© 1999 - 2013 Amalie Robert Estate, LLC
2011 Fall Review and Photo Journal
Winemaking: The continuation of terroir by other means.®
Hello and Welcome!
This is the Amalie Robert Estate 2011 Fall Review and Photo Journal.
We apologize for the tardiness of this communication. We were however, unavoidably detained by the 2011 vintage. Those responsible have been cluster plucked, fermented, pressed and placed into 60 gallon oak barrels for 18 months of solitary confinement. When they emerge, we shall bear witness to one of the more interesting vintages Oregon has ever seen.
The growing season heat accumulation is measured using Degree Days. This number helps humans to “get their nose wrapped around*” how the aromas, flavors and sugars were developed during the growing season. Warmer vintages may indicate fully mature “dark fruited” aromas and flavors with potentially low acidity and high sugar levels leading to corresponding alcohol levels. (* Thanks Gail.)
The recent string of vintages beginning with 2007 through 2011 (and 2005), reveal a more gradual ripening of aromas and flavors where we literally used all of the growing season available to us. These conditions can lead to more layered and nuanced aromas and flavors with lower alcohol potential – a more traditional Oregon vintage.
Bear in mind, this is just one piece of the Pinot Noir puzzle. Add vineyard location, farming methods, clonal selection, leaf pull regime, harvest dates, time in barrel and bottle aging, then proceed with an open mind. You may be surprised as to what you discover lurking beneath the cork.
Or as Dena will tell you, the two best wines she has ever had are “my last glass of Champagne” and whatever is in her glass at the moment. You can impress your friends and score points in tasting room conquests with your suave demeanor and in-depth knowledge of the 2011 vintage by reading the Amalie Robert Estate 2011 Julian calendar and Photo-journal.
Year of the Dragon
We have deemed the 2011 vintage the “Year of the Dragon.” The Komodo Dragon that is. Ernie grew up in Montana and all through his formative years he wanted a Komodo Dragon. But he was given a plethora of reasons why not: It’s just too cold here, and what if it gets loose? Who is going to feed it, and what does it eat? Are you going to clean up after it? Santa, by the way, was no help. It would have been easier to get a BB gun for Christmas or even a leg lamp.
As harvest began to wear on us like the weathered rock at the end of a class IV rapids, we actually took a moment to look at the bag of beans we were grinding up into our pre-dawn caffeine constitutional. Ernie’s eyes lit up, at least one anyway, and he became quite agitated. “What the French Roast is this?!”
It was a moment to behold. Ernie was now living in a more temperate climate where, just maybe his Komodo Dragon dream could come true. There were plenty of rodents in the vineyard and clean up would be giving back to the soil. And we could get some hay for a nest. Yes, hay would be good, plenty of hay.
“Hey!” Dena said again. “Let’s get moving. This is no time for lollygagging around. You’ve got grapes to pick!” Once again, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. But be wise to never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat. The dream lives on.
On a related note, most readers of this space and farmers in general know, that no good deed goes unpunished. It turns out that one of Oregon’s more interesting, knowledgeable and passionate writers has put together an iPhone app about Oregon wine. This is the good deed.
The punishment seems to follow-on from this quote by Rich Cook, “Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.”
To wit, finding and downloading Katherine’s app is to navigate a Labyrinth – beware the Minotaur. So, here it is. Katherine Cole has been writing about Oregon wines and all of the “unique personalities” that make up this community since she was able to deftly swirl a fine Pinot Noir. You can follow her directions below to download her iPhone app “Oregon Uncorked.” If you need to know more about Katherine Cole, and you do, please visit her website www.katherinecole.com.
1) Make sure you are in a place with a good wireless connection.
2) Go to the iTunes store and search for "Oregon Uncorked" or "Oregon Wine." You will see a globe logo with the words "Sutro World." Download this and, if you are working from your computer, synch your phone.
3) Open the "Sutro World" app from your iPhone or iPad. At some point, it will try to do you the favor of automatically downloading a giant San Francisco app. Don't let it do this. Click on the "x" to make it stop.
4) "Sutro World" is, in essence, a mini app store. You should be able to navigate to a listing of all geographies. Touch "North America" once and let go. Wait a second, and nearly 200 "North America" apps will appear. Scroll down to "Oregon Uncorked," touch it, then hit the "$2.99" button to download. Then let your phone sit near your wireless connection for the ridiculously long time it takes to download the app.
For those of you who like to open presents early on Christmas Eve, here is a sneak peak at the Amalie Robert Estate section. http://oregonuncorked.sutromedia.com/amalie-robert-estate.html
Now let’s “Kick the tires and light their fires!” This is what they used to say when it was time to launch jets off of the flight deck of the USS Intrepid. Now it is a little prayer Ernie says when he starts the tractors during harvest each morning.
Getting in Deep with the Viticulturist
The 2011 vintage follows a string of cool vintages here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Properly grown wines will showcase the slow ripening and layered flavor and aroma development that occur with extra time on the vine in cool ripening conditions. These wines were grown to harness the ethereal elegance and Machiavellian power of Pinot noir. They encourage the imagination to take a runner that can lead you into the enchanted forest of Pinot Noir.
Our vines first started to “bud out” on day 125 on the Julian Calendar. You may be more familiar with this day as May 5th and it was the latest bud break we have seen at Amalie Robert Estate. The Spring remained cool and things took a while to get moving. Speaking of moving, here is what a bee hive looks like when it is looking for a new home. The colony adopted this vine in block 31 until it could find a suitable new home.
July 3rd (day 184) brought Pinot Noir flowers to the vineyard and was the date we needed to estimate the harvest window. Flowering typically occurs in June (on Dena’s Birthday.) We add 105 days to the flowering date and came up with day 289 for the beginning of harvest – Sunday October 16th.
There was no more youthful optimism in hoping for an early harvest. Each year in the Willamette Valley is different, and after the malaise of birds last year, we were wondering what Mother Nature was going to offer up this year. The thoughts of 2010 harvest conditions therefore brought clarity and a sense of purpose and urgency to the vineyard management program.
We were motivated to do what we could to encourage ripe aromas and flavors in our wines. Specifically, Ernie turned to canopy management as the main tool for achieving good ripeness throughout the vineyard. His main adversary was the cool evenings during the middle of the growing season when we should be seeing warm evenings. Here is how that relationship plays out.
Consider the leaves from each vine to be solar collectors that create energy for the vine. This energy is than trans-located throughout the vine to promote more foliage development, root growth and seed ripening. The leaves can photosynthesize much more energy than they can transport during daylight hours, so they rely on the evening hours to fully “energize” the vine and start the day anew.
However, if the nighttime temperatures drop to around 50 degrees, this energy transfer slows to a halt. The result is the leaf is still holding energy from the prior day into the new day and unable to generate a full measure of energy. The impact on the vine is to delay the ultimate purpose of the vine – to ripen its seeds. That extends our time as winegrowers to achieve good aroma and flavor development after the seeds are ripe. So, we want to help the vine ripen its seeds before the onset of winter or self proclaimed wine critics.
Ernie has tried to boil the ocean before and that didn’t really work, unless you ask the global warming advocates and they will say it did. So, he decided he would let Mother Nature play the cool at night card and he would try to grow more leaves. The reasoning here is the more leaves we have, the more energy will get transferred to the vine at any given temperature. Bring on the hedger!
While it is true that this machine is French, it is hard to argue with 20 cutting edges whirling at over 10,000 rpm. Much like any activity, the effectiveness lies in the mastery of the subject. In other words do you know what effect you are trying to achieve?
In 2011 the effect we wanted to achieve was to remove the vine’s actively growing shoot tips and leave the leaves functioning intact. The shoot tips have a purpose, up to about 7 ½ feet. They provide a shoot that will sprout leaves that will ripen our fruit. But once they fill out our 7 ½ foot tall canopy, their job is finished. Remember these are vines, and if given a chance, they will grow to the nearest tree and climb it unabated. We remove that shoot tip so that the vine’s energy will be focused on ripening the fruit.
However, the vine notices this “decapitation” and low and behold starts to push “lateral” shoots. These shoots will also sprout more leaves – as if they have read the plan. But once again, these laterals only need to grow out so far. This time we are looking for horizontal growth, and once the shoot tip grows out into the tractor row, Ernie is there to nip it off, while preserving the leaves.
At the end of the day, we have a “High, Wide and Handsome” canopy full of photo-synthetically active leaves. There are few if any remaining shoot tips trying to divert energy into new shoot growth – there is no more room. We have shifted the curve and have focused the vines efforts on ripening its seeds.
Ernie ran the hedger though the vineyard 4 times in 2011, maintaining the same steely concentration behind the wheel, until the actively growing shoot tips were no more. The result was significantly more leaf surface that contributed to ripeness the last 2 weeks of October. We are proud to say, leaves are our friends.
Harvest began as we predicted it would – in earnest. In the “Year of the Dragon” we began harvest on day 296, October 23. This was +7 days from our original harvest estimate of day 289. Technically speaking, the sugars and acids were perfect. From the winegrower perspective, we held our judgment until we could smell the active fermentation. When they started to ferment and we could smell the efforts of our work in the field, we just kept saying “WTF!” (Waft The Fruit) You can read the Harvest Brief and full Harvest After Action Report here.
The Winegrower Perspective
Sometime after the first hedging we begin removing some leaves in the fruit zone. Of all the things we do by hand in the vineyard, this one activity brings the most to bear on our wine aroma and mid-palate texture than any other. By taking a few leaves and allowing dappled light to mature the skins, we preserve the supple nature of Pinot Noir. Take too many, and you get burned by a hot sun and the elegance of Pinot Noir is slighted. You also are removing more of the very leaves you need to ripen the fruit.
We often hear the term extraction bandied around as if it is the culprit in Pinot noir. But let’s take a minute and extract some meaning from the “common knowledge” of extraction. At the winery, we like to describe extraction in the terms of making a nice cup of Darjeeling tea. The water needs to be just right and the soaking of the tea performed for just the right amount of time to provide sheer bliss. Soak the tea too long, or if the water is too hot, and well, that is a missed opportunity and the moment is gone.
In growing wine, extraction starts, you guessed it, in the field. The primary effect we as humans have on the extraction of Pinot noir is with the vines’ leaves. The primary reason for most leaves is clearly photosynthesis. A second reason, and seemingly a little known secret, is that the leaves can shade the fruit and protect the developing grapes from over exposure. The natural result is a much more interesting, but less bold aroma, a little more richness in the mid palate and a lot less stewed or baked flavors in the finish. Our goal for all of our actions in the field, but especially leaf pull, is to shape the aroma and flavor profile of our wines.
However there is a potential downside to leaving a few extra leaves – Botrytis. Botrytis is the last challenge a winegrower faces after the frost, rain and birds have savaged the vineyard. (It is a surprise to some, but not all of those grapes make it to the winery.) By removing leaves around the fruit zone, the idea is that the morning sun will dry the fruit and deprive Botrytis the moisture it needs to grow. This is a nice theory, but over the last few years, Ernie can tell you there is a low correlation/causation relationship there. Typically these clusters rot from the inside out. No amount of leaf pull is going to make up for poor farming practices in June when the vines are flowering and Botrytis spores are in the air.
But with excess leaves removed from the fruit zone, what you certainly get is more “extraction” on the vine. The grape skins accumulate sunshine and have developed excess phenolics or skin tannins. This is akin to my Irish friends who like to vacation in Spain during the hot summer months. They come back “Fire Engine” red, and peel for a week then return to a nice pasty white glow the rest of the year. Meanwhile, if they just stayed put, the ladies from Spain come to Ireland to escape the heat and partake of the Guinness. Now that is causation/correlation.
Of course, some varieties need all the sun they can get, and we give it to our cool climate Syrah. Syrah takes longer to develop its flavors and aromas and a few extra kisses of sunshine help to make this grape’s day. Also, these are pretty tough skinned buggers and they just laugh at Botrytis.
All of this makes for a good story as we walk the field during the summer, but it is hard to evaluate wine quality as the grapes are just turning pink in August and September. This brings us to the dark side of extraction - and that is the fermentation process.
Welcome to Fermentation Control
Scientifically, fermentation is the conversion of sugar to ethanol with a byproduct of carbon dioxide and heat. In winegrowing we respect the science, but our mission is to unlock the stored aromas and flavors from the skins that we have spent the growing season grooming for just this special occasion.
We have the advantage of growing all of our own wine and are intimately familiar with our vineyard. We run all the sugar and acid numbers, but we harvest each block by aroma and flavor. It’s not that hard. We know we are most likely going to pick our fruit before the birds take all of it, so we decide which blocks taste ready and which do not. It’s a bit like playing chicken with Mother Nature, but in farming it is surprising what you can get used to.
Then it boils down to vineyard logistics. The challenge is, in any given day, how do Ernie and Dena move 20 tons (about 160,000 clusters) of grapes still on the vine, from several vineyard blocks scattered all over the property into nicely organized 800 pound bins neatly arranged outside the winery? “I tell ya folks it’s harder than it looks. It’s a long way to the top, if you got some grapes to haul.” Queue AC/DC and their bagpipes…
So, block by block and ¼ pound cluster by cluster, these little aroma and flavor packets make there way to the fermenters. Some go in still clinging to their stems, while others are a bit more cavalier and are seeking adventure. There are about 3,000 pounds worth in each fermenter, enough to yield about 4 barrels of wine. A quick splash of sulfur dioxide to keep the bad characters in check and we are off to fermentation!
For the first week or so, not much to see as all of the action is at the microbial level. Our indigenous yeast that come in with the grapes are busy consuming all of the nutrients they need to build strong cell walls so they can complete a healthy fermentation. It’s a cool place to hang out. Then one day, they run out of oxygen.
Once the yeast depletes all of the dissolved oxygen in the fermenter, they go “anaerobic.” That’s when they begin to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide from fermentation starts to fill the air. It is at this time in the fermenter when you can smell all of the hand grooming that went into shaping the aromas of our wines.
Now we are getting somewhere – extraction! As we behold this ethereal elixir, we must be careful to monitor our fermentation temperatures. Too cool and we leave some great aroma and flavor “on the table.” Too hot and we get “over extraction”. This is where the dark flavors enter the wine. Blackberries and the raisin flavors of Port are great - in Port, but we seek to avoid them when pursuing the Holy Grail of Pinot Noir. Give us freshly picked and crushed raspberries on a warm summer day, or the passing scent of a yellow rose while walking in the park. The twisting mid-palate and long lingering finish of stem tannin. Hmm, 5 spice roast duck comes to mind.
Winemaking is the continuation of Terroir by other means.®
The combination of growing wine for our style of fermentation and monitoring our temperatures allows us to extract that sweet spot of Pinot Noir. The skins are wonderfully developed with nuanced aromas and are fermented to behold their elegance. Our whole cluster addition assures us of tannins to complement our rich mid-palate expression of Pinot Noir. Capturing and harnessing these aromas and underlying flavors is stewardship. The result is a purposeful expression of Pinot Noir that respects our vineyard and the inherent pleasure this elegant wine can offer.
It seems this lesson will be lost on some, but maybe just in California. The world of wine is changing and what we hold most dear in our experiences with Burgundy wines is seemingly being replaced. Here is an interview from 2006 with a view on how the future might have unfolded. "It's nontraditional now, but in 30 years this will be the traditional style of Pinot Noir."
What do you think? Are we there yet? Or is this just the latest fraud to be perpetrated on the wine consumer?
Mother Nature has put her finishing touches on another year. The wines from 2011 are a couple years away from the marketplace, but we have a pretty good feeling about them. The past few vintages have given us the opportunity to experience real, cool climate viticulture and grow wines that typify Oregon terroir in a very traditional style. We look forward to the occasion where we can share a vintage or two with you.
Chief Executive Overseer
Chief Farming Officer
© 2012 Amalie Robert Estate, LLC