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!

Winemaker Neil Collins discusses progress on the 2010 vintage

Early this week, after some light rainfall over the weekend, we had a couple of days where we couldn't pick, but used the time to press off fermenting lots in the cellar and make some space.  National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre caught up with Winemaker Neil Collins to ask him some questions about the (interesting, late, unpredictable and challenging, but ultimately rewarding) harvest so far.

Getting close to harvesting Mourvedre!

We got a new camera at the vineyard today and I decided to take it out into the vineyard to break it in.  It struck me how much progress the vineyard has made in the last few weeks, particularly in the varieties like Mourvedre and Grenache that seemed a long way off even at the beginning of October.  I'll have a longer harvest report next week, but wanted to share two photos that give you a sense of what we're looking for in ripe red grapes.  First, a good sign that the grapes are ripe: look at what the bees are going after.

Bee on Mourvedre 2010

One of the other things we look for is the grapes to start to deflate a little.  At veraison, the berries are fully plump and firm to the touch.  As they ripen, they get softer and softer, and eventually at ripeness they start to look like a balloon from which air has leaked out.  A cluster of Mourvedre from a block we'll pick tomorrow is just right:

Deflating Mourvedre

Finally, one more photo that captures what harvest feels like in the middle of the rush.  We're picking different blocks every day, and there are times where a dozen bins of grapes are sitting together on the crushpad waiting to be processed.  Then the bins are washed and re-stacked, ready for the next vineyard block.  The bin stacks seem unusually high this year!

Bins stacked

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.

Harvest, weeks of September 20 & 27: A warm start to fall and a slow start to the harvest

After our cool summer, the warm weather that began about a week ago has been most welcome.  And although it's been extreme in parts of Southern California (113 in Los Angeles, anyone?) it's just a normal September heat wave here.  We did get up to 104 yesterday, but only 101 the day before and 90s for the previous week.  One more very hot day today, and then it's supposed to moderate into a more normal warm fall weather pattern with highs in the low 90s and lows in the upper 40s.

We've withstood the heat without any significant stress on the vineyard.  This is one reason why having a dry-farmed vineyard, particularly coming off a wet year, is so valuable.  The vines' roots have penetrated so deep in search of water that hot temperatures at the surface have much less impact.  Just driving around local vineyards shows vineyard after irrigated vineyard that looks much worse than it did a week ago: exhausted vines, leaves turning brown, clusters starting to raisin.

The first two weeks of harvest have seen exclusively whites come in.  We've brought in about 6 tons of Vermentino, 8 tons of Viognier, and 5 tons of Grenache Blanc.  So, only 20 tons or so (about 6% of our expected total tonnage) in the first two weeks (about 20% of our expected harvest duration).  It is normal for us to see this sort of leisurely start to harvest, where we pick a few blocks, wait a few days, pick a few more, and wait some more.  Typically, about two weeks after the first grapes come in, we're in the thick of it. 

This year looks similar.  With the recent heat, we've seen a nice increase in the sugar levels of the vineyard, but still maintained the good acids that have characterized this moderate vintage.  It looks like several vineyard blocks are getting close, including Syrah, Marsanne, and much more of all the varieties that we've started picking. With so much nearly ready, Neil, Ryan and Chelsea are keeping a master list of what's getting close and working through it block by block.

In addition to a few more tons of Viognier, we did get our first red into the cellar today: Pinot Noir from the 2.5 acre vineyard around my parents' house in Templeton.  It's cooler there than it is at Tablas (often 10 degrees or more) and so when they were deciding what to plant they decided on the cool-loving Pinot Noir.  We've been watching the vines mature over the past three years, and got our first small (1.04 ton) harvest off the block this morning.  The clusters looked great, tiny and flavorful, and they're fermenting in a macro-bin in the winery.


It's almost a tease to start with so little red.  The cellar smells different when you have reds in, both deeper and fruitier, and of course we have a different suite of equipment out, including sorting table and destemmer, ladders and punch-down tools.  We're all ready for the reds to come in in earnest.  It shouldn't be long now.

One last photo, of the bin of Pinot Noir stems and the fork we use to move them around.  The smell of the Pinot juice was pretty amazing.  Can't wait for Syrah.

Stems and fork

Notes from the Cellar: Harvest 2010 Begins! (AKA Fruit and Football; It Must be Fall)

By Chelsea Magnusson

Experts claim that the (official) first day of autumn is September 22nd.  Typically, I hate to disagree with expert opinion, but my first day of fall was yesterday.  Supporting evidence includes the fact that Sundays and Mondays are now spent watching football, but the primary reason for my autumnal confusion is that we brought in our first pick of fruit yesterday.  For me, that’s fall. 

Vermentino was given the red-carpet treatment yesterday as bin after bin was harvested, unloaded from the vineyard truck, weighed, and pressed.  The feeling of excitement was palpable as everyone settled into their harvest roles. 

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The fruit is harvested by hand and unloaded onto a trailer that will deliver the fruit to the winery

A full bin of fruit ready to go to the winery.

We’ve been waiting at the ready for the last two weeks, drumming our fingers in anticipation for the 2010 harvest to begin.  Everything had been scrubbed, rinsed, pressure washed, polished, organized… and then, it sat.  Finally, Ryan decided he had spent enough time waiting and set out with a mission to find something that was ready to pick.  Sure enough, he found a block of Vermentino that showed a brix (or sugar) reading of 21.0°.  While that may seem awfully low, it’s just right for Vermentino.  We typically harvest this varietal around 21-22°Brix to maintain its characteristic vibrancy, brightness, and playful acidity.  For a point of reference, we tend to harvest whites between 21-24°B and reds anywhere from 22-26°B.  It’s important to keep in mind that a decision to pick is based not just on the brix level of the grapes, but on three main things: the sugar reading, the pH level, and the total acidity.  Together, these three elements determine the ripeness of the berry.

Today, we’re harvesting Viognier.  It may be a slow start, but it’s nice to have some practice getting back into the swing of things.  Since our fall has begun, we’ll be seeing bins of fruit in our sleep.  And on Sunday night, I’ll be watching the Giants play the Colts.  Holy smokes, do I love fall…

The vineyard truck takes its first load of fruit to the winery to be processed.

An updated weather assessment for the 2010 vintage

In late July, I wrote the blog post Refreshingly... brisk? An assessment of the unusual weather of summer 2010 in which I looked at the accumulated weather data for the vintage up to that point, and found that it fell most similar to the 1999 and 2005 vintages, both cool years but neither exceptionally so.  It was, at that point, quite a bit warmer than 1998, our coolest year on record.  My evaluation was that the vintage was a couple of weeks behind, and my (perhaps optimistic) post on veraison a week or so later adjusted that to maybe as little as a week behind normal.

So, why haven't we started harvest yet?  And why have we still not completed veraison in mid-September?  The answer can be found in comparing the weather since late July with that of past cool years.  In 1998, 1999, and 2005, the weather in August and September heated up considerably.  Take a look at the degree day chart from July 25th, followed by today's:

Weather through july 2010

Weather through september 2010

You'll note that at Tablas Creek, the average year accumulated about 1000 degree days between July 24th and September 15th.  The cooler years were similar, with 1998 accumulating 1148 degree days, 1999 accumulating 840 degree days, and 2005 accumulating 990 degree days.  As for 2010, we've added 839 degree days in that period, the least of any year on the chart.

What has kept the temperatures low?  Persistent onshore flow, which draws the cool air over the Pacific Ocean inland and moderates the warmth of the sun and the inland valleys.  We're in a weather pattern now that feels more like late October than it does like mid-September.  It's beautiful during the day (mid-80's, typically) and downright cold at night.  Night before last bottomed out at 39 degrees, and last night was only a few degrees warmer. 

Are we worried?  A bit.  The last year that saw a similarly cool August (1999) was a drought year, with very low crop levels.  We were never worried about getting our fruit ripe before the rain.  The last two wet years (2005 and 2006) saw very warm August/September periods.  So, we're in somewhat uncharted territory.  But the vineyard looks vibrantly healthy, and the numbers are continuing to move.  There is no el nino forecast for this winter, so we're hopeful we won't see unusually early rain.  And all the work that we've done in getting the vineyard in good shape this year means that the vines are going to continue to photosynthesize and ripen their grapes later in the season than otherwise.  But we're also taking steps to protect ourselves.  We've spent the last week or so going through the vineyard thinning out any clusters in Grenache, Counoise and Mourvedre that weren't through veraison.  This will lighten the load on the vines and should accelerate the ripening of the remaining clusters. 

We have one additional element in our favor.  Our location is relatively shielded from ocean influence, despite our position at the far west of the Paso Robles AVA, because of the unbroken height of the Santa Lucia range to our west.  The photo below, taken last week looking west from the middle of the vineyard, shows the Santa Lucia Mountains holding back the coastal fog.  They keep us sunny even as other parts of coastal California sit in the gloom.

Clouds over santa lucias

Our best guess at this point is that we'll start to see a little trickling of some whites (Viognier, Vermentino, and Chardonnay) at the end of this week and next week.  We're not expecting much in the way of reds before October, and are thinking that we're likely to see only Syrah in the first half of October.  The second half of October will be challenging, to say the least.  Still, after another week or so of weather more or less what we are seeing now, it's forecast to warm up. Hopefully, the heat will stick around for a while.  Fingers crossed, please.

Veraison 2010!

And... (drumroll please) we have veraison for 2010.  It's actually less far behind than we were expecting, more like one week than the two weeks we were late at flowering.  [As points of comparison, I wrote about veraison on July 27, 2007, July 30, 2008 and July 24, 2009.  If you're interested in learning more of the science behind what happens at veraison, check out particularly the 2007 post.]

We've had ideal ripening weather for the last week or so, with highs in the upper 80s and low 90s, cool nights, and sun.  As usual, the Syrah is furthest along.  We saw our first red berry last Friday (July 30th) and clusters are coloring up rapidly at this point:


It's important to remember that even as some clusters are coloring up, there are others on the same vine that are still all green.  From an extended ramble through the vineyard this morning, I'd estimate that we're probably 30% through veraison in the Syrah:


Oddly, the other variety in which we're seeing significant veraison is Mourvedre, which is typically our last varietal harvested.  The typical spread in veraison times (about 3 weeks) is not as great as the typical spread in harvest times (about 2 months) so it's not an indicator that we'll harvest everything at the same time.  Still, it's a surprise to see it go before Grenache.  Note the couple of exposed stems, a sign that either (more likely) birds or (less likely but possible) winemakers have keyed in on and tasted the ripest berries:


Finally, one other photo of Mourvedre shows how uneven the veraison process is even within a single cluster.  I'd estimate about 20% veraison in Mourvedre overall, but clusters can have berries that are purple and sweet, purple and sour, and green all at the same time:


As for the other red varieties, well, Ryan reports that there is the first sign of veraison in Grenache, but I couldn't find it in my walk this morning.  And Counoise, which is always late going through veraison, doesn't appear to have started yet.

The fact that we've actually caught up somewhat in what is the second-coolest summer since 1997 is a great indicator of the weaknesses of using a measurement like growing degree days to measure ripening conditions.  The hottest days are not good for photosynthesis; above about 95 degrees, most grapevines stop photosynthesizing as they close the pores in their leaves to conserve moisture.  So while you can get dehydration in periods of extreme heat, you don't get physiological ripening.

Still, I'm glad we're in Paso Robles and not in the North Coast.  The reports I'm hearing from Napa and Sonoma are of days spent socked in by fog, temperatures topping out in the 60s and 70s and ripening three to four weeks behind normal.  I'm all for cool weather maintaining good acids, but grapevines do need sun.  I just hope that if things stand as they are now, reviewers will take the time to evaluate the different regions of California on their own merits and not be tempted to paint with an over-broad brush.