkward stage.  Plus, winemakers nearly always focus on the lots that they're worried about, and so to find a winemaker who's feeling positive about what's in the cellar is a very good sign.  We're all looking forward to getting to know 2010 a little better over the coming weeks and months.

Winemaker Ryan Hebert discusses the end of the 2010 Harvest

With the arrival this past weekend of our last significant Mourvedre block, harvest 2010 is more or less in the books.  We have been going through the vineyard this week and cleaning up odd bits here and there in a leisurely fashion, but we can at last be confident we've made it.  We are under no illusions that we got lucky.  Starting harvest three weeks late always puts you at risk.  But we've been saved by the overall wonderful weather that we've seen in early November, and the nearly 60 tons that we've harvested this month has looked terrific.

You can look forward to two more pieces on the 2010 harvest next week: one a detailed recap of the results and a varietal-by-varietal analysis of what we've seen, and then a round-table video discussion with our winemaking team about their impressions.  But first, with the pace slowing down in the cellar, Tommy Oldre caught up with Winemaker Ryan Hebert to talk to him about how the harvest wrapped up and to get his thoughts on what we can tell so far about the vintage's character based on the wines in the cellar.

Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed

We're making Vin de Paille this year for the first time since 2007.  For those of you who don't know (we don't make much of the Vin de Paille, and it generally doesn't make it into distribution) Vin de Paille is a process of making dessert wines.  Grape bunches are laid on straw to dehydrate in the sun, and fermented only when they get to the desired concentration.  The name in french means "wine of straw".

We started making Vin de Paille out of Roussanne with the 2003 vintage, and continued to make whites in 2004, 2005 and 2006.  We made a red out of Mourvedre also in 2003, and then again in 2005, 2006 and 2007.  We haven't made either wine the last two years due to wanting to protect our dry wines given the short crops we've faced.  But with the resumption of healthy yields this year, we're thrilled to be able to begin again.

Vin de Paille is not the easiest method of making dessert wines.  In fact, it's so labor intensive that hardly anyone does it.  But the other dessert wine options weren't practical here.  Roughly in the order of easiest to hardest, the common methods of making dessert wine are:

  • Late harvest: This is probably the easiest method; you just leave the grapes on the vine an extra few weeks so that they accumulate more sugar.  The downside is that as you accumulate sugar, you also lose acidity, and in an area where the sun is intense at the end of harvest (like Paso Robles) you can end up with grapes that taste cooked.  We generally haven't liked the late harvest wines we've had from Paso Robles, or those we've had from Rhone varieties.
  • Fortified: Alcohol above about a 17% concentration is fatal to yeasts.  So, one way of keeping sweetness in wine is to add brandy or neutral spirits to wine in mid-fermentation to get the alcohol concentration up to around 20% or so.  This is what is done in Port and Banyuls.  But the result is that you end up with a much more alcoholic drink, which typically has a fiery aftertaste, and the sweetness often has an artificial quality to it because it was stopped mid-fermentation.  We have not much liked the California port-style wines we've tried.
  • Botrytis: Botrytis is a fungus that dehydrates the grapes without donating spoilage flavors (for this, it's sometimes called "noble rot").  It's the typical means by which Sauternes grapes are concentrated, as well as many German and Alsacian dessert wines and Tokaji in Hungary.  Unfortunately, Paso Robles is generally too dry to allow botrytis to flourish, and while some vineyard owners will seed their land with botrytis spores, this can have negative consequences in future years.  Overall, it seemed too risky and difficult for us to attempt artificially here.
  • Ice Wine: Ice wines are made in colder regions like Germany and the Great Lakes regions of New York and Ontario.  Berries are harvested, typically in December, still frozen after a cold night and pressed immediately.  Because the ice crystals stay solid in the press, the juice that comes out is sweeter and more concentrated than it otherwise would have been.  Unfortunately, while Paso Robles does get cold at night, our first hard freezes are typically a month too late, after any grapes still hanging out in the vineyard would have been cooked by the sun.

So, we returned to the models of the Rhone Valley, where vin de paille has been made for centuries in the northern Rhone appellation of Hermitage.  Both Roussanne and Marsanne take well to this technique, and get an intense honeyed stone fruit character that makes for wonderful drinking.  Unfortunately, the process is very labor intensive.  Grapes have to be carefully harvested by hand and then carried in their picking baskets down to where they'll be laid onto straw.  Straw is a desirable bedding because it allows air to circulate and naturally resists mold.  The clusters have to be brought to the straw by hand; they can't be dumped into picking bins and driven down because the weight of the clusters on top will bruise the bottom clusters sufficiently that they'll rot rather than drying.  The clusters have to be carefully chosen to not have any imperfections or rot because rot can spread quickly to other clusters, and broken or bruised berries start attracting bees and insects.

After about three weeks on the straw, the clusters are now home to semi-raisins: grapes that have concentrated their sugars to somewhere in the 350-400 grams per liter range.  They're now picked back up and driven up to the winery, where they are pressed and moved to barrel (if they're whites) or crushed by foot in a small bin (if they're reds) and allowed to macerate for 10 days or so before being pressed into barrel.  The wines then ferment slowly over the next 6 months or so and stopped by the addition of sulfur dioxide when they get to the balance of sweetness, acidity and minerality that we want.  They're typically quite sweet, 150 grams per liter residual sugar or so, but with vibrant acids that give the wines balance.  They tend to have low alcohols, in the 8% - 12% range, which makes them wonderfully refreshing compared to ports or other fortified wines.  And they age, essentially, forever.

Some photos of the grapes in the greenhouse should give you a feel for at least the beginning stages of the process.  As usual, the complete photo album can be found on the Tablas Creek Facebook page.

Grapes are laid down on our greenhouse benches, Roussanne on the left and Mourvedre on the right:

Vindepaille_0001 Vindepaille_0010

Closeups of the clusters after a week in the greenhouse show them starting to dehydrate:

Vindepaille_0005  Vindepaille_0008

The greenhouse benches and the straw allow air to circulate under the clusters as well as on top, which promotes even drying and discourages rot.  I love this photo:


One more shot, taken through the greenhouse door, shows a little better how everything is laid out:


These grapes won't likely see bottle for another couple of years.  But it's great to have the process started again.

Harvest, weeks of October 18 and 25: Hurry up and wait.

In the last two weeks, we've harvested another 99 tons, mostly of Grenache (37 tons), Mourvedre (29 tons) and Roussanne (14 tons).  The weather has alternated between sunny and warm and cool and cloudy, with a little rain on the 23rd and a little more this past weekend.  Still, we're in remarkably good shape compared to wine regions to the north.  We've accumulated just over an inch of rain so far this year, while the North Coast has had two different rainstorms of two inches or more.  And each storm has been followed by sunny, breezy weather, which dried out the clusters and allowed us to resume harvesting just a few days later.

Thus far, we've harvested just over 300 tons off of our vineyard, already 50% more than we did in the tiny 2009 harvest.  Neil and Ryan estimate that we have perhaps another 40-50 tons out that we'll pick, which should give us somewhere between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre off of our 105 producing acres this year -- exactly what we're looking for.

What's left out in the vineyard is Mourvedre (the bulk of what's out), Roussanne, Counoise, and a little bit of Grenache Noir.  In each case, there's likely going to be some fruit that won't make it, where vines have shut down or for whatever reason there is fruit hanging out that isn't ripe and isn't going to get there in the next week or so we have before the rain is forecast to move back in.  We're going to be aided by a late summer high pressure system that is bringing warm weather (low 90s, they say) for the middle portion of this week.

At each point, with rain in the forecast, every vineyard faces the choice of whether to pick blocks that are almost ripe or whether to leave them out and hope that the rain passes without much damage.  And each year that we face this question, we force ourselves to wait.  After all, there's nothing to be gained by bringing in fruit you know isn't up to your standards.  And each year, we've been rewarded for our patience.  This year is no different.  What we've gotten after the rain each time has been beautiful, and we're now very excited about the quality of 2010, with dark colors, wonderful aromatics, and good richness.  It should be a pleasure to blend this year after three years of short crops.

A few photos of the harvest from last week give a sense of what it's been like.  First, a Roussanne cluster, bronzed by the sun and showing the russet color from which it gets its name:


Two longer views down a vine row show you how the season is changing, with leaves on the ground and some of the vine foliage starting to change color.  First, Grenache:


And then, Roussanne:


A Tannat vine's leaves are changing color, providing a burst of red:


The grenache clusters (like the one below, harvested late last week) are massive, particularly compared to smaller-cluster grapes like Syrah. The one pictured below had three separate wings and must have weighed several pounds.


As a contrast to the Grenache cluster, check out a Syrah cluster from the one Syrah block still to harvest.  What you see is absolutely characteristic of Syrah in both its shape and blue-black color.


We expect to be harvesting most of this week, both to bring in more Roussanne, Mourvedre and Counoise for our dry wines and also to provide grapes for our Vin de Paille dessert wines.  A pickup truck showed up today with several bales of straw, which will be placed down on our greenhouse benches in preparation for the labor-intensive Vin de Paille harvest.  Look for photos next week!