Well, on this last day of the year, I finally can reflect on the harvest. This was a year, as my father would say, that ‘separates the boys from the men’–or the skins from the grape, in this case.
Virage is all about cool climate grape growing, but this year broke the mold, quite literally. We got through the first October rain OK, but the follow-on light showers that turned into “1/2-inch Monday” just burst those little balloons in the vineyard. What happened? Grapes take in a bit more water than they can handle; resulting in hairline fissures (cracks, like a super-ripe tomato in summer) and while the crack heals up, that opening in the protective skin welcomes opportunistic molds (Botrytis) inside.
Without immediate sunshine to dry the clusters after a good rain, some vineyards also started to brew up green mold. You don’t need a photo to show you what green mold looks like.
I never thought I’d learn about the noble rot that makes great dessert wines in Bordeaux, but here’s a set of photos attempting to show you the effect of Botrytis. Pardon my ugly gloves!
First, a normal healthy berry. All the color and other phenolic goodness is just under the skin–that’s what really makes red wine. As Virage rosé drinkers know, the fleshy/juicy interior pulp of the grape, encasing the seeds, is clear greenish white. And pops out clean. So if we press before fermenting, we get clear, pink-tinged juice that blends into the rosé.
Once Botrytis gets inside, those little devils start a feeding frenzy on that delicious goodness lining the grape skins, and compromise the skins to where squeezing a berry, just as I did above, reveals the pigments and other phenolic compounds all loose and messy, detached from the outer skin. The orb of berry pulp is eerie red – like an eclipsed moon. The remaining skin–just the outer edge–feels like thin paper, and falls apart very easily. Some winemakers call it “slipskin.” It’s not pretty, and causes the grapes to fall apart and color to run off during de-stemming and generally shows something (a wee yeast) got to the goods before we winemakers did. A tiny bit of Botrytis adds complexity in white wine, but we don’t want more than 1-2% in our reds.
Luckily, Virage is a small operation so my friends (thank you Caitie, Ron and Kim!) and I can get out to the vineyards and comb through, cluster by cluster, to snip moldy and split/botrytisized berries before the pick, but wow is that exhausting work. Last year, we were all about snipping raisins, remember? This year, a few dehydrated berries are our friends, sweet little concentrated flavor bombs that hydrated in the fermentation tank to contribute dimension to the wine.
On average, we came in at 23-ish on the brix scale. So it will be a nice low-alcohol year, and I think a very good blend, but a small vintage for all the fruit we–painfully–had to drop. But it’s not all mold and gloom. Most of the harvest was gorgeous plump fruit. Once it’s all picked, sorted (more friends volunteering on the sorting line, thank you Lilly, and Ron and Kim again) and destemmed, you’d never know… Here are lovely ripe cabernet franc berries on their way to the fermentation tank.