CELLARS WINE BLOG
December 29 - As planned, I picked up a rental post hole digger and with help from a relative, dug all of the holes needed at each of the three vineyards. Digging these by hand would have taken weeks. The rental cost was money well spent.
Now to build the trellises. I'll post some notes and pictures as this work continues, but I would never suggest that my trellis design is the best, or even better than most for that matter.
December 28 - I finally harvested the few small bunches of grapes that appeared very late in the season on a Petite Sirah vine at the Usery Pass vineyard. The picture below was taken last week. I really should have pruned off these bunches as soon as I saw them, but I caught them so late that I decided to just let them go.
December 21 - I've removed "Better Living Through Chemistry" from the list of upcoming topics and replaced it with "Disease and Insect Control in the Sonoran Desert". I had intended to focus on chemicals for disease and insect control anyway, so this title is more appropriate. Bud break will be here soon and I need to come up with a spraying program for the coming year, so this is a good time to sort this out. Look for this article in the next week.
I did a quick hand sort on these and placed the ripe ones in the freezer. I'll use them to augment an upcoming kit wine or a batch of country wine.
I made the rounds today, plotting the positions for trellis posts at each of the three vineyards. Tomorrow I'll rent a post hole digger from a local home center and with a little help from a friend, dig holes for new trellis posts.
It's possible to dig holes in our hard packed and caliche soils, but it's not something I'd normally recommend. The soil at my San Tan vineyard is easy to dig, having been used for agriculture for quite a few years, but digging at the other locations is not easy. Most of the valley is that way. You can dig down a few inches, fill the hole with water, then come back the next day and dig further. Going this route it may take days to dig down 2 or 3 feet. You can expedite this process by using a strong solution of sulphuric acid if you can find it. The post hole digger should make short work of this task.
December 16 - There are several reasons for my lack of updates on this blog. With Christmas and years-end quickly approaching, I find myself busy with a lot of non-winemaking things. (I'm sure you can relate.) Also there hasn't been much to talk about. The vines are going dormant and the wines I've been working with lately were made from juice and fruit that weren't from my own plants. That long promised article on Arizona's Wine Regions and Terroir is on hold temporarily while I wait for assistance with some graphics from a friend.
There is however a little something I failed to mention previously. Back on November 11 I racked and blended the Tempranillo and Nebbiolo wines to bring the 2009 Pseudo Tuscan together for the first time. Since I had put these wines through malolactic fermentation (MLF), and I was blending in a small amount of wine made from pasteurized juice which had not gone through MLF, I decided to treat the blended batch with Lysocid W. This was done to prevent further bacterial activity. I applied Lysocid at the rate of 1.6 grams per gallon, right in the middle of the recommended range, and I was surprised the next day to see a thick layer of fluffy lees at the bottom of the carboy. The amount of lees seemed out of proportion with the amount I used. Having never done MLF or used Lysocid before I didn't really know what to expect. I posted a query about this on WinePress.us and got an immediate response from an experienced wine maker. He indicated that this is entirely normal, and suggested cold stabilizing the wine prior to the next racking in order to lay down tartaric crystals on top of the Lysocid lees and settle them. Very soon I'll be placing this batch under refrigeration in an attempt to do just that. I had some issues last year with tartaric crystals forming and settling after bottling, so this is a step I intended to do anyway. I'll post pictures of this sediment next time I rack so you have a better idea of what I'm talking about.
December 6 - The cooler temps we've been having lately are certainly welcome. With highs of around 60 degrees F and lows occasionally near freezing, the remaining green vines should go dormant. When we get a cool spell like this, someone always asks if I'm worried about my vines. My response: "I wish it were 20 degrees cooler!". One of our biggest challenges in the desert is the lack of a sufficiently long or cold dormant period. This can contribute to staggered and uneven ripening. The most fragile of European (Vitis Vinifera) vines are good down to -5 degrees F. In recorded history, it's never been that cold in the lower deserts of Arizona.
With the cooler temps, I've backed watering down to just three gallons per week per vine.
December 4 - There's a wide range of colors that grape leaves can take on in the fall. I think the variety of colors I see here is exaggerated by the number of varieties I'm working with and the lack of certain nutrients in the soil. Here are a few leaves that, as far as I can tell, appear to be healthy.
The picture on the lower left is of a Barbera leaf. Red leaves can be a sign of a viral infection, but for some varieties this can be normal. I planted Barbera at all three of my vineyard locations in the spring, but only a few vines at the San Tan vineyard have red leaves. I suspect that it has something to do with the soil chemistry at that location. The recent soil test revealed a deficiency of Boron, Zinc, and Phosphate at that vineyard, as well as a rather high soil pH.
The leaf above is one of many on a Tempranillo that looks distressed. The spottiness may be caused by Powdery Mildew. The vine had issues earlier in the year with PM, so that is certainly a likely cause for the blotchy fall foliage. Once the leaves drop, I'll clean up the litter, replace the mulch near the vine, and spray it thoroughly with an anti-fungal spray.
If you're just starting out with vines, you may be concerned when you see leaves that just don't look healthy in the fall. Remember though that there's very little that can happen this late in the season that will have any long term consequences for your vines. Soon the last of the leaves will drop, and in four or five months healthy new growth will emerge.
December 2 - There hasn't been much to report on in this blog lately. I've been working with a number of wines and meads, none of which were made with desert grown fruit or honey, so I consider the details "out of scope" for this blog.
I'm working on a small article on dormancy and fall leaf appearance. I'm also still working on that article on Arizona Wine Regions and Terroir. I need a few pictures for the first, and for the latter, I'm somewhat dependent on a friend to help put together a composite state map. He hasn't had much time to work on it recently. At least one of these articles should be ready for prime time in a few days. Thanks again for your patience.
November 24 - Last time I racked the Tres Blanco I tasted a sample, and it seemed a bit rough. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, and this continued to nag at me. I finally withdrew another sample last night, tasted it, and gave it some thought. I believe there are several factors at play here. First, the pH is a bit low. At 3.28, this wine is on the low (acidic) side of "good". Second, I believe the must had a bit too much contact with the skins, thereby picking up more polyphenols or tannins than a white wine should have. And finally, I think I detected a hint of H2S (hydrogen sulfide).
Depending on the variety, a white wine may be well balanced with a pH of as low as 3.1 or 3.2. At 3.28, this wine tastes a bit tart, but not terribly out of balance. I may make one more attempt at cold stabilization in an effort to push pH just a little higher, but I'm not going to worry much about it.
Since I'm working with a very small volume of several varieties which ripen at different times, freezing the grapes at harvest seemed to make a lot of sense. This has allowed me to work with all of the grapes at one time. However, I'm now wondering if the process of freezing and thawing allowed the juice to pick up too much tannin from the skins. I may have to reconsider this practice for future harvests. For this batch though, I could do an egg white fining to soften the tannins a little. While that remains an option, I think I'll let this batch age a while longer before making any decisions.
The third problem, the hint of H2S, is the one that cannot wait. It's best to remedy this right away. I don't recall getting even the slightest whiff of H2S during fermentation, so I'm not sure where this came from. The best treatment for this is a combination of OptiRED and copper (racking over copper pennies, stirring with a copper pipe, etc.) Since this was a white wine, I substituted OptiWHITE. It's a very similar product and should work just as well.
I think the Tres Blanco will come around in time. At least I hope it does... I certainly don't need that much white wine for cooking!
November 19 - Now is the time to be placing orders for everything from bareroot vines and wine making ingredients to wines from small producers. Why you ask? Well, there are several reasons, but the big one is the weather.
During the summer, mail boxes and door steps are poor places to be leaving perishable items. Yeast, pectic enzyme, and wine won't last long in the heat. Of course, an adult signature is supposed to be required for wine, but that rule isn't followed 100% of the time. With the cooler temperatures we've been having recently, it's a good time to take inventory of your wine making toolbox and order anything you need that's heat sensitive. I do advocate buying locally whenever possible, but few small shops carry the number and variety of items that online shops carry, so it can be hard to get everything you want locally.
With respect to vines... many nurseries take orders in the fall and ship in the spring. Some new and popular varieties are already selling out. If you do place an order now, make sure to request delivery as close to March 1st as possible. Many nurseries in the eastern US can only start shipping when the threat of freezing in transit has passed. This may push shipment of vines into late March, but the best time to plant in the lower desert is early March. If you explain your situation, they may be willing to ship your vines first.
That article on Arizona Wine Regions and Terroir is still in progress. Thanks for being patient.
November 16 - Someone posted the following link on WinePress.US today. It's a presentation on warm climate grape varietals, and it includes several I wasn't familiar with..
November 15 - A few of my vines apparently didn't get the memo about this being the time to go dormant.
As some vines are losing leaves, these two are trying to produce clusters. It's not uncommon here to see vines flower after harvest, but the flower clusters normally don't develop. It seems extremely unlikely that this fruit will ripen before these vines finally go dormant, but I'm curious how far along they will get, so I'm leaving them alone for now.
November 13 - I re-read the blending article and noticed that I failed to discuss another common strategy for blending. Often wines with good structure or "backbone" are blended with lighter and more fruity wines. Blends of Syrah and Grenache are a common example of this. In the future I'll revisit many of the topics I've previously written about and try to fill in some of these gaps.
I picked up the soil test results and recommendations from the lab today. I was especially interested in the results for the San Tan vineyard because my first year Barbera vines have been very slow growing. It turns out that fairly significant additions of Phosphate and Sulfur are required, along with some minor nutrients. Vines I planted in past years have, for the most part, exhibited vigorous growth. I think the difference lies in how I planted these vines. In previous years I planted vines using a 50/50 mix of native soil and a quality store-bought garden soil. This garden soil would have been fortified with a slow release fertilizer. That was probably masking some basic soil chemistry issues. When I planted these Barbera vines in the spring of 2009, I just used native soil. I've already picked up Sulfur, Phosphate, and some general purpose fertilizers. Tomorrow I'll take the first steps towards addressing these issues at the San Tan vineyard. In the spring, just before bud break, I'll apply additional Sulpher and Phosphate. I think it's better to make big adjustments in small steps.
November 12 - Blending Away Deficiencies
When done right, blending together two or more wines can produce a finished wine that is better than the sum of its parts. Issues with chemistry and flavor can be readily addressed through blending, however, only rarely can serious flaws be mitigated this way.
Blending bad wine with good wine generally just yields more bad wine. Flaws like oxidation, madeirazation, or excessive brettanomyces or acetobactor growth all continue to show through in the final blended product. In very small quantities, these defects can add character to wine, but it can take a huge volume of "good" wine to reduce flaws like these to that level.
In a recent on-line seminar on smoke taint offered by Oregon State University, the presenters discounted blending as a means of fixing wine made from smoke tainted grapes. They indicated that in order to reduce smoke taint below detectable thresholds, it required a ratio of over 98% good wine to bad. Masking other serious defects would likely require similarly large ratios of good wine to bad.
Blending can however address other shortcomings in wine, like acid/pH issues, tannin excess or insufficiency, excessive or insufficient fruit on the nose or palate, or more commonly, how the wine presents itself on the palate.
Of course, it doesn't take much imagination to see how blending a high acid wine with a low acid wine or blending an over-oaked wine with an unoaked wine could yield good results. Many cold climate grape growers blend wine made from with low acid Central Valley California grapes with wine made from their own high acid grapes with great results.
More difficult to conceptualize though is blending to improve how the wine presents itself on the palate. It's hard to introduce this concept without seeming pretentious, but bear with me. This is actually a common goal of blending for many appellations in Europe. Let's consider Bordeaux red wines, which are blends of two or more of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and four other red grape varieties. Each of the Bordeaux varietals makes a stronger impression at a different point on the palate (front, middle, back, or finish). Cabernet Sauvignon produced in good years may be the exception; by itself it can be a wonderful wine. Petit Verdot provides perhaps the most narrow impression on the palate of these varietals. By trying different ratios of wines (a process generally called bench testing or bench trials) you can often find a blend that is truly remarkable from the front of the palate to the finish. A number of years ago I was introduced to this concept at a wine tasting where we were invited to make our own blends from a number of single varietal wines the wine maker had provided. These were 100% single varietal wines that were not labeled for sale. The wine maker encouraged us to see if we could do better than he did for his company's flagship blend. As I recall, he pretty much nailed it. I couldn't do any better.
Generally wines are blended once they are finished. You can, however, blend grapes prior to fermentation. This type of blend is called a field blend, and fermenting varieties together like this is called cofermentaton. It's an approach that isn't as common as it once was, but it's still used for certain blends. One common field blend involves the addition of a small amount of Viognier to Syrah. There are two reasons Viognier is added to Syrah; one is to improve the fruit flavor and aroma that Syrah can often be lacking, and the other is to improve color. How Viognier might improve the flavor is easy to comprehend, but it seems counter intuitive to add a white grape to a red wine to improve the color. While this field blend was likely a chance discovery that was made long ago in the Rhone region in France, it's only recently been understood how a white grape might improve color like this. One explanation is that the polyphenols in the Viognier skins help "fix" or set the color, while another explanation suggests that the white juice, in the presence of the red skins, is able to extend the absorption of pigments throughout maceration. Whatever the exact reason, it's well established that a small (5 to 8%) addition of Viognier can greatly improve Syrah. This is a practice firmly embraced by Australian makers of Shiraz (Syrah).
It's important to note that not all combinations of red and white grapes produce desirable results. Several of Italy's antiquated appellations required blends of lesser white grapes with red grapes. Up until 1996 Chianti was an unfortunate example of this. The blend previously had to include a percentage of white grapes, the quality of which was allowed to slide until the 1970's. I'm told that many Chianti wines in the 1970's were quite bad.
Another common field blend a little closer to home involves the addition of a small amount of Petite Sirah to Zinfandel in California. This addition pre-ferment can bring the fruit forward and bolster the color dramatically.
As alluded to earlier, blending wine is nothing new. The vast majority of Old World (European) wines are, in fact, blends. The grapes available for a given region or appellation are codified in law. How seriously these laws are followed varies from country to country. I've heard of cases where grape growers were forced to pull up vines in France that weren't allowed in their region. In contrast, Italian wine makers are alleged to take many liberties with the varieties they use. Some wine experts have suggested that modern Barolo and Brunello wines show hints of French noble grapes (e.g. Cabernet and Merlot) on the nose and palate. For years before Cabernet Sauvignon was officially allowed in Chianti, many Italian wine makers were flaunting the law and using it anyway.
Here are a few common Old World red wine blends:
When blending to fix basic chemistry issues, determining the ratios of the constituent wines is largely a mathematical exercise. Here are some common parameters that one might modify through blending:
The process of experimentation with different blends to determine the best possible final blend is usually called bench trials but may occasionally be referred to as bench testing.
The process is simple. If you have two wines... for example a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, you can start with blends in three glasses. One that is 50/50, one that is 25/75, and the third that is 75/25. If you find that the 75/25 is your favorite, proceed next to blends that are slightly higher and lower; perhaps 60/40 and 90/10. Just keep working in this way until you find the blend that you like best. Consider the aroma or nose, how the wine presents itself on the palate (front, mid, finish, etc.), tannins, structure, fruit, etc. Solicit help with this from friends who are knowledgeable about wine.
Blending Desert Grown Grapes
So how does this apply to desert wine makers? Desert viticulture provides some significant challenges to grape production. In many varieties acidity plummets before harvest, pushing pH well above 4.00. Tempranillo is a prime example of this. Other varieties, like Nebbiolo, can become bleached and lose color under the omnipresent sun. Varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon just don't develop the same flavor profiles and structure that they have when grown in more moderate climates. I believe that the key to making quality wine from desert grown grapes lies in finding the right blends that mitigate these issues.
I must admit, however, that my decision to blend Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, and other assorted varieties into the Pseudo Tuscan stems largely from the fact that these are the varieties that I have to work with at present. In theory, this blend should be vaguely reminiscent of Super Tuscans, which are comprised largely of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. In time, as I have a greater quantity and diversity of grapes to work with, I'll try to more closely replicate the better Super Tuscans of Italy.
Here are some links for more reading on the subject:
November 11 - I dropped off soil samples for all three vineyard locations at the lab on Monday. I'll meet with the chemist Friday to review the results. I'll discuss their findings in the upcoming article on Arizona Wine Regions and Terroir.
I racked and blended the Tempranillo and Nebbiolo batches last night, bringing the 2009 Pseudo Tuscan together for the first time. I'm working on an article on blending wines and I'll discuss further in that article my rationale for this unothodox blend. I should have that article ready for prime time in a few days.
November 7 - I racked the Tres Blanco white blend today, drawing off a small portion for sweetening with juice. The pH tested out at 3.29, only slightly higher than before cold stabilization. This batch is crisp. The sweetened portion should be fine, but I fear the remainder may be off-balance because of this.
Several vines at the San Tan and Superstition Vineyards are flirting with dormancy. With our above average temperatures recently nothing will become fully dormant for a while yet. In this area native and hybrid vines in the coolest locations are the first to go dormant; vinifera vines in the warmest locations are the last. Most vines go dormant sometime in December.
I'm continuing to work on that article on Arizona's Wine Regions and Terroir. I'm having soil tested, soliciting input from commercial wine makers, and putting together some composite maps of the state. Look for that article in the next week.
November 2 - I racked the Chardonnay out of the barrel this evening, and immediately replaced it with the Syrah. I plan on leaving the Syrah in the barrel for about two months, but I'll determine the exact duration based on taste.
I made a trip down to the San Tan vineyard yesterday and the Usery Pass vineyard this evening. As you may recall, I planted quite a few Barbera vines at each location in the spring. Those at the Superstition and Usery Pass vineyards have done great. All of the new vines at those locations have easily overtaken the stakes I placed next to them (the trellises are a winter project), but things haven't gone so well at the San Tan vineyard. The new Barbera vines have only grown about half as much. I did have some problems mid summer with irrigation and weeds at that vineyard, but I'm not sure those offer a complete explanation for the slow growth. I'm sure these vines will do fine in the years to come, but the slow growth is somewhat aggravating.
The Tres Blanco white blend remains under refrigeration. I'll allow it to continue cold stabilization for two full weeks. If I was trying to effect a significant change in pH and acid, I would have to get the temperature down a bit further. My primary goal is to make sure I don't see tartaric crystals falling out when I cellar the bottled wine. A small increase in pH (decrease in acid) would be welcome but it isn't required.
When I rack the Tres Blanco, I'm going to draw off a small portion to finish as a sweet wine. I saved and froze some excess juice when I pressed these grapes months ago. Using grape juice to sweeten a wine like this is called Sussreserve. It's a technique commonly employed with German Rieslings and Gewurztraminers. I seriously considered oaking part of this white blend, but ultimately decided against it. Oak complements Chardonnay because it's among the least flavorful white grapes, but this white blend is largely composed of Muscat, one of the most flavorful white grapes. After much consideration I came to the conclusion that the oak and fruit would be competing too much in the finished product.
There was another article in the news about making wine in Arizona. They didn't ask the kind of questions I would have, but it's an interesting read nonetheless.
October 29 - Apparently what I'm doing with this barrel is sacrilegious. The "oakiness" imparted by new barrels is a coveted thing. A recent thread on winepress.us has convinced me of that. But by the time wine from my own grapes ends up in this new barrel, it'll be fairly neutral. I'm not concerned about it. All things considered, I'm sure I'm doing the right thing. Vadai often runs out of these small barrels, so ordering it when I did made sense. In our dry air, leaving a barrel empty might dry it out further and contribute to leaks. If it's not imparting enough oak flavor by next fall, I'll just add oak chips and cubes to bolster it a bit.
I reduced the temperature for the barrel-fermenting Chardonnay to 62° F. I'm trying to slow it down a bit more. I started the Syrah last night, also from pasteurized juice, which will replace the Chardonnay in the barrel in four or five days.
I'm working on two articles; a short one on blending with desert grown grapes in mind, and a longer one on Arizona terroir. I'll post both soon. Stay tuned
October 25 - I started the barrel fermentation of the Chardonnay Friday evening. I'm keeping the cellar temperature at 65 degrees for the duration of this fermentation. A long, slow, cool fermentation in the barrel ought to yield the results I'm looking for. So far I'm extremely pleased with this barrel from Vadai and I'm anxious to see what I can accomplish with it in the future with wine from my own grapes.
I made a trip to the Usery Pass and San Tan vineyards today. All is well at each vineyard. I spent some time repairing a trellis, spreading mulch, and doing some spraying. With all of the 2009 wines resting comfortably in secondaries now is the time to take care of those tasks set aside earlier in the year. I've had the vineyards pretty much on autopilot since harvest, but after finding leaf skeletonizers at my Superstition location, I decided to spray everything one more time with Sevin (carbaryl). On winepress.us several participants have cited good reasons for post-harvest spraying of fungicides. For next year I'll make sure to plan for several post-harvest treatments with both fungicides and insecticides. Also, with the temperatures continuing to cool off, I've decided to cut the irrigation back to just seven gallons per vine per week at each location.
I removed the 2009 Tres Blanco from the cellar yesterday, and after giving it enough time to warm up to room temperature I had a taste and tested the pH. It tastes ok... perhaps a bit "edgy" and young, as one would expect at this point. The pH came in at 3.22, which is on the low side of good for a white wine. As you may recall, I had a problem with high pH and low acid when pressing the white blend that comprises the majority of this wine. I only added half of the tartaric acid that should have been necessary, and now I'm glad I did. The full amount would have thrown the chemistry out of whack. I decided now would be a good time to cold stabilize this batch, so I've placed it under refrigeration. One more thing... the color of this wine is ok, but perhaps a bit more golden then I would like. I would still like to figure out why the white blend must (or juice) was so dark at the start.
October 22 - The barrel remains on my kitchen counter top filled with water. So far it's showing no leaks. Every once in a while as I pass near it I catch a whiff of the oak. It smells great. If my wine ends up tasting half as good as this barrel smells, I'll be extremely happy with the results.
So the question remains... why Hungarian oak? Well, to my palate at least, Hungarian and French oak taste much the same. However, small French oak barrels are much more expensive than Hungarian. American oak is another cost-effective option, but the flavor it imparts is much sharper and more distinct. Some commercial wine makers use American oak with great results. It seems to be a popular choice in Australia for Shiraz, and Silver Oak in California is using it for their Cabernet Sauvignons. These wines are different from mine however in that they are much "bigger" and more robust. Due both to the varietals I'm working with and the extreme temperatures they are subjected to while ripening, I'm just not able to make a wine that can take that much oak. American oak would overpower my Pseudo Tuscan or any other red wine I might be making in the near future. The softer flavors of Hungarian oak should be a better choice.
I think it's interesting to note that in Missouri, where much of the American oak comes from for barrel making, wine makers seem to prefer French and Hungarian oak.
I waited until I had sufficient cellar space before making the leap into barrel aging because temperature and humidity can greatly influence the results. Higher temperatures and lower humidities are said to increase water loss through the barrel, while lower temperatures and higher humidities should increase the evaporation of alcohol while preserving water. Proper cellar temperatures are much more important then for barrel aging then for aging in glass or stainless steel.
Tomorrow I'll dump the water from the barrel, rinse it, and start a barrel fermentation with Chardonnay.
October 21 - As I hoped, the barrel from Vadai and pasteurized juice from the Wine Making Warehouse were waiting for me when I returned home Monday evening.
Last night I followed the instructions on the Vadai website for breaking in a new barrel. I did make one small deviation from their instructions however. They suggest leaving the barrel full of plain water for three or four days while looking for leaks. Fearing some sort of infection in the barrel, I added 50 ppm of potassium metabisulphite and enough citric and ascorbic acid to get the pH down below 4.0. So far there are no signs of leaks.
As time permits, I'll post additional comments concerning why I went with Hungarian oak over French or American, the other commonly available choices. I'll also explain why I made sure I had sufficient cellar space before taking the leap into barrel aging.
October 15 - I'll be headed back east tomorrow for a wedding. By the time I return the barrel and pasteurized juice should be waiting for me. I'll write a blog post on the proper break-in of a new barrel just as soon as figure out what that is.
A friend forwarded the following article. It seems that Arizona wines are slowly being discovered.
October 13 - I'm presently working on the next article. I'll be discussing Arizona wine growing regions and terroir. It's going to take a while to put this one together, so please be patient.
I placed an order with Vadai this week for a small Hungarian oak barrel. As I've previously mentioned, the small volumes I've been working with just didn't seem to justify aging in oak. I was just aging on oak using oak chips and cubes. I've come to the conclusion that if I'm going to significantly improve the quality of my red wines, I need to start aging them in barrels. The wines will achieve a greater level of concentration through evaporation and micro-oxygenation. I also ordered a number of pails of juice from the Wine Making Warehouse. I plan on breaking in this barrel with a Chardonnay, a Syrah, and a Merlot. I want to it be fairly neutral by the 2010 harvest.
October 9 - Arizona Wine Makers You Need to Check Out
A while back I met up with some friends on a Friday evening for our favorite collective pastime, a wine tasting at a local shop. We were all a bit surprised to see five Arizona wines on the tasting sheet, all from the same winery. On rare occasion local shops will feature a variety of different Arizona wines at a tasting event, but it's even less often that they feature wines from a single Arizona winery. Now I've had enough good wine... no, great wine from Arizona that I wasn't put off by this at all. I was looking forward to trying five wines from an Arizona wine maker that I was unfamiliar with. My friends however, were less excited. I remained optimistic until the first wine was poured. It was bad. Not just lacking in some respect, but obviously flawed. As the tasting progressed, one wine after another was a major disappointment. Two were mediocre at best and tasted like ten dollar wines, yet they were priced in excess of thirty dollars. The other three had flaws that even an amateur wine taster could recognize. One was oxidized, one was fizzy (suggesting continued fermentation in the bottle), and one was showing traces of H2S (hydrogen sulfide). I'm not too proud to admit that I have made some flawed wines. But I normally don't share them with anyone, and I certainly wouldn't have the audacity to charge money for them. But I digress... I was disappointed, but this experience didn't sully my opinion of Arizona wines. My friends, however, were left with the impression that Arizona wines were bad, really bad!
Just a few months later we were all back again at the same shop on a Friday evening, and again Arizona wines were being featured. This time it was five wines from Pillsbury Wine Company in southeastern Arizona. My friends were thinking about walking out, but I encouraged them to stay and give the wines a try. Even though I had never tried any wines from this maker, I remained optimistic that they would be good, or at least not as bad as the last Arizona wines we had tried. They reluctantly agreed to stay, and after the first taste they were glad they did. One wine after another was exceptional. No one at our table was disappointed. Unfortunately a few people (not with our group) showed up for that tasting but turned around and left when they found out Arizona wines were being poured. I guess they didn't get the memo about how good wines from our state can be. There are an increasing number of talented wine makers in our state. I'll introduce a few that I like.
Oh yeah, you may be wondering who the wine maker was that brought the lousy wines to that tasting. While I remain completely disappointed with his work, I am unwilling to name him in this blog, at least not until I see "pigs jumping."
History of Arizona Wine Making
Arizona's history is full of larger than life characters and fascinating stories. Our history with wine making is no exception. Spanish missionaries started making wine for sacramental purposes shortly after they arrived in the southwest, but one of the earliest commercial wine makers was a German fellow by the name of Heinrich Schueman. In 1884 he took possession of 160 acres of farmland along Oak Creek near Sedona. He and his wife planted an orchard and vineyard on the property, and shortly thereafter they started making wine. That came to an end though with Prohibition in 1919. Well, not exactly immediately. Heinrich (or Henry as he was known) refused to believe that wine making could be illegal, and he didn't recognize the law. He continued to make and sell wine for a while, but eventually the authorities had to act. They arrested him and put him in jail in Prescott. Henry was so well liked though that his friends and neighbors pressed the Governor for a pardon, and they got it!
Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but like most states Arizona adopted a three-tier distribution system consisting of producers, distributors, and retailers. Under this system, if an aspiring wine maker wanted to sell wine, they would have to get distributors lined up to sell it to retailers. They couldn't sell directly to retailers or consumers. Of course, distributors would not want to take an unproven brand into their inventory. This system created an unfortunate catch-22 situation that effectively kept new Arizona wine makers from entering the business.
A number of modifications have been made over the years to our three-tier system, but the most significant change was that made in the early 1980's with the introduction of the domestic farm winery permit. With this permit for the first time small volume commercial wine makers could sell directly to consumers. This change to our state laws provided commercial wine makers just starting out with the revenue stream they needed to become established. This change in the law, combined with greater interest in wine stemming from the 1991 60 Minutes segment on the health benefits of wine set the stage for a renaissance in Arizona wine making that has continued to this day.
There are presently a number of efforts underway in both the courts and the legislature to further loosen the restraints of the three-tier distribution system. I'm sure in time additional changes will be made that will benefit Arizona wine consumers and small producers alike.
Here are a few links for further reading on the subject.
There are basically two areas in Arizona that are ideal for wine grape production. One is centered around Sedona and Cottonwood, and the other is in south-east Arizona in the vicinity of Elgin and Senoita. There are, of course, many other areas in the state that would likely be ideal for wine grape production. Unfortunately, many of those prime spots are on Indian reservations or federal land.
While the map above may be hard to read, the white areas are privately held. Everything else is government owned. Arizona is a great place to live if you like camping out in the wilderness, but if you're looking for land to start a vineyard, good luck finding it. Not only is much of the land government owned, there's a fairly narrow range of elevations that are suitable for wine grape production. While I'm enjoying some success in the lower deserts, I have to admit that the climate here is far from ideal. If you go too high (like Pine, Flagstaff, etc.) then the summers are too short and the winters are too cold. Even if vines survive the winters, the grapes likely won't ripen properly. There's also the issue of water required for irrigation. Grape vines don't require any more than other crops, but many areas of the state lack the water necessary for any agricultural activity. In some cases water resources may be plentiful, but water rights issues come up. Our one saving grace is the fact that Arizona is largely "undiscovered" for wine grape production.
In the near future I'll take the map above, overlay it with a topographical map that highlights the ideal elevations, then add further information on population densities, water availability, land prices, soil types, etc. to show the areas that should be ideal for viticulture. Look for that in an article titled Arizona's Terroir.
There's a lot of excellent wine being produced in Arizona right now, and fortunately, very little bad wine. You could pick up a bottle of Arizona wine pretty much at random at your local retailer and have a good chance of getting something you'll be satisfied with. However, there are a few producers I'd like to recommend. These are wine makers whose wines are:
I was introduced to Callaghan wines several years ago at an Arizona wine tasting event at a local wine store. Since then I've been a huge fan of their wines. But I'm not alone, Callaghan wines have been recognized by some of the leading wine critics and publications in the world; from Robert Parker, Decanter, Karen MacNeil, Oz Clarke, Tom Stevenson, The Wall Street Journal, and Wine Spectator.
One more thing, Callaghans uses screw caps on just about everything. Don't be turned off by this. Unless you're cellaring a wine for decades, corks have nothing to offer. Even then the benefits of cork are not universally accepted.
Pillsbury Wine Company
I was first introduced to Pillsbury wines at the tasting about six months ago that I mentioned earlier. As I said, each wine poured (five in all) was excellent. These wines are made in the style of French Rhone wines. They're much lighter than the big fruit forward wines that we've come to expect out of California.
Ok, I know what you're thinking... this is the second time I've referenced that magazine. You may be thinking that I'm following their lead. Like I said, I've been a fan of Callaghan's for years, and I was introduced to Pillsbury wines months ago, long before Sam and his wines were featured in the magazine. This is simply a case of great minds thinking alike.
Page Springs Cellars
Page Springs is a family owned winery near Cornville, Arizona that specializes in Rhone style wines. Most of the varietals they work with are from Rhone, but they occasionally use other lesser known varieties, like Cabernet Pfeffer, Counoise, and Cinsault, along with the somewhat better known Cabernet Franc, Barbera, and Sangiovese.
Dos Cabezas Wine Works
The first time I sampled wine from Dos Cabezas I don't think I even knew it was from Arizona. Now I'm not suggesting that I have such an experienced palate that I should have been able to pick up on the Arizona grown fruit. I'm just surprised that I didn't ask or that the person pouring it didn't volunteer that information. I normally ask all sorts of questions and the distributor or wine maker who is pouring the wine will talk at length about it. I just remember pulling a bottle of Dos Cabezas out of my cellar that I knew I must have bought at a tasting weeks earlier and being surprised that it was from Arizona.
Well, those are the four Arizona wine makers whose wines I feel comfortable recommending. I'm sure I could come up with others given time. The future is bright for viticulture and wine making in our state. I'm especially excited about the obscure varietals and unorthodox blends that some Arizonans are experimenting with. It'll be interesting to see what they come up with in the years to come.
- The high temps are now in the 80's, so I've cut back on watering at all three vineyards to just 9 gallons per week per vine. I may soon cut back further.
I bottled the 2008 Pseudo Tuscan yesterday and applied labels and capsules today.
After bottling there was a little left, so I had a taste. As you can see, the color is a bit light. The body is a bit thin as well. Oak is somewhat pronounced on the nose and palate, but that should subside in time. The finish is quite smooth.
This is not the wine I intended to make, but I am generally satisfied with it nonetheless. For 2009 I'm doing things a bit differently. I've used , and I fermented on oak, rather than just aging on oak. I also co-fermented the Nebbiolo with Cab and Syrah this year, which greatly improved color, and I've used yeast strains that should enhance complexity and color (for 2008 I used Pasteur Red and EC-1118). One practice which I have sadly not been able to stop is the use of wine concentrates to round out the batch to a workable size. For 2010, I will find another solution if I am still short of red grapes as I have found these concentrates lacking in quality. Also, you may be surprised to learn that I have not been aging these reds in oak. I just haven't had the volumes that would justify the practice and I've been short on cellar space. I'm presently expanded my cellar capacity and for 2010 I'll acquire a several small oak barrels. Oak powders, chips, and cubes do add oak flavor, but oak barrels provide something else; micro-oxygenation. Oak barrels are slightly porous and allow a small amount of oxygen to seep in while allowing a small amount of evaporation through the barrel. Both the oxygen and the evaporation improve red wines tremendously. As I start using oak barrels, stop using concentrates, and am able to bulk age at proper temperatures, I should see a significant improvement in quality.
October 1 - My attention recently has been on the wines. It's been a while since anything in the vineyards has required my attention. The leaf skeletonizers that were such a hassle earlier in the season have not reappeared in well over two months. The vines are responding well to the cooler temps and are putting on a lot of new growth. I occasionally see an immature cluster but these generally disappear without maturing into fruit. The native and hybrid varieties will go dormant in early December, while the last of the vinifera varieties will be green almost until Christmas. We have another 10 weeks (plus or minus) of growing season. In just about any other part of the country vines are going dormant right about now.
As I write this I'm enjoying a glass of Back Lot Cuvee from Callaghan Vineyards. It's a Mourvedre / Syrah blend. This is part of my research on Arizona wineries for the upcoming article. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. :-)
September 29 - Just a quick update today. I'm working on the next article. It'll be on three Arizona wineries I think you should check out. I was going to do an article on five wines from various Arizona wineries, but I found myself coming back again and again to the same few wineries.
The 2009 Tres Blanco is showing a lot of promise. The color is nearly perfect and last time I had a taste it was really good, especially for such a young wine. I have a theory about the color difference I noted between the warm and cool fermentations. As you may recall, half of the white blend (Muscat, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc) was fermented at room temperature, while the other half was chilled in an ice bath. The cooler fermentation produced a wine with a much lighter color. I suspect that the enzymes were able to continue working longer in the cooler fermentation, which helped with the brown must. Well, it's a theory.
I'll bottle the 2008 Pseudo Tuscan in the next few days. I would let it go longer but my cellar situation for bulk wines is less than ideal. That's a situation I'm working on improving. This wine is tasting good at this point, but it's much lighter than what I hoped for. It'll be ok with pizza or lasagna, but I don't think it will win any awards.
September 24 - I innoculated the Nebbiolo blend today with Viniflora® CH16 malolactic bacteria. This is the same strain I used for the Tempranillo batch that's now bulk aging.
September 23 - A while back a friend called to ask my opinion about "re-gifting" a bottle of Riesling that he had been given some time ago. I asked about the maker and the vintage, and he responded "1995 Paul Thomas from Columbia Valley". "1995?" I asked. "Yes", he affirmed, "1995". Now keep in mind that only the best Rieslings age well, and keeping any wine for more than a decade will require optimal cellaring conditions. This wine was inexpensive to begin with, and it had been kept at room temperature (up to 78°) for all of that time. Of course I advised him not to re-gift it but curiosity got the best of me and I asked that he hang on to it and sometime when he and his wife had a free evening I'd bring over Thai food and we'd sample this wine. I figured it would be an educational opportunity for all of us. After all, how often do you get to sample a fourteen year old bottle of Riesling. Well, tonight was the night. As promised I brought spicy Asian take-out (Thai food pairs well with Riesling) and we opened it. As I suspected, it was long past its prime. The color was noticeably brown, and on the nose it reminded me of sherry. The acidity was almost completely absent and any hints of fruit or floral notes dissipated long ago. I brought with me a bottle of 2006 Dr. Loosen Spätlese (late season) Riesling, both for comparison purposes and as a back-up if my suspicions about the Paul Thomas Riesling were confirmed. There was quite a difference between these two wines. It would have been really interesting though to compare a fourteen year old bottle of Dr. Loosen to the 2006 vintage of the same maker. There are two points I'm trying to make: 1) Know the aging potential of your wines, and 2) keep your wines in proper cellar conditions. I've spoken to people who have had whole cases of wine go over the hill while sitting forgotten in the corner of their cellar. That's a shame.
September 21 - Desert Alternatives to Grapes
Wine can be made from almost anything. Most frequently though it's made from grapes (Vitis Vinifera in particular). Why is that? Well, under the best of circumstances grapes have all the right stuff. They have just enough sugar to yield about 12.5% alcohol. They have enough acid to be properly "balanced" and to ward off infections pre and post fermentation. They have the nutrients the yeast need for a healthy fermentation, and they may even have a trace amount of yeast residing on their skins. They also have a fruit flavor that's not overpowering once the sugar is fermented out. Fruits that can make a tolerable dry wine are among the best candidates for wine making. It's been said that sugar makes up for a multitude of sins in wine making. Sugar can certainly make a finished wine much more tolerable. Have you every tried a dry Cherry wine? How about a dry Concord wine? There are many types of non-grape or non-vinifera wines that would not be palatable without a little residual sugar.
Some purists object to calling non-grape fermented beverages "wine". Every major dictionary though includes a definition for wine such as "the fermented juice of a plant product." Some definitions are even more expansive and describe wine simply as an "intoxicant". Wine need not be made just from grapes. Aside from just about any edible flower, fruit, or vegetable that you can think of, some make wine from army worms, milk, and even ox blood. I think though I'll limit my wine making to fruits, flowers, and other plant based sources. For the sake of tradition I always refer to these non-grape wines as "country wines".
Wine makers in the desert who want to branch out beyond grapes do have several good choices to consider. It wouldn't be practical to explore every possibility in this article, but let's review a few of the more obvious or better choices.
Prickly Pear Cactus
Last fall I was hiking in the Superstitions with a friend and we came across some of the ripest and best looking prickly pear fruit either of us had ever seen (far better than that pictured above). The fruit was being devoured by wasps, which is generally a good indication that it's truly ripe. We proceeded to pick all that we could carry in the few plastic bags that we had with us. My friend intended to make jelly out of his (or he intended to get his wife to do it), and I of course intended to make wine with mine.
When I got home I did a little research on line and found several recipes for prickly pear wine. Most recipes called for the cooking or heating of the fruit, while a few just treated the fruit like any other and suggested placing it raw in a straining bag. The latter (no cooking) approach is the one I followed.
The fermentation proceeded normally and there was no indication of any issues until I attempted to transfer the wine to the secondary. As I pulled the straining bag up out of the wine, I was immediately struck by the viscosity. It looked absolutely slimy. I dabbed a little on my index finger from a utensil I was using, and as I rubbed my finger against my thumb the sensation was interesting... pardon the comparison but it felt like snot. I attempted to transfer the wine to the secondary using a racking cane but I couldn't get the siphon started. I ended up just pouring it directly from the open primary (bucket) to the secondary.
I used pectin enzyme on this batch like any other, but I really didn't think this strange viscosity was caused by pectin anyway. Back on line I further researched this phenomenon. It turns out that this is a common issue and the cause is a mucus like substance called mucilage. Now you may be thinking that I should have cooked the fruit like most recipes recommend. I'm not sure that would have helped. I've found several comments in the archives of various wine making forums from people who followed the cooked-fruit instructions but still had this issue.
While aggravating for wine makers, this substance is an excellent low cost fining agent for clarifying water. Once I uncovered that fact, I decided to attempt to fine this batch using tannin and bentonite. I figured if mucilage can remove dirt and other particles from water, adding tannin and bentonite might give it something to bind to in my wine. At each subsequent racking I've added a bit more tannin and bentonite, and each time this has caused a huge amount of mucilage laden material to settle out. Yet this batch is still extremely viscous. At this point it's not drinkable, but I hold out hope that at some point the remaining mucilage might settle out on its own. Given these issues, I think I'd recommend using prickly pear fruit for jelly rather than wine.
By the way, do you know what the fruit of the prickly pear cactus is called? Believe it or not, the fruits are called "tuna". Strange but true.
Go to any garden center in central Arizona and ask for fruit tree recommendations. One of the first trees they'll recommend is the pomegranate. It does quite well here in the heat, producing excellent fruit in the fall. Pomegranate wines can be quite good, comparing favorably to some lighter (Beaujolais) style grape wines. It does take a bit of work though to extract the juice from the fruit. The juice is actually held in juice-seed sacs inside of a pithy membrane. Tearing the fruit apart without losing too much juice can be a bit tricky. Check out Jack Keller's site for more information on making wine from this fruit.
One of the best alternatives to grapes for wine making is undoubtedly the blackberry. Many award winning port style wines have been made from this fruit. But will it grow in the desert? In researching it on line I found a study done by the University of Arizona at the Yuma Agricultural Experiment Station. They tried a number of blackberry cultivars from Arkansas and Texas. The Arkansas varieties didn't fare so well, but the Texas cultivars thrived in the desert. Womack and Rosborough performed the best of the four Texas cultivars that they tried, so those are the ones I decided to acquire. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any nurseries in Arizona that carried these Texas cultivars. The few that had blackberries only carried the Arkansas cultivars that performed poorly in the Yuma trials. I managed to find a nursery in Texas (Womack Nursery) which would ship bare root plants to Arizona, but their minimum order requirement made it necessary for me to recruit friends and relatives to get in on the order as well since I only needed a few plants. I received the plants in the spring of 2009 and planted them immediately. As soon as the temps started climbing, these plants started growing, slowly at first, and then more like weeds as they became established.
As you can see in the pictures above, Womack and Rosborough are excellent cultivars for the desert. The plants pictured are set between a masonry wall and a retaining wall, and they face the south. These plants have taken the worst that an Arizona summer has to offer and yet they show no signs of stress. Although I attempted to prune off all attempts to produce fruit during this first year of growth, I did miss a few berries back in May. The berries were large, juicy, and delicious. I look forward to making country wines from these berries in the years to come.
In my opinion, some of the best non-grape wines are made from elderberries. This fruit can be used for sweet wines including port style wines, but it's well suited to making dry table wine. Many recipes for elderberry wine provide a caution about the toxicity of the berries and provide special instructions for fruit preparation (normally cooking). This is more of an issue with European varieties and immature berries from American varieties as they have a higher concentration of cyanogenic glycoside (cyanide). Note that European varieties were long ago introduced to the U.S., so if you pick wild elderberries don't assume they are American. Also the American Red Elder produces toxic mature berries and should be avoided. Some are sensitive to elderberries of any variety, or even allergic to them. I'm not sure if elderberry wine carries the same risk of allergic reaction as the fresh fruit, but when gifting a bottle of elderberry wine that you've made, it might be a good idea to discuss this issue with the recipient.
Do you see anything wrong with the photo's above? That's not how elderberry plants are supposed to look. I planted two elderberry bushes in the spring of 2008; one York and one Nova. They grew like crazy for a few months, then as the summer temps started to climb, both plants started struggling. I watered them by hand nearly every morning and watched as their condition continued to decline. Just when I thought they were both completely dead, the monsoon weather kicked in, reducing temperatures and increasing the humidity. They bounced back after that and I thought they would make it fine from there. In the spring of this year these plants again grew like crazy but again, as the heat picked up they started struggling. Unfortunately the monsoon season of 2009 was largely a bust. Temps stayed high and we received very little rain. These plants may grow again from their roots but if they do, what's the point? If they die back mid year every year, they'll never produce fruit. I'll likely replace them with something more appropriate for the desert.
By the way, if you are successful in growing elderberries, it's not just the berries that are good for wine making. The flowers can be used to make an excellent white wine.
As I discussed earlier, wine can be made from almost anything. Chances are that I'm missing several good possibilities in this article; plants that do well in the desert and produce fruit that's ideal for wine making. Of course, the whole topic can become a bit of a religious debate because we all have our own opinion about what makes for a good wine. If you have any other suggestions though for grape alternatives, please let me know.
September 20 - I'm bottling a small batch of an Italian style red wine today. This wine was made from Barbera, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Cabernet concentrates. I wouldn't normally mention this here as it was not made from my own fruit, but part of this batch was fermented on the skins of my own Tempranillo and Nebbiolo grapes from last year. This makes it a "second run" wine.
More typically second run wines are made by adding water, sugar, and acid to the pressed skins. Using juice instead seems to work quite well and should produce a better wine. This blend is tasting good right now, and it should continue to improve after several months of bottle aging.
If you feel inspired to make a second run wine, I suggest getting a pail of juice or using a better quality kit wine. I used Alexander's concentrates, which are fine for what they are (heavily concentrated juices), but they are best used to augment a batch that's lacking in volume, Brix, or flavor. It's hard to make a good wine from these concentrates.
September 16 - The high today was just 97°. Only here would that seem cool. The cooler temps reminded me that this is the second best time of the year to plant grapes. If any vines you planted in the spring didn't make it, now might be a good time to replace them.
A while back I commented on how a Monsoon rain can cause grape vines to grow like weeds. Today a fellow winepress.us member posted this link.
September 15 - I pressed the Nebbiolo blend today. The color was much better this year than last due to co-fermenting with the Syrah and Cab. This was without a doubt the right choice. Of course, using Lallzyme EX™ this year may have helped as well.
You may have noticed that I didn't report the SG this time. I do a lot less testing than most wine makers. Sometimes the numbers are important. Brix is vital at harvest, pH is critical when the yeast is pitched and again before bottling, but I rarely test TA (acidity). When working with vinifera grapes there's a pretty close relationship between TA and pH. If one is right, the other should be as well. In this case I didn't even test SG at pressing. This batch had fermented for about a week and everything seemed to go well. It started slowly, then after 48 to 72 hours fermentation picked up quite a bit, and a few days after that it had slowed again. I feel quite confident that SG was somewhere between 0.995 and 1.010 at pressing.
September 13 - Not much to report on, but thought I ought to post something. The Nebbiolo blend is progressing well. I'm punching down the cap at least twice a day. Co-fermenting the Cab and Syrah with the Nebbiolo was necessary due to the low volumes I had of each, but I'm seeing much better color in this batch than I would have gotten out of Nebbiolo alone. This is a practice I will likely continue even once I'm producing more Cab and Syrah.
I spent quite a bit of time yesterday at the San Tan vineyard getting weeds and grass under control. A little ground cover is fine, but the weeds and grass were likely competing too much with the vines for water and nutrients. The vineyard looks much better now.
I'm still working on that article on alternatives to grapes. Look for it in the next few days.
September 9 - I pitched the yeast for the Nebbiolo blend today. I decided to go with the Bordeaux strain. Among the strains I had on hand, this seemed to be the best for the style of wine I wanted to make.
September 8 - Not much to report on today. Tomorrow I will likely pitch the yeast for the red blend presently under refrigeration (doing a cold soak). I've been thinking about the topic for the next article. I'm still trying to settle on the five commercial Arizona wines to recommend; two are easy, but the last three will take further consideration (and tasting!), so that topic will have to wait. I haven't yet gathered enough data to discuss Arizona's terroir in any meaningful way, so that's off the table for now as well. Of those that remain, grape alternatives for the desert seems the most interesting and presently relevant. My attempts to grow elderberries have pretty much come to a crashing halt, but the black berries are doing great. More on that later. Stay tuned!
September 5 - I racked and combined the white blend (Viognier, Muscat, and Sauvignon Blanc) and Thompson Seedless today. This will become the 2009 Tres Blanco. The white blend was actually split between two carboys since the start. One was fermented at a cooler temperature by being partially submersed in an ice bath; the other was fermented at room temperature. I would have prefered to ferment both at a cooler temp to preserve volatile aromatics, but that wasn't possible. I was surprised to see the cooler ferment produced a lighter color. As you may recall, the must was really brown at the start. At this moment I can't really explain the color difference between these different batches.
I also removed all of the red grapes from the deep freeze, crushed them, and treated them with sulfites. This field blend is comprised of a lot of Nebbiolo, with lesser amounts of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, and other varieties. It's always better to ferment varieties separately, then perform bench-tests to determine the best blend, but when working with small quantities of multiple varieties that may not be practical. Over the next few days I'll add the same additives I used for the last red batch.
September 4 - We got some rain last night; about an inch over the course of an hour. This is the first really good soak we've gotten during the monsoon season. It's amazing how quickly the vines are responding. They're already showing signs of new growth. No matter how much water you provide your vines, or how you approach irrigation (drip, flood, etc.), you can never achieve the same results as a good soaking rain.
September 3 - Since starting this blog, I've been consistent in keeping the topics relevant to grape growers and wine makers in the desert. I will on this occasion however, diverge from that slightly and write briefly about the Vin and Sprithistoriska Museet (Wine and Spirits Historical Museum) in Stockholm. On my recent trip to Stockholm, while on my last day out exploring Stockholm by myself, I found my way to this out of the way museum. It was worth the effort.
The museum provides a detailed history of wine making and spirit distilling, complete with still and interactive exhibits. Of course, Sweden is too far north for Vitis vinifera grapes, but other fruits do grow there which are suitable for country wines. The English language audio tour of the museum provides a thorough explanation of the history of wine making throughout the world.
I was surprised to learn that up until the state monopoly on alcohol distribution and retail sales took hold in the 1920's, there were a number of Swedish wine importers and bottlers who imported wine by the barrel from France and elsewhere, then blended and bottled it themselves.
These wine bottlers and their custom blends became well known throughout Sweden. Just as well known as present day California vineyards or French Chateaus. Unfortunately when the Swedish monopoly on alcohol was instituted, all of this came to an end. It would have been interesting to see how this model for wine blending and branding would have developed over the last eighty years.
The museum also includes interactive exhibits, including an antique commercial bottling line that springs to life with a button press, and multiple aromatic "organs" that emit an aroma when activated. These include aromas for fusel oil, a common wine fault, as well as various aromatic herbs, fruits, and spices that are used to flavor vodka.
I was surprised to learn that at one point in Sweden's history there was significant debate about the appropriateness of using grain supplies for alcohol production. It seems that in years with bad harvests, home distillers were prioritizing on vodka production over bread making. They were apparently devoting significant time, labor, and resources to making hooch.
Various attempts were made to control home distillation over the years. The growing temperance movement of the late 1800's and early 1900's finally brought about the government monopoly on alcohol distribution and sales in the 1920's. Home distillation also came to an end at about this time.
Well, that's a quick look at the museum. If you find yourself in Stockholm in the future, I strongly suggest you visit this museum. It's just a five minute walk from the nearest train station.
August 31 - Got back from my trip last night. I visited the Wine and Spirits Museum in Stockholm. It was one of the best museums I visited while I was there. I may post something on that.
I'll get the second red blend started in the next day or so. Look for a post on that soon.
August 22 - Just one more post before I head to the airport. With the harvest virtually complete (just a little concord seedless remains) and the temps a bit cooler, I cut back on watering at all three vineyards. Most vines are now getting 14 gallons per week. Since veraison most were getting about 25 gallons per week.
August 21 - I just brought in the last of the Nebbiolo. That should be the last of the wine grapes for 2009... well, it should be. I have a Tempranillo vine that's a bit of an overachiever and it's producing a few flower clusters. It's yet to be seen whether this will yield a late season harvest. If I end up with additional grapes, I'll just add them to a country wine or make a pyment (honey/grape wine) in the fall.
I'll be Sweden for about a week visiting relatives. When I return I'll thaw and crush all of these red grapes I've been stockpiling in the freezer. I plan on doing a field blend; the primary variety will be Nebbiolo. I'll post more on that later.
August 20 - Cellaring Wine in a Hot Climate
Wine is primarily cellared for two reasons; first, to allow the wine time to improve with age, and second, to stock up on a particularly good vintage. In Arizona, our relatively warm ambient room temperatures and lack of basements makes cellaring wines difficult.
Tannin, acid, alcohol, and sugar are the primary "preservatives" in wine. Each in its own way acts to extend shelf life. Generally wines need to be 11 or 12 percent alcohol by volume in order to be shelf stable, but if other constituents are a bit higher, less alcohol is required. For example, some of the best German Rieslings (with higher acid and some residual sugar) can age well for decades, but they often have less than 10% alcohol.
Room temperature in most homes in the southwest is around 78° Fahrenheit. This is entirely too warm for long term storage of wine. Wines with a lot of tannin, sugar, acid or alcohol may hold up well for a few years, but lighter wines (most whites, rosé's, and nouveau style wines) may become noticeably "off" in as little as six months.
Cellaring wine may have started in the middle east, but the practice may not have been common until corks were perfected as bottle closures. The widespread cellaring of wine appears to have started in Europe. The practice may have started in natural caves and castle cellars. Before that wine spoilage due to porous vessels and closures would have complicated the long term cellaring of wine.
Even though we normally think of a wine cellar as a below-grade room, a cellar may be above grade or it may just be a cabinet or a cooler of some type. We'll explore a few options in this article.
Why Cellar Wine?
As wines age a number of different organic processes occur; tannins bind with other molecules and precipitate out of solution, color fades (in reds), acid reacts alcohol to form esters, etc. Combined, these processes radically change the character of a wine over it's life. Many wines though aren't suitable for long term aging. Most whites, rosé's, and some lighter reds lack the combination of constituents necessary for long term aging.
The benefits of aging wine have long been understood. In the bible, Luke 5:39 reads "And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, 'The old is good enough.' " The ancient Greeks and Romans aged some wines. In fact, they generally thought of wine in terms of its condition or age, rather than varietal or appellation. The most sought after wines were those with the best aging potential. Unfortunately, microbiology was poorly understood in ancient times, and most vessels and closures lacked the integrity necessary to protect wines from oxidation or contamination.
The most important consideration when cellaring wine is temperature, but few agree on a single ideal temperature for cellaring wine. Generally 50 to 60° Fahrenheit is recommended for most wines, with whites and sparkling wines being cellared at the lower end of that spectrum, and reds at the higher end. But I prefer to cellar everything at 61°. A warmer cellar will more quickly age wine. Kept too cold a wine won't experience the full benefit of aging; kept too warm it'll age too quickly and develop "off" flavors. But 61° seems to work well with wines aging gracefully but perhaps a bit more quickly, without developing any faults. It's important to note that changes in temperature are undesirable as well. A cellar that stays at a constant 65° would probably be better than one that experiences seasonal changes from 50 to 70°. Temperature changes like this can compromise the cork by way of expansion and contraction of the wine, which may lead to oxidation or other issues.
Humidity is likely the second most important consideration. 55 to 75% is considered perfect. Any higher than this and mold may develop on labels and corks. Less than this can prematurely dry corks. With our early summer humidity levels hovering around 5%, you may think that achieving 55% would be a problem. In fact inside most homes in the southwest, humidity levels stay at a reasonably constant 30 to 35%. This humidity comes from showers, washing dishes, and simply exhaling. If extra humidity is required in a cellar, a small water fountain may be used in larger cellars, or a bucket or tub of water in smaller cellars. Corks rarely dry out though even over several years of cellaring when no extra sources of humidity are provided.
Light is also an important factor. Anyone who enjoys wine and has a sizable collection will likely want to be able to see it, but direct sunlight or even a bright artificial light can bleach the color from wines. Tinted glass and the lack of a persistent light source are both important features for cellars.
Finally, vibration should be considered. In my opinion this is among the least important considerations. The concern is that vibration may "unsettle" the wine and interfere with proper aging. Less expensive wine cabinets and refrigeration units may have compressors or motors that vibrate and interfere with aging. In my view this really isn't that much of an issue. Even a small cooler holds about fifty bottles of wine. The combined weight of that many bottles should quiet the vibrations of even an out-of-balance motor.
A Few Words on Closures
No discussion of cellaring would be complete without some mention of corks and closures. Cork is the bark of the Cork Oak tree. The first recorded use of cork as a stopper was thousands of years ago in Egypt, but it wasn't until the 1600's when a French monk named Dom Pérignon developed the use of cork for sealing sparkling wine. Gradually the concept gained widespread acceptance and around 1750 the first cork stopper factory was opened. That's quite amazing when you think about it. A lot has happened in the last three hundred and fifty years. Surely there are better options for bottle stoppers than cork. Why then are we still using it? In part the answer is "tradition". People expect to see cork stoppers in quality wines. Screw caps (aka Stelvin caps) got a bad rap years ago when they were used on less expensive wines. A wine bottle with a screw cap became a bit of a joke. This is unfortunate because there's nothing wrong with screw caps. Synthetic stoppers are being used on more and more wines, and screw caps are starting to come back into fashion, but natural cork still reigns supreme. Why not use cork then? There are a few big problems with cork. The big one is TCA or "cork taint". A small percentage of wine sealed with cork goes bad. Chances are that you've had a wine with this fault, but if you didn't know what you were looking for you may not have realized what was wrong. Another problem with corks is oxidation of the wine caused by the cork drying out. This can be more of a problem in the desert southwest due to our exceptionally low humidity in the early summer, but this is rarely an issue with cellared wines that are laid down on their side.
We Need Basements!
In much of the United States homes are typically built with basements. But in Arizona, they are a rarity. Why is that? The Hohokam Indians certainly understood the benefit of below-grade construction. Their pit houses were dug-out leaving the floor roughly 3 to 6 feet below grade. They understood the insulating capability of the earth, so why is it that modern homes in the desert southwest are built above grade? It's all a matter of cost. Home builders want to build homes one right after another without any delays or problems. Our caliche soil is difficult to dig through. Many years ago dynamite might have been used to loosen the soil for a basement. Today of course that's not an option. Heavy equipment must be used to remove the soil, and the excess has to be dumped somewhere. This takes time and adds cost. More and more custom and semi-custom homes have as a build option a basement or even a wine cellar, but the vast majority of us are stuck without one. Even if you are lucky enough to have a basement you'll need to take steps to provide artificial cooling (A/C) since the average temperature below grade here is still too warm for wine storage.
You Can Have a Cellar!
Don't become discouraged by the slab foundation you're sitting on. There are many options for cellaring wine; some are more accessible than others. Let's explore a few.
One of the most impressive residential or small winery below ground wine cellars I've seen is that of Purple Grin Winery in Escondido, California. Believe it or not this wine cave is actually a DIY project. These folks burrowed into the hillside behind their home and built this expansive cellar.
Images used with permssion. © Scott Lacy, Purple Grin WineryI take on a lot of big projects but this one might be too big for me. The wine cave extends seventeen feet into the hillside. They had to remove a huge volume of rocks and dirt to make this happen. The "X" or diamond racks at the back hold some 700 or more bottles of wine, but the floorspace is enough to hold many thousands of bottles of cased wine or numerous wine barrels. While Escondido is cooler than central Arizona, supplemental cooling is still required during the summer months. That is provided by a 700 BTU/h cooling unit which keeps the temperature at a perfect 60° Fahrenheit in the summer.
Few of us are lucky enough to have a hill sitting in their backyard, so we need to consider other options. If you have some unused floor space, you can build an above-grade wine cellar. There are a number of cooling units available for this. An unused closet, pantry, or even a bathroom could be converted into a wine cellar.
Fred and Patricia Kagie of Gilbert, Arizona did exactly that. Their home has a two story ceiling over their first floor dining room. They took about half of an overlooking loft space, walled it in, and converted it into a wine cellar. This second story wine cellar is without a doubt the most impressive above-ground cellar I've seen.
This cellar occupies about 72 square feet (650 cubic feet), which wouldn't be a lot for a bedroom or a study, but it makes for a huge cellar. Cooling is provided by two 4000 BTU refrigeration units, and humidity is maintained by a four foot water fountain.
There are a number of wine cabinets available in case you don't have a hill to dig into or unused floor space to convert. These cabinets are made by Sub-Zero, Vinotemp, Le Cache, and others. These cabinets come in a wide range of sizes, and there is a correlation between capacity and cost, but you can expect to pay between $1,500 and $4,000 for many models. Capacities generally range from 150 to 800 bottles.
Some friends of mine have a Le Cache cabinet that can handle 475 bottles. They've had it for about nine years and have had no problems with it at all. The only drawback they report is the lack of space for larger bottles. Only the top rack can accommodate those bottles, which is somewhat limiting. This is a very quiet and reliable unit.
Others I know have a Vinotemp cabinet. The racking is more flexible than the Le Cache, but this unit is very noisy and it had a compressor failure out of warranty. It appears that these issues are not unusual.
If you are considering a high-end wine cabinet, definitely do your research. There's a lot of information, reviews, and customer comments online.
Ok, so what if you don't have a hill behind your home to dig into, unused floor space to convert, or a few thousand dollars to spend on a new high-end wine cooler? Well, there are other options available. You could get an inexpensive cooler at your local home center, or simply use a refrigerator. Set to the highest temperature, many refrigerators maintain a nearly perfect 60° F. If yours doesn't maintain the right temperature you can get a plug-in thermostat control at many home centers.
The small wine coolers like the Magic Chef shown on the left can usually accommodate between 42 and 52 bottles. Perhaps more if you are creative. Refrigerators vary in size, but many can hold 100 bottles or more.
While those in the wine trade will often tout the benefits of the high end Sub-Zero and Vinotemp coolers, they will sometimes quietly admit that at home they have an inexpensive Magic Chef unit. The high end units are nice and they have some advantages, but they not only cost a great deal up front, should they ever fail they are expensive to repair. These inexpensive units hold up quite well, but if they ever do fail, just pitch them and get a new one.
If you're in the market for one of these coolers, shop around. Sometimes you can find a scratch & dent or floor model at your local home center at a sizable discount. Craig's List can be a good source for second hand units. Inexpensive refrigerators can sometimes be found at Goodwill.
The lack of humidity in these small units and refrigerators doesn't seem to be a big issue, but it can be bolstered with a small tub or bowl of water.
You may be wondering at this point what the cellars look like at Goldmine Mountain Cellars. Well, that remains a trade secret. If you're really curious you'll just have to stop by for a release party.
August 16 - "Never give up... Never surrender." Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) from the movie Galaxy Quest. I had given up on the replacement Chardonnay vine I planted mid-summer at the Usery Pass vineyard. This vine was planted more than two months ago and had shown no signs of life. I was at the Usery Pass vineyard this morning and much to my surprise there was a shoot emerging from the scion.
August 15 - You may recall that I got an incredibly high pH reading on the white blend a while back. At that time I ended up adding just half of the tartaric acid that should have been required. Today I put one of the two carboys under a vacuum for a while to remove CO2, and then withdrew a small sample. With the pH meter freshly calibrated, I tested this sample and it came in at 3.35. It's possible that this reading could be off. If a wine is saturated with CO2, the pH will read much lower than it really is (or will be). If this batch stays around 3.35, then I'll be glad I didn't add the full amount of tartaric acid. A pH of 3.35 is pretty good for a white wine.
But look more closely... behind the vine and to the right. I didn't notice until just moments ago that there appears to be a second shoot emerging. Always good to have a backup. It's possible that these shoots are emerging from the rootstock and not the scion, but I looked pretty closely and it seems to be the scion.
August 13 - I just got back from the San Tan vineyard. Last time I was there I pulled weeds and installed new drip emitters. The vines are responding well. I harvested the lone bunch of Syrah that was still green when I harvested the rest; it finally ripened. I also harvested some more Concord Seedless. I'm still not sure what to do with this variety over the long term. The vine has done well here, but the grapes have tiny, whispy seeds. It's a byproduct of growing in the heat of the desert. In a cooler climate these grapes would truely be seedless. I've made some into sun-dried raisins... and they're ok, but you still have to chew through the seed. It's rather annoying. As a Vitis Labrusca variety, these grapes aren't especially well suited for wine. With that said, in 2008 I did make a small test batch of a Concord Seedless blush that worked out ok. I finished it off-dry, which with a labrusca grape makes a huge difference.
August 12 - I'm still patiently waiting for the last few bunches of Nebbiolo to ripen. It certainly seems that fewer bunches equates to less raisining or dessication of the fruit. I think this suggests that dropping a significant amount of fruit early on or going with very tight vine spacing would allow harvest to be delayed and thus improve tannins.
I noticed a new flower cluster on the Tempranillo the other day. Harvest was back around July 4th. It's not unusual to see a flower cluster here or there after harvest. I will probably just let this fruit develop and use the few berries produced to augment a fruit wine or mead.
That article on cellaring is still in progress. It's coming along slowly. If you want to have a look at the work-in-progress version replace "blog" with "cellars" in the URL for this page.
August 8 - While I was harvesting some Nebbiolo this morning I noted the distinct difference in color between the berries that were in the sun and those that had some shade. At harvest those exposed to the sun are more of a rust color, while those with a little shade develop deep purple hues. This is something I've noticed before and in fact it's well documented.
What's not well understood however is why Nebbiolo has never found a home outside of Italy. Yes, there are some small plantings in California and an increasing number of acres in Mexico, but wines made from these grapes have never garnered the accolades that the deeply colored and tannic Barolos of Italy have received. Even within Italy there's a huge variation in the character of wines made from Nebbiolo. Barbaresco (the other Nebbiolo wine) is generally lighter and less tannic than Barolo, and within Piedmont (the primary region for this grape) there are areas that don't seem to lend themselves to this variety. Many believe that this is all about elevation, exposure (which way the land leans), and soil, but I wonder if the primary reason for these differences is the micro climate. Specifically, could it have something to do with the fog that settles into the valleys in Piedmont late in the growing season? I think it's possible that this fog is providing just enough shade at just the right time to allow the color to develop properly. Perhaps others have made this association as well, but I've never seen it published.
Last year was the first year I allowed my Nebbiolo to produce grapes. Before that I pruned off any clusters right after flowering. At least I thought I did. The year prior I missed a single small cluster with just a few berries. It was hidden from view by some leaves and I didn't notice it until late in the season. These few berries were very dark in color. I didn't realize how unusual that was at the time. I certainly haven't seen any berries of that color since then. Why were they so dark? They were completely protected by leaves. Very little light was reaching them. The dark color could probably be attributed to some combination of the lack of light and the extra hang time. Having so few berries the vine was able to stay ahead of transpiration in the heat.
This brings up an obvious point: Why not cover Nebbiolo with some shade? This is an idea that everyone brings up when I share with them the challenges of desert viticulture. I've brought up this idea with several commercial wine grape growers and wine makers from California. All have told me not to shade vines. Each has said that no matter how hot it gets, vines need the sun. Although none has articulated the specific reasons why they are against artificial shade, I suspect it's related to the vine's need for direct sunlight for photosynthesis and sugar production. Still though, it seems like a little shade strategically placed to block the late afternoon sun couldn't hurt and it just might help. I'll add this to my to-do list for things to try in the vineyard.
On another note, I transferred the second pail of the white blend to a glass carboy today. This one is much different than the first. The only difference in how I fermented them was the fermentation temperature. One pail sat in an ice bath while the other sat out at room temperature. Based on aroma (I didn't do a taste test) the cooler fermentation is the clear winner. It has much more fruit on the nose and there's no hint of H2S. The warmer fermentation did give off just a little H2S; not enough to hurt anything, but enough to notice. Next year I'm placing all of the white wine primaries in an ice bath even if it means giving up a bath tub for a while.
August 7 - I racked the Thompson Seedless to a fresh carboy today. I also transferred one of two pails of the white blend from the primary to a carboy. I prefer to ferment whites at a cooler temperature, but I couldn't easily do that with two pails, so only one got a cool ferment. The one that was fermented at room temp was mostly done so I racked it to a glass carboy. I'll probably rack the other (cooler ferment) tomorrow.
I made a trip down to the San Tan vineyard today. I've been puzzled by the progress the Barbera vines have been making. I planted tweny of this year across the three vineyards. Those at two of the vineyards are growing quickly, but those at the San Tan vineyard slowed down considerably as the weather heated up back in May. I went ahead and replaced all of the drip emitters, just in case the ones I had weren't providing their rated flow. I also cut back or pulled some weeds and grass. We'll see if that helps. I'd like to get these vines well established this year.
There are just a few bunches of Nebbiolo to harvest. There's also a small amount of Concord Seedless left to bring in, and a lone bunch of Syrah.
I'm still working on that article on cellaring. I hope to have it done in the next few days.
August 2 - I pitched the yeast (D47) early this morning in the white blend that I pressed yesterday. The fermentation took off very quickly and it smells wonderful. Muscat is the primary grape in this blend and it's one of the most aromatic white grapes. The color has improved dramatically. The brown has given way to a rich golden color.
I failed to mention yesterday a little problem I ran into with this white blend. I measured SG first and it came in at 1.085. A little low, but that's not surprising since I harvested some of the grapes a bit early in an effort to bolster the natural acidity. I added a little less than 1/4 cup of white sugar per gallon to bring it up to 1.090
I then tested the pH. Much to my surprise it was 4.39. That's amazingly high. It doesn't even seem possible; not even for desert grown grapes. I calibrated the meter right before taking this measurement, but still, the solutions could have been too old and thus, didn't provide an accurate reference for calibration. I could have tested it for acidity at that point, but since that test also relies on the pH meter, I figured why bother. I then did a taste test on the must. Generally speaking, anything you're going to ferment needs to start out a little sweeter and a little more acidic than something you'd drink with breakfast. The must tasted sweet enough, but it was totally lacking in acidity. Very flat and cloying.
A white wine should start out with a pH between 3.3 and 3.5. As a rule of thumb, moving the pH by 0.1 requires 1 gram of tartaric acid per liter of must. 4.39 minus 3.5 equals 0.89. Divide that by 0.1 and you have 8.9. Multiple that by 3.8 (liters per gallon) and you have 33.82. So it should take nearly 34 grams of tartaric acid per gallon of must to move the pH down where it should be. But wait, there's more! Since pH is not a linear measurement (it's on a curve) that much of a movement in pH might require even more acid.
Well, what to do? 34 grams is around 6 tsp of acid, and I was a bit nervous about adding that much acid to any must. It was obviously lacking in acid. The taste test proved that. I couldn't very well start out with the pH so far off. The must would be prone to infection and integrating so much acid post-fermentation has it's own problems. I decided to add just 3 tsp per gallon before pitching the yeast. I'll get some fresh calibration solutions and retest as soon as it's done and degassed (the CO2 throws off the measurement). I'll then add whatever it takes to get the pH down where it should be.
As a side note, it has occurred to me that the lack of acid may have contributed to the color problem.
August 1 - I inoculated the Tempranillo with a malolactic bacteria last night. It took off very quickly. As previously discussed, this is my first attempt at MLF. I don't want to screw it up. Most suggest starting MLF as soon as primary yeast fermentation is complete. If you start before primary fermentation is complete, the yeast may not respond well or the malolactic bacteria may consume sugar instead of malic acid. Either could contribute off flavors or aromas. You don't want to wait too long though, since the low SO2 levels leave the wine open to infections and oxidation.
I pressed the white grapes today that I've been freezing and stockpiling for some time now. I didn't bother crushing these grapes; I just threw them into the press frozen and whole. I then spent much of the day slowly ratcheting down the press. Oddly, from the first juice out of the press it's all been brown.
I've heard that some varieties are prone to browning of the must, Thompson Seedless and Blanc du Bois in particular. Jack Keller has wrote about both on his site. I've never worked with Blanc du Bois, but I have worked several times with Thompson Seedless and I've never had a problem with browning of the must or the wine. I'm not sure why the must is brown at this point, but I'm holding out hope that the Rapidase enzyme, bentonite, or possibly just the process of fermentation will straighten it out.
This batch is 84.1% Muscat, 9.5% Viognier, and 6.3% Sauvignon Blanc. Later it'll be blended with the Thompson Seedless I started earlier to produce the 2009 Tres Blanco, at least it will be if the color lightens up.
I also harvested a bit more of the Nebbiolo today. At the rate it's progressing, I suspect I'll have the last of it harvested within a week. I'm seeing better color in the berries this year than last. I'll use OptiRED and Lallzyme EX on this batch in an effort to further improve color, and I'll also blend in the small lot of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah that I harvested this year.
July 30 - Color in the Nebbiolo continues to improve. Brix remains around 22 to 23. The only other grapes still hanging on the vines are some Concord Seedless and a single bunch of Syrah. The end of the harvest draws near.
I'm continuing to work on an article on cellaring wine. I'll likely post it this weekend.
July 28 - I harvested the last of the Muscat at the Superstition vineyard today. With that, the Muscat harvest is complete. I also brought in the first of the Nebbiolo. For the wine grapes, all that's left is most of the Nebbiolo, half of the Cabernet, and a little Syrah.
July 26 - I made a trip down to the San Tan vineyard today. I harvested a little more Syrah and the last of the Muscat. I've given up with the Chambourcin; not permanently, but just for this season. The berries were shriveling up just as soon as they'd get some color. I pulled back the netting so that the birds could eat them. This is the first season I've allowed this vine to produce fruit. The canopy wasn't substantial enough to shade the grapes. I hope next year it turns out better. I have, however, completely given up with the Summer Royale. These grapes are splitting lengthwise this year just like last. Next spring I'll cut this off at the base and graft Flame Seedless onto the existing roots.
I pressed the Tempranillo yesterday.
July 25 - If you've been following this blog over the last few months, I'm sure you've seen a trend emerging. My strategy has been to keep grapes on the vines as long as possible by doing a split or staggered harvest. Grapes that are the most ripe or are becoming raisined are harvested, leaving the vine with fewer grape bunches to maintain. The goal is to achieve the best ripening without losing too much fruit to raisining. My thinking is that with the reduced crop load, the vine should be better able to stay ahead of transpiration. This strategy also helps to deal with the uneven ripening I've seen this year. I don't recall this being such an issue last year.
This batch had only been in the primary for 5 days. That's not long at all, but the SG (specific gravity) had dropped to 1.002 and I didn't think I was going to get much more color or tannin out of any extra time in the primary.
Very soon I'll inoculate this batch with a malolactic culture. This will be my first attempt at doing a malolactic fermentation (MLF). I'll be using Viniflora® CH16. I'll also use this bacterium in the other red batches (Nebbiolo, Cab, and Syrah blends) that will ultimately comprise the 2009 Pseudo Tuscan. Most commercial red wines and some whites (primarily Chardonnays) are subjected to MLF. It converts harsh malic acid into the softer and more palatable lactic acid. Generally speaking, vinifera grapes grown in the desert don't have a whole lot of malic acid. The heat tends to drive it off during ripening. But still, MLF is considered a standard part of making a quality red wine so I wanted to give it a try.
I'm working on my next big article for this blog. This one will be on cellaring wine in the desert. Look for it on this page in the next week.
Remaining to be harvested are the:
The Nebbiolo looks pretty good. Several bunches are starting to develop some good color. Few grapes have raisined yet.
I've thought about just pulling the netting back and giving the Chambourcin to the birds. The few berries on this vine are ripening very unevenly and it looks like hell. This may not be a good variety for desert viticulture.
The Muscat and the Syrah are doing reasonably well. I'm not rushing things. I'd like to leave the last bunches of each hanging as long as possible, but it may only be another week or so until they are harvested.
July 22 - Harvested additional Muscat and Syrah at the San Tan vineyard today. Also started harvesting the Chambourcin. The Sauvignon Blanc was looking very ripe, but the Brix was barely pushing 20 degrees. The berries were yellow and somewhat translucent, seeds were brown, and the stems were starting to harden off. I would have let it go another week but I was concerned about losing too much fruit to raisining or dessication so I went ahead and harvested all of it.
The small batch of Tempranillo is continuing fermentation without any issues. I kept it in a warm (85°) room for a few days in an attempt to increase color extraction and minimize green or vegetal flavors. A warm fermentation is supposed to help with both. The must temperature was probably close to 90°. I moved it last night to a cooler (78°) room for the remainder of the fermentation. 48 hours at an elevated temperature should have been enough.
July 20 - Muscat at the Superstition vineyard is at 19 Brix; Cabernet Sauvignon is around 23 to 24. I'm seeing dessicated fruit on each, but I need to have them ripe before I harvest them. High temps should be a few degrees cooler this week. That may slow down raisining.
I pitched the yeast (ICV-D254) today for the Tempranillo. I decided to go with a four day cold soak followed by a short, warm ferment. I'm trying to get the maximum color extraction possible from these grapes. This approach should help with that.
July 19 - I harvested about half of the Muscat at the San Tan vineyard today. Some was coming in at 22 Brix or better and was raisining. I was disappointed when I got home and found that some of the grapes were green. It's hard to visually distinguish between green grapes and ripe grapes in bright daylight.
July 18 - As I mentioned earlier, Cabernet Sauvignon is doing better than I would have expected. I'll end up losing some fruit before it's ripe, but it's less heat stressed than most. It's also ripening more evenly than the Tempranillo or Syrah. Here's a picture.
The Sangiovese hasn't done as well. In fact, I went ahead and harvested it this morning just so I wouldn't have to watch the grapes raisin any further on the vine. The seeds are brown and I was seeing some hardening-off of the stems (going from green to brown), but the average Brix never got much over 20. The color never developed like I thought it should either. Note the raisined grapes in the picture below.
I've had a week now to continue sampling the Madero and Madeira wines. I've come to the conclusion that my previous plan to use Elderberries and Black Berries was less than ideal. The high temperatures that Madeira is exposed to tends to caramelize the sugars. These caramel flavors compete somewhat with the dark fruit or red fruit flavors in my Madero. It's still a good wine, and this was a great way to "fix" an oxidized batch, but why bother making a good wine when you can make a great wine? Muscat grows well here and should lend itself well to a Madeira style wine. I may try to plant a few more in the spring. But what to do with the Black Berries and Elderberries? Perhaps I'll make a berry port, or maybe I'll just make it into a simple country wine.
July 17 - This would never work on a commercial scale. I spent several hours last night carefully hand sorting Tempranillo, discarding berries that were raisined or green. This is a process that wouldn't scale well. I crushed these grapes, along with some Syrah and a little Viognier. I immediately treated this batch with sulfites, and this morning I added Lallzyme EX™. Today I'll also add OptiRED®, Fermotan®, and a few oak chips, as soon as I find the time to measure everything out.
Why these particular additives? I'm trying to improve color and reduce vegetal notes. Even with the split harvest and careful hand sort, I'm concerned that a few under ripe grapes may have slipped into the mix.
July 16 - Sangiovese is at 18 Brix and looking quite sad. Nebbiolo is at 21 and for the most part looks pretty good. Still needs more color though. The Cabernet Sauvignon has been a bit of a surprise. It's ripening more evenly and is less heat stressed than most varieties.
July 15 - Made a trip down to the San Tan vineyard today. Harvested part of the Syrah; half was 24 degrees Brix or better while the other half was green. Harvested all of the Viognier; most was 22 degrees Brix or better. Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat are close. I may harvest them over the weekend. I also cleaned up the last of the Thompson Seedless. They were golden and delicious. Far better than anything you'll find at a store.
Most of the Viognier will be used in the Tres Blanco blend, but a few bunches will be used in the Pseudo Tuscan, a red wine. Oddly enough, a small amount of Viognier is often field blended into Australian Syrahs and certain French Syrah blends. Phenols in the Viognier skins are said to help "fix" the color in red wines. It doesn't hurt that it ripens at about the same time as Syrah.
Sangiovese and Cabernet at the Superstition vineyard continue to show heat stress (burnt leaves and dessicated grapes). I'm trying to leave the grapes hanging as long as possible though.
July 14 - This is difficult to watch. Every variety at the Superstition Vineyard is getting severely heat stressed. I can almost watch the grapes raisin. I'm watering nearly constantly but that isn't keeping ahead of transpiration. In a few days there will a chance of rain. Even if it doesn't rain, an increase in humidity would be welcome.
I removed the "Canopy Management" topic from the Upcoming list. I decided that I wouldn't have enough to justify a full article on the subject any time soon. I will tell you this much though, when it comes to mid-season hedging, pruning, and leaf thinning, just say "NO!" Don't do it. Resist the temptation to follow conventional practices.
In cooler climates it's usually advisable to thin the canopy a bit to allow sunlight to hit the clusters and allow more air through the vine. This improves ripening and reduces the likelihood of mildew or rot. In the hottest parts of the desert however, all you have standing between you and raisins is the canopy. The shade provided by the canopy provides essential protection when the temps peak.
It seems that Nebbiolo does better here than Sangiovese. Why is that? Nebbiolo is from northern Italy while Sangiovese is more commonly grown in the middle of the country. One would assume then that Sangiovese would do better in the heat, but that's not been my experience. I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it's all about the canopy. Nebbiolo grows like a weed and produces a large and dense canopy by mid-season. Sangiovese, however, is a slower grower and produces less vegetative growth. On these vines and others, when the heat really peaks, there seems to be more damage to the clusters that are the most exposed. Perhaps vigor is one trait to look for when considering varieties for the desert.
July 13 - I pitched the yeast this morning for the TS batch I crushed and pressed yesterday. I decided to use 71B-1122. I have a strong preference for DV-47 for whites, but I like to mix things up a bit and use several difference strains in a blend.
The Cab at the Superstition Vineyard continues to ripen well. I'm seeing a little less variation in ripening than with other varieties. The Cab goes through bud break a few weeks later than most vinifera varieties, at least at this location and with the 110R rootstock. The few extra weeks of dormancy may be why ripening is more even.
The high temps lately have been pushing 115°F. This is stressing all varieties. I've been adding extra watering cycles but I'm still seeing raisined fruit, especially on the Sangiovese.
July 12 - I crushed and pressed a small batch of Thompson Seedless today.
You may be wondering why I would make wine out of this grape. It's actually a fairly decent grape for blending. A lot of California jug wine is made from it, and quite a bit of inexpensive bottled white wine includes a small percentage of it as well. I may run short on Muscat, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc this year for the Tres Blanco, so I'll round it out with this. The pH was 3.45 so no acid adjustment was required. Brix was a bit low, which is not unusual for Thompson Seedless, so a small sugar addition (chaptalization) was required. I added OptiWHITE® as I do with all of my whites, and this year I'm trying Rapidase® Vino Super enzyme with my whites as well.
I found more leaf skeletonizers at the San Tan vineyard today. I pruned off the leaves with larvae, and sprayed the affected vine and those around it with pyrethrin.
Most of wine grape varieties are hovering around 19 to 21 Brix. The few remaining Tempranillo bunches are very ripe at this point. I'll harvest them late tonight. I harvested the first of the Tempranillo two weeks ago on June 29th. That's quite a spread in harvest, but not unusual I think for desert grown wine grapes. Our lack of a sufficiently cold or long dormancy period seems to be the likely culprit for this.
July 11 - When life gives you an Estufa, make Madeira!
Several years ago while surfing the web for articles on wine I came across something on Madeira. I remembered seeing bottles labeled Madeira in the Port section of the wine store, so I assumed it was something like Port but had never given it very much thought.
The article described a bit about the history of Madeira and how the process for making it was essentially "discovered" during the Age of Exploration. Wines made on the island of Madeira were being fortified to help preserve them on long sea voyages, and during these voyages (often through he tropics) the wines were exposed to high temperatures. With the extreme heat and the loss of liquid from the barrels due to evaporation, the wines also became oxidized. The combination of fortification, high temperatures, and oxidation chemically transformed the wines and made them better. No one in Madeira where the wine was made realized this until a few leftover barrels returned to their home port. This realization prompted the wine makers to figure out what had happened and find a way to reproduce the same results without the long voyage by ship.
Modern Madeira is made much like any other wine at the start; grapes are harvested, crushed, pressed, and fermented. Madeira may be fortified before or after fermentation is complete, depending on the style and quality being made. It is then aged at an elevated temperature. Some less expensive Madeira wines are heat-aged using heating coils or other artificial means at temperatures of up to 130° F for a minimum of 90 days. Better quality Madeira is aged in an Estufa or hothouse, which is a structure designed to be heated through solar gain. Madeira may be aged this way for many years with seasonal highs in the Estufa reaching 110° F or higher.
Where is your Estufa?
Desert wine making provides many challenges, but in making Madeira, it provides one obvious advantage. If your home or winery is located in the lower desert, your Estufa could be your garage, attic, or shed. In cooler regions it's necessary to provide an artificial source of heat. Any location that is subjected to seasonal highs of up to 110° F or better should serve well as an Estufa. Dramatic and sudden shifts in temperature should be avoided though since the expansion of liquid could cause problems with the integrity of the vessel.
I decided to use my garage for my first batch of Madeira style wine. It faces the southwest and tends to stay quite warm through the summer. I may in the future try to use my attic if I can find a way to lift the wine up there.
My Interpretation of Madeira
I happened to discover Madeira at about the same time I was dealing with a troublesome batch of a Berry-Zinfandel blend. The Zinfandel was my very first batch made from wine grape concentrate. I apparently underestimated the amount of sugar needed to get the specific gravity up to 1.090. I hadn't yet invested in a hydrometer and the few batches I had previously done were from recipes. A variety of issues conspired to keep fermentation going indefinitely.
For a variety of reasons I've decided to make future batches out of grapes, elderberries, and black berries. Why not just use grapes? Well...
What's in a name?
The name Madeira is like Champagne in that it indicates the place of origin or appellation. The Portuguese get a little riled when someone labels a fortified wine from elsewhere in the world with the Madeira name, just as the French get more than a little upset when California sparkling wines are labeled Champagne. For these reasons, I decided not to call my fortified, heat-aged, and oxidized wine "Madeira". But what to call it then? Since I intend to make it in part with fruit other than grapes, it is technically a country wine. But that doesn't help with finding a unique yet somehow appropriate name.
It then occurred to me to call it Madero, after the street that I live on. Madero sounds similar to Madeira, yet it shouldn't be so similar that it offends the sensibilities of true Madeira wine makers. Now here's the strange part, madeira in Portuguese means wood. Can you guess what madero means in Spanish? Yes, that's right. It also means wood. I didn't realize that when I decided to use it as a name. It's almost as if I was preordained to make a Madeira style wine.
The Solera System
Solera is a process for blending and aging certain wines and other beverages which involves fractional blending. In this process, over a number of years, new wine is made each year and it occupies a barrel or barrels by itself. It isn't blended until the first year after it's made. Each year the barrel containing the oldest blend is tapped and part of its contents are bottled. It is then topped up with the next oldest blend. That barrel in turn is topped up with next oldest, and so on, until all barrels are topped up and the newest wine (from last year) is now blended. This produces blends that in theory, represent a fractional amount of every vintage ever produced. The exact proportions depend of course on how many barrels are kept and how they are blended.
Solera is not appropriate for all wines. The repeated racking introduces oxygen, making this process only suitable for wines that benefit from oxidation or at least don't suffer ill effects from it. Madeira is often solera aged, and in future years I intend to solera age my Madero. I will likely keep a six gallon glass carboy, bottling and producing three gallons each year. After several years, each years bottling will represent a blend of 1/2 of last year's production, 1/4 of two years ago, 1/8 of three years ago, and so on.
You may be wondering why I would only produce and bottle three gallons per year. As a fortified wine, Madero is more of a sipping wine and not something that will be consumed regularly with meals. You may also be wondering why I would use a carboy instead of the more traditional barrel. Our humidity in the desert can drop down to 2% in the early summer. While I would prefer to use a barrel, I'm concerned that it might leak profusely when subjected to high temps and low humidity. On the island of Madeira, this isn't an issue since their humidity is significantly higher. I haven't totally abandoned the idea of barrel aging though.
Madero vs. Madeira
I thought it might be interesting to do a taste test of a quality commercial Madeira and my ad hoc interpretation of it. The manager at my favorite wine shop recommended Boston Bual.
Note that this first batch of Madero sports a generic label rather than the Goldmine Mountain Cellars label. This is because it was made from grape concentrate and from fruit from other sources. Only wines produced primarily with grapes and fruit I produced bear the Goldmine Mountain Cellars label.
The picture on the left shows the Madero and the picture on the right shows the Madeira. When evaluating a wine's color and appearance it's best to tip the glass like this over a white background.
Here are my impressions:
Color: This is obviously the biggest difference between the two. My Madero was made from Zinfandel concentrate and mixed berries. This gives it a deep ruby color only that's only slightly mellowed by oxidation and heat-aging. It's hard to see in the photo but the Madero is more "brickish" than what you would typically expect from a red wine. The Madeira on the other had is a beautiful deep amber color. This is no surprise since Madeira is typically made from white wine grapes, like Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho, and Sercial.
Aroma: On the nose the Madero gives the impression of red fruits and shows hints of mellow caramel notes as well. The Madeira though leaves quite an impression with strong notes of caramel and bourbon. The alcohol is also more expressive on the Madeira, suggesting a higher alcohol content.
Flavor and Mouth feel: The flavor of the Madero closely matches what I found on the nose; red fruit and subtle caramel flavors, with hints of smoke. All in all quite nice, if I do say so myself. The Madeira though is in a class by itself. It's slightly sweeter than the Madero. This, combined with the intense caramel flavors, makes it quite a treat to drink. It also has quite a bit more viscosity and better mouth feel.
I think the lessons learned here are that I should age my Madero longer and possibly use white grapes rather than red. Of course, if I'm using Elderberries and Black Berries, it will continue to have quite a bit of color. Perhaps it will always be a bit more like a Port than a true Madeira.
Well, I'm flexible. Muscat grows well in the desert and should be ideal for this style of wine. Maybe I should use Muscat for my Madero exclusively and use the Elderberries and Blackberries in a Port instead. It's something to consider.
[July 18 Update - I've had a week now to continue sampling the Madero and Madeira wines. I've come to the conclusion that my previous plan to use Elderberries and Black Berries was less than ideal. The high temperatures that Madeira is exposed to tends to caramelize the sugars. These caramel flavors tend to compete with the dark fruit or red fruit flavors in my Madero. It's still a good wine, and this was a great way to "fix" an oxidized batch, but why bother making a good wine when you can make a great wine? Muscat grows well here and should lend itself well to a Madeira style wine. I may try to plant a few more in the spring. But what to do with the Black Berries and Elderberries? Perhaps I'll make a berry port, or maybe I'll just make it into a simple country wine.]
July 9 - The Cab is at 19 Brix. I left a few Tempranillo bunches hanging after recently harvesting most, and they are at around 20 Brix, but they are raisining. The conventional thinking is that sugar levels are always driven sky high in a hot climate, but I'm finding that sometimes that never happens; the grapes go straight from 19 or 20 Brix to raisins. I suspect that what's happening is the canopies (leaves and vegetative growth) is getting heat stressed and burnt, which reduces the ability of the vine to increase sugar levels. Alternatively this could just be another manifestation of the uneven ripening issue. Perhaps some grapes are hitting 25 to 30 Brix and then raisining, while the ones that I'm testing are less ripe.
I'm still working on the next "topic", an article on Madeira. My day job has just demanded too much of my time.
July 8 - Several varieties (Muscat and Syrah) at the San Tan vineyard are at 19 to 20 Brix, at least for some berries on each vine. The new vines at Usery Pass are for most part doing well. There can be a huge difference in vigor between two vines of the same variety at the same location, all other factors being equal. I'm not sure why this is.
July 7 - I returned home last night and immediately checked the Syrah. I found that somehow some grapes had been eaten, almost certainly by birds. I'm not sure how they got through the netting. Other clusters were raisined. The few that remained came in at 23 Brix so I went ahead and harvested them.
This brings up an interesting point. There's a good argument for keeping red wine grapes like Syrah on the vines for an extra long time. Some suggest that you shouldn't harvest until the grapes hit 25 Brix or better. This may necessitate taking steps in the winery (like adding water) to reduce the sugar and potential alcohol, but it allows the tannins to fully mature, minimizes vegetal flavors, and leads to a much better wine. However in the hottest desert locations, this can be difficult to manage. For varieties that ripen mid to late season (like almost all vinifera varieties) the extreme summer heat can make it difficult to keep them on the vines that long. As grapes hit 22 to 24 Brix, daytime highs can be 110 or better. They tend to go quickly from around 23 Brix to raisins. I think you have to balance the desire for extra-ripe grapes against the raisining issue when deciding when to harvest. There are some things you can do to minimize vegetal flavors and enhance color and flavor in the winery. For example, fermenting reds on oak can help tremendously. Removing green seeds at crush or when punching down the cap also helps. Color enhancing enzymes and warm fermentation temperatures can help improve the color as well.
Cabernet Sauvignon at the Superstition vineyard is presently at 17 Brix... at least that's true of the riper berries. Like other varieties, I'm seeing a lot of variation from one bunch to the next and even within bunches.
Muscat and Nebbiolo continue to ripen gracefully. The Sangiovese doesn't look too bad either. I'll head down to the San Tan vineyard tomorrow to check on things there.
July 2 - After saying I would use the "most benign" insecticide I had, I ended up using Sevin. I went out to check the vines and found leaf skeletonizer larvae all over several. For the record, it's supposed to be safe to use right up until harvest. I'd rather not use such a strong synthetic pesticide so close to harvest, but I'd rather not watch my vines get destroyed by ravenous insects either.
The Nebbiolo at the Superstition Vineyard is coming along nicely. Here's a picture of one of the bunches.
July 1 - All is well at the San Tan vineyard. I harvested some Thompson Seedless, and checked the Brix of the Sauvignon Blanc; it came in at 17 degrees. Everything looks good and should be fine for a week until I get back down there again.
My only Syrah vine at the Superstition vineyard produced just a few bunches this year. I tested several grapes; the Brix was ~21 and the seeds were nearly brown. They'll either be ripe or raisins by the time I get back Monday evening.
I harvested almost all of the remaining Tempranillo this morning. There were a few odd bunches with green berries that I left hanging. Not sure if they'll ever properly ripen.
I've been seeing some leaf skeletonizers at the Superstition vineyard... very disturbing. I've seen these this year at both established vineyards. I didn't see any at all last year, but at that time I was spraying something every week or two. These insects feed on grape leaves during their larval state and can do a lot of damage if left unchecked. I hate to spray anything around harvest, but I don't think I have a choice. I'll spray everything tomorrow with the most benign insecticide I have on hand.
June 30 - The remaining Tempranillo bunches continue to ripen. I'll harvest more tomorrow morning when it's cool and the rest next week. The other varieties at the Superstition vineyard (Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Muscat) continue to ripen. If I had it all to do over again I'd just plant Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, and Muscat at this location. These varieties seem to thrive in the heat.
Tomorrow evening I'll head down to San Tan to see how things are progressing there. I don't expect to harvest anything there for another week or two at the earliest. The temperature is just a few degrees cooler in Queen Creek which puts harvest a few weeks later. Also, I don't have any early ripening wine grape varieties like Tempranillo at that location.
This weekend I'll be commiting the cardinal sin of viticulture. I'll be taking a short vacation during harvest season. Well, it'll only be four days in total, but in the desert, a lot can happen in four days. The ripening of the grapes around here is a bit like driving off of a cliff. Things progress at a nice steady pace, but when the grapes reach their peak, they may turn into raisins in just a few days.
I did a little research on yeast strains for Tempranillo, then checked what strains I have on hand. I've decided to go with ICV-D254 for this year's Tempranillo ferment.
I'm working on an article on Madeira and my "Madero" interpretation of it. Look for that in a few days.
By the way, did you find the easter egg on this site?
June 28 - Some of the Tempranillo grapes are black as night, have brown seeds, and are coming in around 23 Brix. I think I'll do a partial harvest early tomorrow before I lose too many more to raisining/dessication. The best time of the day to harvest grapes is early in the morning when the temperature is the coolest. With white grapes, it's a good idea to take them straight from the vine to a cooler; this reduces the extraction of harsh phenols from the skins. I'll freeze these Tempranillo grapes until I have a sufficient quantity to work with.
I had planned to post an article from the "upcoming topics" category this weekend, but there was no time for it. Things are kind of crazy right now with my day job and I spent the weekend working.
June 27 - Muscat at the Superstition vineyard is coming along nicely. The berries are getting bigger all the time and the Brix is around 12 degrees. This is an excellent variety for the desert. It stands up to the heat and produces a good yield of a good quality crop.
June 24 - Patience is a virtue... or so they say. Watching and waiting for the time to come to harvest the Tempranillo is definitely testing my patience. I need to see brown seeds and a Brix of 22 to 24 before harvest. We're not quite there yet. It may be after July 4th before we're firmly in that territory. I'm seeing an occasional berry dry up in this heat, which is making me especially anxious to go ahead and harvest them. In an effort to keep the grapes on the vines as long as possible, I've increased the watering schedule for the Superstition vineyard to about 3.75 gallons per day per vine, or about 26 gallons per week.
Also harvested a little more Flame Seedless at the San Tan vineyard. The temps are just a little lower down there, which puts the vines at that location about two weeks behind the Superstition vineyard throughout the year.
June 22 - Cabernet Sauvignon at the Superstition vineyard is showing the first signs of color.
I corrected an earlier entry that referred to "Autumn Royal" at the San Tan vineyard. I double checked my records; it's actually a Summer Royal.
The Tempranillo is continuing the process of veraison. Here's a picture...
This picture illustrates one of our problems in the desert. Some grapes are pushing 20 Brix, while others are small and green. Some variation is to be expected, but this is a bit extreme. This requires a split harvest and a careful sort of fruit.
June 21 - Syrah is going through veraison at both established vineyards. Nebbiolo is starting to show the first hints of color as well. Cabernet Sauvignon is the only holdout at the Superstition vineyard, and Summer Royal (a table grape) is the only holdout at the San Tan vineyard. The Tempranillo continues to ripen; I'm not sure if it'll be harvested before or after July 4th, but I'm no longer saying "a week or ten days." I didn't take good notes in 2008 and I had forgotten just how long it is between veraison and harvest.
June 20 - Varietal Considerations for Desert Locations
There are a number of things to consider when selecting grape varieties for a desert vineyard. At this point I don't have all the answers, but I'll share what I do know and I'll follow up in the years to come with updates on this subject as my vines continue to mature and my own knowledge on this topic broadens.
What We're Up Against
I think it's best to start out by defining the problems we face. Obviously our big problem is heat, but it's actually a little more complicated than that. Here's a short list of the issues:
Under our desert sun some grape varieties become browned (sunburned) on the exposed surfaces. With many varieties part of the crop is lost when the grapes dry out or become raisined before they are ripe, and keeping the grapes on the vines long enough for the tannins to mature almost certainly means that the acidity will be far too low and the Brix too high at harvest. If we only had lower nighttime temps, more acid would be retained. Also, it seems that the three months of dormancy we get isn't quite enough. I've noticed a problem with uneven ripening, both from one bunch to the next, and within a single bunch. The lack of a sufficiently cold or lengthy period of dormancy is the likely culprit for this issue.
In the very hottest and driest desert locations, downy mildew and black rot are virtually impossible. But we do get monsoon rains at exactly the wrong time and in some higher desert locations diseases like these can occur and may prompt the selection of varieties or clones with less compact bunches. For example, Primitivo may be chosen over its twin sibling Zinfandel for this very reason.
Some issues can be dealt with in the vineyard (trellising, training, and canopy management) or at crush, but it's best to select varieties that suffer less from these shortcomings.
When I started investigating what varieties to plant I first looked for published recommendations. There are, after all, many books on the subject of cold climate viticulture, so you'd think there would be a few on hot climate viticulture. Unfortunately that's not the case. You'd also think that there might be a few university studies on the topic, but sadly, little has been published from the universities either. The one exception is the published advice of the Master Gardener program at the University of Arizona at Tucson. They recommend the following varieties for desert vineyards: Barbera, Petite Sirah, French Columbard, Emerald Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. I know that a lot of work has been done at the University of California at Davis (Ruby Cabernet is proof of this), but I've found nothing published on the topic.
Heat Summation Index
One means of determining what grapes are best for a particular climate is to use the Heat Summation Index. This method, devised at the University of California at Davis, measures the amount of heat accumulation in an area over the minimum required for ripening of grapes. The number produced by this measurement (degree days) fits within one of five zones; the first being the coolest and the fifth being the warmest.
Region 1: < 2,500 Degree Days - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewürztraminer
Region 2: < 3,000 Degree Days - Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc
Region 3: < 3,500 Degree Days - Zinfandel, Barbera, Syrah, Gamay
Region 4: < 4,000 Degree Days - Thompson Seedless, Malvasia
Region 5: > 4,000 Degree Days - Table grapes
I've calculated the degree days for my area several times using historical climate data from a couple of different sources. Each time this exercise produced a number that was off the charts (5,500 or more). If you are in a slightly cooler location, I suggest you try this calculation and see what it yields. It may prove more useful for you than it was for me.
Hot Regions of Europe
Another obvious place to look for guidance are the hotter parts of Europe. They do, after all, have a long track record with grapes and some areas of Europe are nearly as hot as the desert southwest. Let's take a quick look at some of the main varieties. Note, this list isn't complete by any stretch of the imagination.
Many grape producing areas of California are actually quite warm. You might be surprised to learn that about 60% of California wine grapes are grown in the Central San Joaquin Valley, far from the better known areas like Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles. Grape growers in the Central Valley haven't necessarily planted the varieties that made sense for their climate. They instead planted the varieties that the large wine producers wanted. These primarily include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay. If you've ever compared a Napa cab to a Central Valley cab side by side, you understand first hand the drawbacks of producing these grapes in a hot climate. Cabernet Sauvignon ends up being very fruit forward or "jammy", lacking character, and even tasting a bit cooked. Further, since the sugars are driven very high in a hot climate, alcohol levels can be very high as well, leaving these wines tasting "hot" (strongly of alcohol). There are steps that can be taken in the winery to compensate for these issues, but these grapes will never show at their best when grown in a hot climate.
If we only had a grape that was either so high in acid that even at harvest the acid would still be good, or would ripen so early that it would miss out on most of the heat, then we'd have a real winner. That realization prompted me to research hybrid varieties which can do either or both. Norton/Cynthian seemed to be a good candidate. It's biggest problem in the midwest and on the east coast is an excess of malic acid. In our heat much of the malic acid should be driven off during ripening. I tried twice to get a bare root Norton started at my San Tan vineyard. Both times I received the biggest, healthiest bare root vines you could ever hope to get, but both times the vines failed. On the first attempt the vine got off to a good start, but died shortly after the temperature started to climb. The second attempt didn't even come out of dormancy. I also thought that Chambourcin might have some potential, since it does well in some of the warmer parts of France and Austrailia where it's used for inexpensive table wine. I have just one Chambourcin growing at my San Tan vineyard. It's surviving, but not thriving. Léon Millot is another variety with potential. A participant on WinePress.US has reported that it ripens very early and misses the worst part of the summer heat.
The best varieties for our climate may be among the thousands of varieties found in Greece. With a climate very similar to ours, and a wine making tradition that predates that of France, there are undoubtedly a number of Greek varieties that would do well here. Unfortunately, very few nurseries in the States carry any of these obscure varieties, and importing them directly from Greece is an arduous process that is best left to the professionals. Your best option for acquiring Greek varieties is to start them from cuttings from the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository. It's important to note that this resource is primarily geared towards providing plant material for research purposes and as such it should be considered a resource of "last resort" when attempting to procure obscure varietals. Further, in the spirit in which the plant material is provided, you should attempt to conduct your evaluation with a good deal of scientific rigor and publish results once you have data to share. If you decide to start vines from cuttings, check out Lon Rombough's website. He has a wealth of information on starting vines from cuttings.
Finally, there are some unconventional grape/climate combinations that have produced great wines. Although I still prefer Rieslings produced in the cool climate of Germany, many award winning Rieslings have been produced in warmer parts of California, Washington, and Australia. Up until prohibition Hawaii's wine industry relied on the Isabella grape. This is remarkable because Isabella is a Vitis Labrusca (cold climate) variety. Although I'm not recommending specifically that you plant either Riesling or Isabella, I do think it's important to "think outside of the box" and try a few vines that seem out of place in the desert. You might just discover the ideal variety.
Even if your primary interest is in making wine, you'll likely want to have a few table grape vines. Fortunately the two most popular table grape varieties, Flame Seedless and Thompson Seedless, do extremely well in the low deserts of the southwestern US. Both withstand the heat and produce good quality fruit with few issues. In fact, before urban sprawl overtook them, there were several large vineyards of both in the greater Phoenix area. If you want to try some less common varieties of table grapes, there are some things you should consider. Some seedless varieties can actually produce seeds, or at least whispy bits of seeds, when they are grown in an unfamiliar environment. Concord Seedless is one such example. When grown in a hot climate most of its grapes have a tiny seed that can be ignored, but is nonetheless annoying. A better choice for our climate should be Mars Seedless. It is said to have the same problem when grown in a cold climate; that is, in a cold climate it also produces seeds, but in a warm climate it produces none. I just planted a single Mars Seedless vine this year, and so far it's doing well. One more thing about table grapes... some varieties don't seem to hold up well under our heat. I have one Summer Royal vine that produced fruit for the first time last year. But as the grapes ripened, many split. I'm anxious to see if I'll get a repeat of that this year. I've found no cautions about growing this variety in the desert. In fact, it is said to do well in the warmer parts of California. Still though, at this point I can't recommend it. I suggest sticking with the two rock stars; Flame Seedless and Thompson Seedless.
Grapes to Consider
I initially titled this section "Recommendations", but I felt that was a little too strong. I don't have enough information at this point to make firm recommendations. I can, however, offer a short list of grape varieties for your further consideration. This list represents a composite of good candidates using the sources I described earlier, along with some anecdotal accounts, recommendations from professionals and hobbyists, and my own personal experience. I suggest that you "be bold" in your endeavors in desert viticulture and try a few unconventional choices. As previously mentioned, some grape varieties have done quite well outside of their own native environments. You may find, through your own experimentation some varieties that do well in the desert that no one has ever considered. Enough said, here's the list:
(2) Cabernet Sauvignon is best used as a blending grape when produced in a hot climate.
(3) Yes, Thompson Seedless is a good, neutral grape for blending. A lot of California bulk wine is made from this lowly grape.
June 18 - I promised I'd answer a few questions in this blog, but first let me first paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld. "There are things I know that I know, there are things I know that I don't know, and there are true unknowns... things I don't know that I don't know." Although somewhat convoluted, I can relate to what he was saying. There are occasionally things in the third category that surprise me... things I didn't know that I didn't know. And there are definitely a few things in the second category... things I know that I don't know. Pruning, training, and trellising are topics that are at least partly in that second category.
That takes us to the first question, "What type of trellis system do you use? Is it the same for your table grape varieties?" Well, most of my vines (table and wine grapes) are trained to what could best be described as a Four Cane Kniffen system. My approach to training and trellising was largely influenced by the first method described in the first book I got on viticulture. I had no idea what approach to follow and that seemed as good as any. Most varieties have responded quite well to the approach, with just a few exceptions. I have a single Arizona/Canyon vine that seems to have a mind of its own; it grows up, down, and sideways. It seems oblivious of my attempts to influence its growth. I also have several table grape vines at the San Tan vineyard that seem determined to follow more of a vertical growth pattern, similar to VSP (vertical shoot positioning) with bi-lateral cordon. This is coincidentally the training method I'll use for the Barbera vines I planted this year. It seems to be the preferred method for Barbera in California.
The reader went on to describe an approach he is considering that would use single cordons (cane pruned) and be trained to a modified VSP, with shoots split right and left in a "Y" fashion. This seems to me to be similar to the Geneva Double Curtain. I think this may work well for more vigorous varieties, but it may demand too much vegetative growth from less vigorous varieties. A lot though would depend on vine spacing. You always have to strike a balance between vegetative growth and fruit production. Also, it seems that each variety has it's own inherent growth habits. I think it's more important to consider the growth habits of the vines you are planting over any considerations of how the heat and sunlight might play into the equation.
The final question was related to the last. "Do you think this (training/trellising approach) would work well in Arizona, creating a leaf roof over aisles between rows... Is that too much shade?" Well, if the vines in question could support that much vegetative growth, and they were inclined to grow in that fashion, then I suppose it ought to be ok. With respect to the shade... In most locations grape growers will do some mid-season pruning and leaf thinning in order let some light and air through the vine. This is deemed desirable to reduce humidity-caused diseases like downy mildew and black rot, and to let some light hit the grapes to facilitate ripening them. Well, here we have no shortage of sunlight and virtually no humidity. In fact, sunburn is one of the issues we can have here in the desert. I think you can safely ignore these standard directions on leaf thinning and canopy management.
In summary, I suggest 1) following standard recommendations for training/trellising the variety you are working with, and 2) not following the standard advice on canopy management and leaf thinning.
One more thing... covering vines with some type of artificial shade seems to be the logical thing to do. After all, the sun is the biggest source of problems for desert viticulture. However, when I've shared this idea with seasoned grape growers from the hottest parts of California, all have said not to do it. They insist that no matter how hot it gets you don't want to reduce available sunlight. None has offered a rational for this, but I wonder if it has something to do with the reduction in efficiency of photosynthesis in the heat. That is, the hotter it gets the less efficient photosynthesis becomes. The additional shade just starves the vines even further. Hmmm... I'm not sure about that. It's just a thought. I'll follow up at a later date with articles on recommended varieties and more specific canapy management recommendations.
June 17 - I decided to test another Tempranillo grape, but this time I took pictures. This one came in just north of 18 brix, and the seeds are definitely green.
I'm guessing it'll be another week before I'll even be able to do a partial harvest of the Tempranillo. The Brix needs to be 22 to 24, and the seeds need to be brown.
I harvested my first grapes of the season today. Nothing to get too excited about though. It was just a single bunch of Flame Seedless at my San Tan vineyard. This year I'm expecting to harvest a good sized batch of Muscat from that site, as well as a small lot of Syrah, Viognier, Chambourcin, and Sauvignon Blanc, along with a number of table grape varieties.
I received several questions about trellising, pruning, and canopy management the other day. I don't consider myself an expert on these topics, but I will endeavor to provide an intelligent response in the next few days.
June 15 - I tested a single Tempranillo grape... one of the riper ones... and it came in at 19 Brix. The seeds were still not entirely brown. Looks like I'll have a partial harvest in a week to ten days.
One problem in the desert is uneven ripening, both in a single bunch and from one bunch to the next. I saw that last year on all three varieties I allowed to produce (Muscat, Tempranillo, and Nebbiolo), and I'm seeing it this year again on the Tempranillo. I've read that this is due to insufficient cold during dormancy, and an insufficient length of dormancy. I wonder if dropping fruit or a different pruning/training approach would help.
Splitting a harvest and picking out green or raisined grapes could be cost prohibitive for a commercial winery. For me it's just a minor annoyance.
June 14 - My lone Sangiovese vine appears to be going through veraison. Last year it produced fruit for the first time, but at about this time all of the grapes turned to raisins. I suppose that could be attributed to some combination of the vine's immaturity and the extreme heat. Hopefully this year I will have something to harvest.
I removed the 2008 Pseudo Tuscan from refrigeration last night, and this morning I racked it and tested the pH. Since the temperature hadn't fully stabilized yet, I got some pretty erratic readings (between 3.68 and 3.9) as I tried to warm up the sample. However, the highest and lowest readings are acceptable, and it tastes well balanced, so I'm not worried about it. A little more tartaric acid settled out during cold stabilization, so I think it was the right choice. While this wine is turning out fine, it's not the wine I was trying to make. I intended to make a dark, inky, chewy wine with a lot of back bone. What I've ended up with though is a much lighter "food" wine that has a bit of an Italian taste to it, but is reminiscent in color and body to wines from Rhône. This may be due in part to the climate, but there are some things I can do differently to coax more color out of these grapes in the future. I'll go into detail on these techniques in upcoming blog posts.
June 13 - A friend brought a 1993 Anselma Barolo (Nebbiolo) to a wine tasting last night. I don't often drink wines of that age. It was fantastic. Over time wines can go through a transformation that's amazing. They do, however, become much more subtle, which requires a different set of expectations and evaluation criteria..
I wish I could coax a wine like that out of my own Nebbiolo grapes. Unfortunately, unless I can figure out a way to get better color out of my Nebbiolo, it will continue to be entirely blended into the Pseudo Tuscan. Nebbiolo is known for color issues, but in the desert it seems to be especially deficient, producing wines that look more like a rosé.
June 11 - All is quiet in the vineyards. The Tempranillo is coming alive with color as the berries slowly ripen. As of yet it's the only variety going through veraison. It's amazing how peaceful and meditative it can be to spend time with your vines. Viticulture is truly an ancient tradition; one that seems deeply ingrained in the human psyche.
Desert Planting Instructions - Although I hope very few people in the low deserts are planting vines right now, for a couple of different reasons this topic was fresh in my mind so I decided to share a few thoughts.
The very best time of the year to plant vines around here is mid-March. It's at about that time that most varieties come out of dormancy. Planting any earlier is pointless and exposes the vines to risk of damage or desiccation while they're sitting in the ground waiting for bud break, and planting any later reduces the amount of time the vines have to become established before the onset of our extreme summer heat.
The second best time of the year to plant is mid-September. By about that time the worst of our summer heat has passed and newly planted vines have a fair chance of survival. We don't see dormancy until December, so most varieties will have three months to get established before calling it quits for the season. Be advised though that many nurseries don't do fall shipments of vines, and those that do have had them in cold storage for an extra six months. I haven't planted many vines in the fall, but the vast majority have done well.
I don't recommend planting mid-Summer, but I'll actually be replacing a failed Chardonnay vine at the Usery Pass vineyard this weekend. I mentioned the bad vine to the supplier and he shipped a replacement before I could stop him. I'll have to keep a close eye on it, and make sure to provide plenty of mulch to protect it from the sum..
Finally, here are abbreviated instructions that I follow when planting bare root vines:
this approach I've had a respectable 96% success rate. By the way,
digging a 2.5 foot hole in our soils can
be a monumental task, but it improves drainage and gives the vine's
roots some room to grow uninhibited. One trick for softening
our soils is to use a concentrated mixture of Alka
Liche, a liquid fertilizer. Dig down as far as you can go
(perhaps only a few inches), then fill the hole with the fertilizer.
Come back the next day and you'll be able to dig much farther, perhaps
all the way. This is a very effective trick, unfortunately Alka Liche
is very hard to find any more. It may have been discontinued. Other
liquid fertilizers are unlikely to work in the same way. If you're
putting in a number of vines, you should consider renting or purchasing
a power post hole digger (earth auger).
June 8 - Veraison is a neat process to watch. I thought I'd post a picture.
June 7 - I placed the 2008 Pseudo Tuscan under refrigeration today in order to cold stabilize it. I wouldn't normally cold stabilize a red wine but when I started this batch, tartaric acid was precipitating out in sheets. Despite this, the pH remained good at around 3.7 to 3.8. I think I was seeing a great deal of precipitating tartaric acid due to the chemistry of the wine; various minor constituents influence the likelihood of this happening. Also, I may have over compensated at the start because the grapes were low in acid and required an adjustment. My objective in cold stabilizing this batch isn't to reduce the acid or raise the pH, but instead just ensure that I won't see a large amount of tartaric crystals settling out once this batch is bottled. This is a very real possibility since my cellar temperature is lower than the temperature at which I bulk age. In a few days I'll remove the Pseudo Tuscan from refrigeration, rack it (transfer it to another vessel), and make whatever acid adjustments are necessary. Most red wines are well balanced with a pH of 3.6 to 3.9. Some are fine though above 4. If the pH is too high, they won't age well, and if it's too low, they will taste acidic and out of balance.
The Tempranillo is going through Veraison right now. It seems like every time I walk past a few more berries have changed color.
June 6 - Water, How Much and When? - The most important aspect of desert viticulture is water, or more specifically, the timing, duration, and volume of watering. Generally most sources recommend between 12 and 20 gallons of water per vine every week during the growing season, with some suggesting a peak watering schedule of 9 gallons per day. Some suggest to water heavily just once a week, while others recommend more frequent watering.
With respect to how much water each vine needs, a lot depends on your watering approach (flood, drip, or garden hose), ground cover (grass, mulch, etc.), and soil type (hardpan/caliche, loam, etc.). It's hard to over water grape vines in the desert. There is the possibility of root rot when applying excessive water in an area with poor drainage, but I haven't seen a problem with that yet, no matter how much water I apply.
It's especially important to give grape vines ample water between fruit set and harvest in order to keep the grapes on the vines as long as possible. Grapes benefit from extended hang time on the vines since it takes time for tannins to mature. There are three main considerations when determining the right time to harvest grapes; sugar level (Brix), Acidity (TA), and tannin maturity. There are objective measurements one can do for Brix and TA, but tannin maturity is best gauged by the appearance of the seeds; they should be brown in appearance, not green. In a perfect grape growing region, sugar levels, acidity, and tannin maturity all reach their optimal levels at the same time. In a hot climate though, sugar levels can rise too quickly, acidity can drop off too quickly, and tannins can take too long to mature. Food grade acid can be added at crush, so that isn't a huge concern, but tannins need to be mature in order to produce a quality wine. By providing ample water you reduce the likelihood of losing grapes to desiccation while you wait for the tannins to mature.
In the central Arizona deserts it's been my experience that 15 gallons per week per vine is about the right amount through most of the season, with up to 20 gallons being necessary between flowering and harvest. Again, a lot depends on your specific location, soil type, ground cover, etc., but in general this is a good starting point. If in doubt, water more than this. It's better to err on the side of too much water than too little. Although some people water their desert vineyards just once a week, I've found that grape vines do much better with a watering every second or third day; they become too stressed with a weeky watering during the peak growing season. Once harvest is complete, you can cut back on watering. Keep a close eye though on your vines between harvest and dormancy; make sure they have just enough water not to be stressed. During dormancy, you need only provide enough water to keep the vines from drying out. A short watering once a week should be sufficient.
If you are using drip irrigation you may be constrained by the design of the watering timer. Many timers are limited to just five or six hours of watering per day per station. If you are using one gallon per hour drip emitters, and your timer can only turn on a drip zone for five hours per day, then you'll need to schedule at least three waterings per week.
The single biggest reason for failure of vines in the desert is insufficient water. Many new grape growers are only familiar with the water requirements of their desert landscaping and underestimate the amount that's necessary for grape vines. If you water yours every second or third day, and provide at least 15 gallons per week, they should be able to withstand the summer heat and produce quality fruit.
June 5 - The Tempranillo is going through veraison!
June 2 - I've finished treating the San Tan and Superstition vineyards with Neem Oil. I'll make a trip up to Usery Pass tomorrow and treat the vines there as well. I've decided to return to scheduled spraying for 2010. I'm leaning towards spraying every two weeks, alternating between a fungicide, like Neem Oil or Stylet Oil, and a pesticide, like Pyrethrin or Permethrin. I'll follow up later with an article on "Better Living through Chemistry."
Veraison may only be a week away. Last year the first vines went through veraison on June 9th.
May 31 - Another problem has cropped up. At the Superstition vineyard today, I found black spots on a Tempranillo vine.
These spots look to me like Black Rot, but I solicited input on winepress.us and the concensus is that it's likely Powdery Mildew. I've been trying to reduce the use of chemicals this year, both sythetic and organic, so I've done no scheduled spraying. In light of this issue and the problems I found yesterday at the San Tan vineyard it seems that this was a mistake. In response to this new problem, I prepared a Neem Oil spray and treated the entire vineyard. It's possible that this issue, whether it's Black Rot or Powdery Mildew, could have been causing some of the problems I've had with dessicated grapes at the Superstition vineyard.
May 30 - I was at the San Tan vineyard today and discovered damage to two vines. One of the Muscat's had a number of damaged or eaten leaves, and one of the Barbera's was stripped entirely of its leaves.
I checked with several sources and posted a message over on winepress.us. The likely culprit for the Muscat damage seems to be the Leaf Skeletonizer, although I could never find the larvae. The cause of the damage to the Barbera is less certain, but the culprit could be Leaf Cutter Ants. Normally I would start with organic or benign synthetic pesticides and only escalate to stronger synthetics when those failed. I decided however to err on the side of caution and get out the big guns, Carbaryl (Sevin) and Imidacloprid (Admire Pro). These are very potent pesticides that I try not to overuse, most importantly because they may be associated with colony calapse disorder with honey bees. I felt compelled to use them in this case because by the time I get back down the the San Tan vineyard, extensive damage could have otherwise been done. I applied both of these pesticides to the effected vines and those around them. I hope no further applications are required since harvest may only be three weeks away.for some varieties.
May 29 - Monsoon Weather and Viticulture - I mentioned earlier that I'd share some thoughts on the summer monsoons and their impact on viticulture. Here's what I know: In the desert southwest heat gradually continues to build through April, May, and June. High temperatures continue to rise due to solar gain, with the soil, rocks, and infrastructure retaining more and more heat from day to day. Finally by early to mid July the heat has built up to the tipping point, and our normal west-to-east flows are overtaken by flows coming up from the southeast (from Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico). This brings a dramatic change to our weather; late afternoon storms become frequent, humidity increases, and temperatures are somewhat reduced.
In the warmest desert locations, most grapes are harvested before the monsoon starts. But in more moderate parts of the southwest, like Sonoita and Sedona in Arizona, the increase in humidity and rainfall can cause some problems. Generally you don't want to have rain near harvest. The extra moisture can cause diseases like Powdery Mildew and Downy Mildew. Rain just prior to harvest can also make it more difficult to get equipment into and out of the vineyard.
The increase in humidity, and resulting issues with disease, can impact variety and clonal selection. Varieties that produce loose bunches are preferred for these conditions, as they are somewhat less susceptible to powdery, downy mildew, and black rot. For example, Zinfandel does well in the heat, but it has relatively tight clusters. Many producers have instead planted clones of Primitivo, a genetically identical variety that produces loose clusters which makes it less prone to disease. These issues can also be addressed by employing a spraying regimen similar to those used by grape growers in other parts of the country.
May 28 - I had forgotten what a hassle it is to hang bird netting. It's easier with two people, but even then it's a bit like herding cats. The black plastic netting tends to hang up on everything; grape clusters, trellis posts, etc. Over on winepress.us several posters have recommended other products. For next year I'll have to explore my options. There must be a better solution than this.
May 27 - Very soon, perhaps in a matter of days, grapes at all three vineyards will go through a color change. This process is called "veraison". It's also at about this time that birds will take a sudden interest in the grapes, consuming a good number of them. In an area where grape vines outnumber birds, the damage done by the birds may be minor. But here at least, the loss of crop can be significant. It's necessary then to take steps to keep the birds away from the grapes. The most effective measure one can take is to place bird netting over the vines. There are several types of netting available, but most major garden centers carry some type of it. It's best to secure the netting every few feet with clothes pins. If you leave a gap in the netting, birds will find it. It's important to keep a eye on netted vines, both for the benefit of the grapes and for the birds. Sometimes they will find a way in but won't be able to get out again.
In advance of veraison I'm quickly tying up and pruning the vines as this will be difficult with the netting in place.
May 20 - The extended period of above average temperatures seems to have brought about an early Monsoon weather pattern. It rained today; we don't normally see any rain this time of the year. The break in record highs is much appreciated. As time permits, I'll write on the topic of Monsoon weather and its impact on viticulture in the Southwest.
May 17 - With high temps remaining about 10 degrees above average, all three vineyards have been transitioned to a daily watering schedule, but still, some vines are showing signs of stress. Many vines are getting "burnt" leaves, but the Tempranillo is also showing stress at the bunches.
Some of the developing grape bunches have been drying out and falling off. The condition of the bunches and leaves could also be signs of disease, but since the onset of these symptoms coincided with the extreme heat, that seems to be the likely cause. The Tempranillo flowered prior to most of the previously mentioned wind, and therefore was set to produce a large crop, but with this issue, in order to produce the best crop possible any damaged bunches were pruned (e.g. the fruit was "dropped"). Hopefully this turns out to be the right choice.
May 14 - Early in the spring the Usery Pass vineyard was planted. Barbera is the primary variety for this vineyard. Other varieties include Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, and several varieties of table grapes.
Strong April winds and an early start to summer impacted the vineyards. The strong winds occured during flowering and interfered with pollination and fruit set. The heat came on strong with temperatures 10° F above normal for much of May, requiring an increase in watering in order to keep the developing fruit on the vines.
2008 was the inaugural year for wine making at Goldmine Mountain Cellars. Only a few vines were mature enough to be allowed to produce grapes. Flowers were pruned from the majority of the vines in order to focus their energy on establishing roots.
At the Superstition vineyard, there was a serious issue with grape leaf hoppers. These are small insects that suck the sap out of the leaves producing spots and stressing the vine. In keeping with the principals of a "light touch", efforts were made to bring their numbers under control with organic pesticides and benign synthetics. Some success was realized with fly paper strips used in conjuction with Permethrin and Pyrethrin, but ultimately it was necesssary to use Carbaryl, a more aggressive synthetic insectide. By the time the leaf hoppers were under control, significant damage had been done, resulting in a lower Brix level for the harvested grapes.
Fortunately no such problems were experienced at the San Tan vineyard.
The immaturity of the vineyards combined with the grape leaf hopper problem greatly restricted the volume of wine produced in 2008. Only a small lot of Pseudo Tuscan was produced, along with a very small lot of Muscat.