Friday, October 22, 2010

How to approach a wine made from hybrid grapes


But of course: You merely walk up and say "Hello!"

Seriously, I am a projector: I tend to project what I know onto some future circumstance, without always realizing how the future circumstance might be very different. If I have a bad wine made from Cayuga (I'm not sure if one exists--that is just an example; in fact, I love the wines I've already made from that grape), I might conclude that ALL Cayuga wines are bad. Similarly, if I read that, for one experienced winemaker in Virginia, Chancellor is too acidic and has objectionable herbaceous notes, I am inclined to write it off my list of potential candidates. (That is a ripe Chancellor cluster, on your right, and that cluster shape is what we call "shouldered," for obvious reasons.)

What I needed to learn--and what I beg you to understand--is that every grape performs differently in each different micro-environment. In the subtle sense, a Viognier wine might taste slightly different from a Viognier wine made by the same maker, from the adjacent row's fruit! This phenomenon is widely known among winemakers, who recognize such differences in selecting their "reserve" wines. But in the strategic sense, a grape can be almost as different as night and day, when planted in widely-varying locations. To use two vinifera examples, just think about a Shiraz grown in the Barossa Valley, in Oz, where the baking heat and unique soil conditions can push it to a tarry, raisiny over-ripeness if it is not picked at the right moment. That same grape in SE France (called Syrah there, of course) might have cool-weather characteristics, such as herbal and pepper qualities. Or, Malbec is a bland blending grape in France, but once it found the high Andes soil and sun, it brought well-deserved fame to Argentina as one of the legitimately greatest grapes on Earth (though I admit it's on a long list). The winemaking practices have similarly dramatic effects on grapes.
Hybrid grapes are no different. They vary just as much, based on site and conditions. Worse, most hybrids do not have centuries of viticulture (grapegrowing) and viniculture (winemaking) experience behind them, as we have with viniferas. Nonetheless, many hybrid wines are "ringing the bell" by winning competitions against vinifera wines. So we must realize that with hybrids, we are deep into an evolutionary learning process, as skilled practitioners continue to advance the art. If we have a Ravat 262 wine that makes us want to throw up, then we need to be careful, perhaps, not to drink that winemaker's Ravat 262 again, but we should also remain open-minded to other Ravat 262 wines. Hey, it's pretty easy to purse your lips and spit a bad wine out!
Thanks to Cliff Ambers, who looked at my compendium of information about various hybrid grapes and commented that, in assessing which grapes to try, I was perhaps putting too much importance upon some comment or other, by some experienced grower or enologist. Whatever they said, four or sixteen states away, might not be true for me. If, during the phylloxer epidemic, the wine lovers in France were drinking so much hybrid wine that it was stealing market share from the major vinifera estates, and the French government finally moved to prohibit hybrid grapes in France, then we can assume that those hybrid wines must have been at least fairly good wines. It would put a drinker on the wrong side of the future, if he or she assumed that there are no good hybrid wines out there.
Here are some grapes in my current trial:
Traminette: This hybrid is half Gewurztraminer, and it retains the glorious Gewurz spiciness and zest, while adding disease resistance (which saves sprays and tractor fuel), earlier ripening, higher yields, and cold-hardiness. Fortunately, I have had AWESOME Traminette wines, and I fervently hope I can duplicate that result here in the Northwest. Bold prediction: You will be hearing a lot about Traminette. I frankly see little reason to grow Gewurz now, except as a heritage grape to preserve the germoplasm.
Cayuga: Also a hardy white hybrid grape which makes awesome wine everywhere, and has already been proved in the Northwest (by me, at least, and perhaps by others). It tends to ripen with acid levels a bit too high, which suggests a light residual sweetness is needed, or it could be blended with a lower-acid grape, or it could be diluted with a small percentage of water. For my trial, that will mean planting some Melody, too, which is not quite as hardy as Cayuga, but it has lower acid and very similar crisp, Riesling-like flavors.
Brianna: A white hybrid grape which yields up pineapple flavors. What's not to like about that? (I have an appointment on Maui with a certain winery which makes award-winning pineapple wine. Please don't laugh ;)
Sandia: A new hybrid resulting from Vitis longii (a wild American grape which grows on sandy creekbanks in Eastern New Mexico) crossed with Cayuga. This one is a red grape which is supposed to taste like watermelon. Again, what's not to like? I may be the only person growing this one for wine, in the US. That's pretty cool. What if it makes a great wine?
Cascade: Another red hybrid that smells and tastes like strawberries. Did you know that grapes are the only fruit that can smell and taste like other fruits? That is likely a major reason so many of us love grapes and grape wines so much. Cascade will hang up to 50 lbs of fruit on one vine, but in some sites it is sensitive to soil-borne viruses. We'll see.
Baco noir: An old red hybrid grape which (like Marechal Foch) has been made into many, many bad wines. But I have heard that if you hit it with 93 degrees during primary fermentation, and give it lots of oak and a long aging period, it tastes like Cab sauv. OK, let's prove it!
Noiret: A new red hybrid (thank you, Cornell U) which one skilled grower in NY's Hudson Valley says is worthless because it "always" has a stewed prune character. But guess what? I am drinking one from NY's Finger Lake region (made by Arbor Hill, in case you want to try one) that is positively delicious. No prune in there, at all. It does have an herbal taste that I haven't yet identified, but also leather, cherries, and earth, as you might expect in a Bordeaux blend (and they have herbal notes, too).
I think you get my point. Grapes and winemaking are so personal to their locations and to the style of the grower and maker . . . Wine is part of an intimate dance, perhaps just as personal as any other activity you can imagine between two partners. The grape and the grower/winemaker have such intimacy. All they need is open-minded consumers, and more time.
Final note: Hybrid grapes are the result of combining the male and female parts from different grapes' flowers, as has been done for centuries. It is NOT gene splicing (genetic engineering) in the modern sense. In fact, all vinifera grapes are the result of natural crosses, or hybridization in the wild.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Coming around to final postings, on the 2010 harvest

Well . . . So many interesting twists and turns, this year. Harvest is ending today. The grapes picked now should make pretty good wine, although many winemakers are buying sugar because the grapes' ripeness levels are not up to the point (21-24 Brix) for the desired level of alcohol. But flavors can develop independently of the sugar level, and this (near-miraculous) long Fall did allow for flavor development.

Bird predation almost completely wiped me out, but I was surprised to read that it also took a very heavy toll on commercial vineyards. One used propane cannons, cap guns, shotgun-wielding employees riding an ATV through the vineyard from dawn to dusk (!), and recorded bird distress cries, and still lost a huge fraction of fruit to the winged pests. Birds know how to worm their way inside of the nets, and they can peck out grapes through the nets. The bird pressure was the worst in over 20 years.

Who will develop a solar-powered hawk-like aircraft which can be programmed (like a Predator drone in Afghanistan) to protect a vineyard? It's hard to eat when a known killer is circling nearby, looking at you.

So, bring on the rains! They are only hours away now. Let's see what develops in bottle, from this almost-disaster, almost-miracle year of 2010.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pinots Past


I am pulling out all my Pinot noir vines. It has nothing to do with the awful vintage conditions of this 2010 year (2010 had the triple witching: started late, stayed cool and wet, and ended early with more cool and wet). I know how much each of you enjoys a good Pinot noir, and so do I. My first planting at our current house was 100% grafted PN, and even my 2010 plan was to keep my little vineyard mostly in PN, while I tried some hybrids, too. I've decided that my site is just not conducive to PN, even in a good year (and there is SO much promise in hybrids). My PN shortcomings are two: Sunlight shortfall, and late-ripening predation. OK, three: the grape is difficult to grow and make consistently good wine from.


Sunlight: PN (like all vinifera) is late-ripening compared to other grape species, and by Oct 10 the sun hours on my vineyard are so few, even on sunny days, that I don't get enough sunshine for full PN ripening (due to shadows from trees to the E, trees to the W, and even my house to the S, which is fine during the summer but by mid-Oct it shades the vineyard until almost noon). In contrast, hybrid grapes ripen about 2-4 weeks earlier, which puts the grapes in full sun for a higher percentage of their natural hang time.

Predation: But more importantly, predation pressure increases exponentially after mid-September, which causes me to lose much of my (unripe) PN fruit. To use 2010 real-life data:

a. I fully netted all my grapes this year, attaching the nets together every 3".

b. I also hung reflective tape, and kept adding to it.

c. I also spread, and renewed, a "scareaway" chemical (organic: it's putrescent bloodmeal), which should keep coons, birds, and deer away.

d. We have a feral cat, and she has been seen catching mice, and presumably she puts some perceived or actual pressure on birds.(I could have, and probably should have, put out fake owls and snakes, but that is about all one can do.)

Still, the deer got in and ate some of my grapes (and tomatoes and beans and squash). I added a chain curtain on my gate and spread some dog poop around, and that deterred the deer for a while. And the birds were getting into the fruit, somehow--perhaps pecking through the nets, perhaps worming their way inside the nets. Through good vineyard management, my clusters had avoided rot (unlike many area vineyards), and the grapes were very slowly getting riper, but the bird pressure just kept increasing. It got so bad that when I checked the vineyard after work on Tuesday, I had lost (visual guess) about 75% of my remaining fruit just on that one day. I flew into action (pardon the pun) and raised the nets and harvested. I had about 120 pounds of fruit hanging, a couple of weeks ago, and I bet I had about 60 pounds hanging on Tuesday morning--still enough to make wine, and I needed to let it hang longer, in order to reach a workable Brix level. But in the end I got only 11 pounds of grapes. 11 pounds, out of 120 pounds! It takes 16 pounds of grapes to make a gallon of wine. And of course the fruit I got wasn't ripe enough to make good Pinot. I've added Regent grapes to it, and some black currants, and it smells very good (is fermenting now; I just pitched MLF to remove the malic acid and then I will supplement with tartaric acid).

The big growers don't have the predation problem to the same percentage extent, because they grow so much fruit that the birds can't eat it all, or at least it would take longer for them to eat it all. Also, in addition to nets they use propane cannons and loud bird distress cries, which aren't exactly available to me in a suburban setting.

I'm not doing this to feed the wildlife.

So, sad to say but I'm pulling out all my PN, and will further expand my planting of hybrids. This gives me an experimental vineyard like none other in Oregon (I'm finding and planting new varieties that even Lon, my mentor in Aurora, doesn't have). I think some (particularly the whites) will make very good wine (as we've seen in my tastings of hybrids from around the country). The hybrid reds are more of a challenge (as you know from my tastings), but a legion of breeders and biochemists is working on it, and several of them have promise.

Hybrids are much more "green" than vinifera, which need regular spraying for diseases (and the tractor fuel that goes with it). And they ripen earlier than vinifera--I should be able to harvest a greater percentage of my fruit, since it will ripen more in the Sept 10-25 timeframe. Almost NO hybrid grapegrowers ever have to use nets. This could lead to a commercial enterprise, if I'm stupid enough to get seriously involved in farming. I think the green aspect will help make the effort stand out as worthy of attention, and there are plenty of wine lovers who are willing to try a new variety. It will all depend on whether the wines are good.

In that regard, all the hybrids contain (partial) vinifera ancestry; I will just slap anybody who gets all arrogant about insisting on 100% vinifera. What they don't know is that all vinifera are the result of natural crosses with other grape species. Just like we humans are all mutts, so are vinifera grapes all mutts. And, another point: PN really is the "Heartbreak Grape" (read the book of that name) for a reason. It's hard to grow and fickle in the winery and in the bottle. I prefer the predictability of, say, the W.Walla/Yakima grapes/wines (and also their quality). Bottle to bottle, you know what you'll get.

We should raise a glass to mourn the loss of my Pinot, and to hope for progress in another direction. Life is so full of perfect opportunities (perfect to our interests and talents) that even if we had a hundred lifetimes we could not begin to seize them all.
And Pinot noir, when I need it, is as close as Dundee wineries or the grocery store. At least I know, pretty much, which few makers of it have mastered the Heartbreak Grape! Sadly, it is not very many out of all those who try. It reminds of a line from Dune:
"They tried and failed, did they?"
"No. They tried and died."