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.

Harvesting in Prince Edward County, just in time for new rules on Ontario wines

I’d call that an auspicious sign. Just as I was heading to the vineyards of Prince Edward County to harvest chardonnay at Closson Chase, on Tuesday evening, the Ontario government came out with new rules governing VQA and Cellared in Canada wines.

These new rules give a push forward to VQA wines by introducing financial support – with revenue generated from a new tax on Cellared in Canada wines. They also increase the amount of Canadian wine that will have to go in the CiC bottlings, from 30% to 40%, before cancelling the content requirements by 2014. In the meantime, the grape pricing and marketing mechanisms will be reviewed, all in the hopes that by then, growers will be turning more and more towards producing grapes for VQA wines, with different varieties and better quality.

Although it will have to be seen how all this plays out over the next five years, it is a move in the right direction, and a clear signal to everyone that the future of the industry is in VQA, 100% Ontario wine, rather than in the vague and deceptive Cellared in Canada category.

I’m very happy to hear that, especially since that will allow me to concentrate on actual Ontario (and Quebec) wines for the rest of Regional Wine Week.

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As I’ve now started harvesting chardonnay with the whole team at Closson Chase. The grapes went through a tough late season, with very frequent rain causing an onset of botrytis that has rotten a number of bunches. The fruit that is healthy (and there is still plenty of that) tastes grate and is ripe, with yellow skins, brown pips and brown (or browning) stems. Sugars won’t be as high as, say, in the gorgeous 2007 vintage, but the phenological ripeness, which determines a lot in the flavor profile of the grapes and wines, is clearly there.

I’m very glad to get the chance to work alongside Deborah Paskus, one of Ontario’s most solid and experienced winemakers. I interviewed Deborah in January for an En Route magazine article on Canadian winemakers, tasted some of her wines, and got into a very stimulating e-mail conversation about winemaking that eventually led me to visit Prince Edward County in July. The conversation led to a business association, as the wine import agency I’m associated with in Quebec, Insolite Importation, will bring Closson Chase wines to the Quebec market. And in that context, here I am to learn more about growing grapes and making wines with someone who really knows her stuff.

Just read what Jancis Robinson recently had to say about Closson Chase chardonnays:

There’s a highly successful unoaked Chablis style called Sans Chêne as well as regrettably small volumes of an oak-aged bottling. We have served them blind to wine professionals with top white burgundies and, quite literally, amazed and astounded our friends.

You can also check out Beppi Crosariol’s September Globe and Mail article on Prince Edward County, where he reviews two of Deborah Paskus’ chardonnays, and writes about the fact that the County, as a winemaking region, is now coming of age, as vineyards are starting to mature and winemakers are getting a better sense of their terroir.

I certainly agree. While my preference and affinities go with Deborah Paskus’ work at Closson Chase, I have liked a lot of what I tasted in July (and again in September) in various other wineries. One of the very best wines I tasted was Long Dog’s 2007 Otto Riserva pinot noir, a gorgeous, young and elegant red with lots of bright red fruit, good balance and a mineral backbone brought forth by the beautiful limestone that makes Prince Edward County soils so great for wine growing.

There were a lot more. Like By Chadsey’s Cairns’ 2007 Chenin Blanc, which had the lanolin and stone fruit profile typical of that great Loire grape, on a bracing acidity that will surely temper itself well over the years. Norman Hardie’s mineral riesling and refreshing Melon de Bourgogne, Rosehall Run’s lovely Sullyzwicker rosé and very good pinot noir, Sandbank’s fresh and aromatic vidal or Huff Estate’s pleasant whites also easily come to mind.

I’d go into more detail, but I gotta run, now. The press awaits at Closson Chase, as we will start pressing the grapes picked yesterday. I’ll have more to report on that tonight. And more on Prince Edward County wines in general.