Notes from Harvest at Closson Chase: decisions, decisions…

The last chardonnay grapes at Closson Chase vineyard, in Prince Edward County, just before they were picked on October 17

The last chardonnay grapes at Closson Chase vineyard, in Prince Edward County, just before they were picked on October 17

I know I was supposed to write more about the harvest I took part in at Closson Chase, last week, but you know what? That stuff was tiring.

For a guy my height (6’4″), picking low-lying grapes for several hours is rather tough on the knees and back. And when you follow all that picking with a couple of hours of punchdowns, where you push the cap of grape skins, pips and pressed pulp back down into the juice, along with pressing grapes, cleaning and stacking picking baskets, hydrating barrels to make sure they don’t leak and get them ready to receive the pressed and racked juice… It makes for quite a full  day.

After answering the day’s e-mails and phone calls, and following up on that day job thing, there wasn’t much fuel left for blogging.

But boy did I enjoy it. There was a great, satisfying fatigue that came with doing something that concrete and clear. To use an overused phrase, it feels real.

Anyhow, being too tired to write as I went has given me a bit more time to think about the whole process I’ve been learning about and working my way through.

On a general basis, making wine appears to me more and more as a series of minute and major decisions that all influence the final result. A lot of things you don’t control: I’m sure any winemaker working in the Northeast corner of North America would have turned the heat up a bit, over this last summer, and taken several days of rain off in October.

What you get to choose

Within that framework, however, you can take a lot of decisions that will influence the end result. How you manage the vines, yields, treatments (organic or not, agressive or not-so agressive, etc.), mowing between and under the rows, etc., all that will influence ripeness, character, health of the grapes. And thus, the taste and quality of the wine.

Once you get those grapes, you have to decide how you will press them – how quickly or slowly, with how much pressure, to get how much juice (amount of liquid to the weight of grapes), etc. – then rack them (to get gross lees out of the juice), and where you ferment them (in tank or in barrel). Knowing when to stop the press – before greener, less desirable flavors get into the juice, especially – is an important part of the process.

If you choose to age the wine in oak, that particular process isn’t a one-dimensional process, or a simple question of old vs new, American vs French (there’s also Slovenian, Hungarian, Canadian). Choosing your oak barrels is, in itself, a much more complicated question than one would think at first. Every single barrel smells diffferent, feels different, and brings its own contribution to the wine it will bring to maturity. If you narrow it down to, say, French oak, you still have quite a range to choose from.

Barrels for the 2009 harvest in the cellar at Closson Chase

Barrels for the 2009 harvest in the cellar at Closson Chase

That’s what I found out a couple of weeks before the chardonnay was to be harvested (pinot noir was already being picked for sparkling wine). That’s when I came down to start the experiment that will allow me to make a barrel of Prince Edward County chardonnay from the grapes at Closson Chase Vineyards. Since this was to be a barrel-fermented wine, the first step before picking grapes was choosing a barrel, which meant going down to the cellar with Deborah Paskus, the winegrower and winemaker at CCV, and smelling a lot of barrels, to narrow the whole thing down to one. Or two.

So I smelled all sorts of barrels: Dargaud and Jaegle, Barthomieu, François Frères, Ermitage, Damy… Some I thought were too intense, some just didn’t say much to me, and one had it juuuuust right. A touch spicy, but also very fresh and tempting. Something that, I hope, will impart character to the wine without overwhelming it. This particular Dargaud barrel was the one that seemed most likely to do so for me: I checked out two other Dargauds that each had their own character, but didn’t have quite the same aroma and feeling.

The older Dargaud and Jaegle barrel I picked for the Closson Chase chardonnay from the Western end of the South Clos, which I'll be following from grape to finished wine, over the coming months..

The older Dargaud and Jaegle barrel I picked for the Closson Chase chardonnay from the Western end of the South Clos, which I'll be following from grape to finished wine, over the coming months..

To get a sense of how different grapes from a different place would behave, Deborah Paskus also enjoined me to pick a second barrel to be used with chardonnay from older vines located in the Niagara region. A barrel from François Frères and an old Barthomieu are the two I narrowed it down to, at this point. As I’m writing this, the Barthomieu seems to be gaining an edge, in my mind.

That second barrel is likely to go back in the Beamsville Bench chardonnay Deborah Paksus also makes, but it will be interesting to follow it too.

As far as grapes were concerned, I had my choice too. From day to day, you get grapes from different sections of the vineyard, with vines of different ages showing different maturity levels, and juice that doesn’t exactly taste the same. Ater picking grapes from the East end of the vineyard, I walked down the rows, towards the West, and tasted berries, here and there, before finally deciding that I preferred what I tasted at the far West end of the vineyard.

When we pressed the grapes from that end of the vineyard, on October 18, the acidity, flavors and concentration (red delicious apple, spice) felt just right. Not necessarily better than what was picked at the eastern end of the vineyard, but just something that seeemed more in tune with what I was aiming for. And the brix was even a little higher than we expected.

Juice being collected from the Vaslin bladder press. If it seems brown, that's because it is: the winemaking process will bring it to that clear, pale gold color we so love.

Juice being collected from the Vaslin bladder press. If it seems brown, that's because it is: the winemaking process will bring it to that clear, pale gold color we so love.

I’m judging all that on instinct, of course, and have the great luck of being able to vet those choices with an experienced professional who will follow up on what I’m doing. Makes me feel a lot more secure than if I had to make all these choices completely by myself.

At this point, the juice has now been poured into “my” barrel, a 225-liter oak barrique. Fermentation should start kicking in soon. I’ll check up on it this week. Can’t wait to see where it’s at.

A North American Harvest

Wines & Vines magazine is a very thorough and interesting professional source of information about the wine world, especially about the North American wine industry. That is quite clear when you look at the details of their 2007 harvest report on just about every single wine producing region in the US and Canada. From the November 2006 frosts in British Columbia and Spring 2007 frosts in much of the Central US, to the higher than average mealybug infestations in Sonoma County, or to the growth in the number of wineries in the Clarksburg AVA, it’s all in there.

One thing to note is how many regions were affected by drought, which reduced yields (but generally provided high quality, healthy grapes). Irrigation was often limited because of reduced availability of water – which may not all be bad news, quality-wise. Dry farming estates may simply be more realistic than other producers, in the long run.

First steps in Matassa

I’m spending some great time with Tom Lubbe at Domaine Matassa in Calce, at the heart of the mountaineous back country behind Perpignan, in the Roussillon. I was hoping to do full days of harvesting, but the forces of nature decided otherwise. More precisely, boars had started to eat their way through the two mountain vineyards that Tom had been keeping for last, and the grapes had to be brought in earlier than ever before, to avoid losing the lot. There are still a few grapes here and there, which I’m looking to get to tomorrow, but the huge, eighteen-hour days of harvesting are done with.

There’s plenty of other work to be done in the cellars, though. Bottling and packing cuvées from previous years, moving wine from one tank to the next, or from tanks to barrels, or doing the pigeage. Pigeage consists of punching down the chapeau (the hat, litterally) of grapes, skins and pips that is fermenting in the tanks with the juice. It notably helps control the temperature of the fermentation, as the chapeau gets hotter than the juice. And it helps work the tannins and flavor components into the juice.

In a small domaine like Matassa, an exceptional biodynamic operation whose wines show freshness rarely seen in such warm climate, this is done by hand. Or rather, by feet. And legs. The technique consists of (more…)