Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Syrah
A video tour of the new addition to Tablas Creek

Harvest, weeks of October 4 and 11: What else? More crazy in 2010.

In the past two weeks since my last harvest report, we've had our two largest-ever harvest days, three days that topped out near 110, two days of rain that topped out near 60 and a week-long pause in harvesting, and the resumption of beautiful weather that suggests that these next couple of weeks are going to be the cornerstones of a beautiful vintage.  But it's clear to me that this is a vintage that will separate the men from the boys, or perhaps less colorfully the wineries who have the resources and responsiveness to react quickly to changing conditions from those who don't.

Some vintages (read: 2007) are vintages where you almost can't make a mistake.  Winter drought naturally limits yields, summer ripening is steady and predictable, and the weather during harvest is free of rain and free of heat spikes that put pressure on vineyard labor supplies and cellar space.  If there is an anti-2007, it could be this year.  Ample winter rains and lack of spring frosts encouraged vineyards to set heavy crops.  A very cool summer put the vines further behind.  Just when many vineyard owners were panicking that their fruit would never get ripe (and in many cases pulling far too much of their leaf canopy to speed ripening) we got a late September heat spike that lasted 10 days and pushed into triple digits the last five days of this spike.  Many vineyards suffered sunburn, and vines that weren't healthy enough shut down and dehydrated.  Then, last Tuesday and Wednesday, a cut-off low meandered over the Central Coast and brought about a quarter-inch of rain each day along with very cool daytime temperatures. 

It's not unusual that in a cool year a harvest-time heat spike can produce rapid ripening.  We found that by the last couple of days of September (about halfway through the spike) virtually all our Viognier and Syrah was ripe.  We crushed nearly 30 tons of grapes both Thursday, September 30th and Friday, October 1st, and picked Saturday, Sunday and Monday as well.  In that five-day push, we brought 108 tons of grapes into the cellar.  To put that rush in perspective, our total harvest in 2009 was 198 tons, and that came in over 63 days.  One of the bins of Syrah is below, looking pretty in the sun:

Syrah in bin

While 100 tons in five days may be nothing for a big winery, it's unprecedented for us, and puts a lot of stress on the cellar.  Reds are actually easier to deal with than whites, because they can be run quickly through the de-stemmer and pumped into tanks to ferment.  This can happen as fast as bins of grapes can be brought into the cellar.  Of course, those tanks have to be pumped over or punched down twice a day, but that can be done.  Whites have to be pressed, and the press is only so big and has to be run for its full three-hour cycle and then emptied before more can be loaded in.  We've never before run more than three white press loads per day; during that rush we were running four and not finishing pressing whites until 9pm. Neil, Ryan, Chelsea and the rest of the cellar crew were looking a little ragged by the end, and I'm sure were feeling worse.

Then the weather broke, we got a little rain, and we haven't harvested for a week.  We think that in the end, the rain will have been a good thing.  The vines were starting to show signs of stress, and rain helps restore some balance, reduce risk of raisining, take off the pressure on sugar levels and let physiological maturity come more gradually.  Of course, it can also lead to rot, particularly if the weather stays humid or water gets trapped in tight grape clusters.  We were fortunate that the clouds blew out and the sun returned, and we accelerated the drying process by turning on our frost-protection fans and taking our four-wheelers through the vineyard with the sprayer fans going though no spray attached.  I jokingly asked Ryan if we were going out with hairdryers and it turned out that I wasn't so far from the truth (though the air is not heated).

This lull has given us a chance to press off the Syrah that came in earlier in harvest, to get the wine into barrel, and to free up tanks for the Grenache and Mourvedre that's about to arrive.  Colors look wonderful on the wines we're pressing, and aromatics are amazing.  This is the best time of year to walk through the cellar; everything smells good.

Yields look perfect, betwee 3 and 3.5 tons per acre throughout the property.  This is low enough to give the wines concentration, but high enough to keep them balanced and neither too extracted nor too alcoholic.  Acid levels are slightly above normal, which is great because it means we don't have to adjust the acidity to keep the flavors in balance.  Sugars are slightly lower than normal, and we expect to make a few reds under 14% alcohol this year as well as the majority of our whites. 

Harvesting will recommence tomorrow under ideal weather conditions: days in the low 90s and nights in the low 50s.  This weather is supposed to extend at least two weeks, with a minor interlude of cooler but still sunny weather next weekend.  We couldn't ask for anything better right now.