Fall is a remarkable time of year. Days are getting shorter, nights are growing colder, and the leaves have fallen from the vines. Harvest has finally come to an end.
Before we relax – or in my case, get ready to welcome my first child into the world – I want to take the time to reflect on the 2017 vintage. And Thanksgiving seems like an appropriate time to do just that.
Documenting my observations is a new habit I intend to form. I’m hopeful that these notes will inform future decisions, serve as a reminder of the past, and provide nostalgic reading material someday down the line. So, here it goes!
2017 Was a Wild Ride
The season began with an unseasonably warm March. I recall pruning Chardonnay in mid-March wearing jeans and a tee shirt; the vines were bleeding sap with every cut. This is a worrisome sign that the vines are de-acclimating and, subsequently, at a heightened risk of damage should we experience a cold snap. Fortunately, the weather mellowed out in April and bud-break was right on average: April 14th for Chardonnay.
We had a patchy frost event on the morning of May 9th that moderately reduced our crop in our home vineyard Muscat, but nothing else. The Muscat is always at the greatest risk because it buds out early and it’s situated on our lowest site where the cold air drains. Fortunately, damage was minimal overall and we were off to the races with what turned out to be a record crop.
In late-May the weather was idyllic and flowering was quite fruitful. Full bloom in Chardonnay hit on June 8 and Cabernet Franc came five days later. June and July were fairly typical: hot, humid, sporadic thunderstorms, but nothing problematic. One of our partner growers experienced a devastating hailstorm on July 17 at exactly 2:40 PM. Thankfully this event was localized and didn’t affect most. A stern reminder that we are all mere farmers at nature’s mercy.
August was as cool and wet as I can ever remember. I recall spotting veraison (the onset of ripening) in Syrah relatively early, around August 1. But because of the lousy weather, color change was fairly sluggish. Regular rains meant that mildew pressure was heightened and we had to be particularly diligent with our vineyard management. At this point, pessimism was rampant. Little did we know this was the turning point of the vintage.
September was exceptionally good to us. High-pressure systems shielded us from hurricanes Irma and Jose. We went 3+ weeks without a single drop of rain. It was warm and dry in the last days of summer. And for that we are so thankful!
Wine Nerds Will Appreciate This
Harvest began with a bang on September 10th. Chardonnay and Albariño for sparkling wine were first up. The fruit was not only beautiful, but yields were high. We carried our typical crop load of 18 clusters per vine, but found the clusters were heavy. Like .25 lbs each, instead of a typical .2 lbs. While it might not seem like much, a .05 lb increase per cluster in a high density vineyard adds 1 ton of fruit per acre! This increase was likely due to the nice weather during bloom. Not at all a problem, just an observation.
Natural acidity was high and sugar levels were relatively low. Chardonnay and Albariño were 19 and 19.5 brix with pH’s in the 3.1’s on the first pick. This is perfect for sparkling wine, but we needed to continue hanging the rest for still wines.
We picked more home vineyard Chardonnay on September 22. The chemistries had advanced considerably in 12 days: 21.5 brix, 3.4 pH. We soon realized high yields, high acidity and low-ish brix would be a common theme for the whites. Viognier, Pinot Gris and Grüner Veltliner all followed suit. And we’re not complaining, because this equates to a bounty of bright, fresh whites to be bottled next year. Muscat was the only outlier because of the early season frost; it yielded 1.8 of the projected 4 tons.
By late-September the grass was browning and excitement for a banner year was growing. We continued to be diligent with our chores in the vineyard as we monitor the physiological ripeness of our red grapes to determine the optimal time to pick. Sure, we track sugars and acidity – but we do much more than that – we visually inspect the vineyard, we kick the vine's trunk and see if berries drop to the ground, we taste the fruit, chew the seeds, note the texture of the pulp and toughness of the skins; we assess the flavor development and aroma and pontificate about the wine to come.
Merlot and Malbec were the first reds up on September 23; the fruit looked immaculate with great color and flavor. Syrah was next and we picked all three vineyards in succession – home, Pad’s View and Harmony – between October 3–7. Cabernet Franc was the most varied: we grow this grape in our home vineyard and also source from numerous vineyards throughout northern Maryland. Soils, clones, rootstocks and weather all impact harvest dates; we picked Cook’s vineyard on September 20 while our home vineyard hung until October 16. Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon were the last varieties hanging. Usually PV is ready before CS, but this year both were picked together on October 21–22, marking the end of harvest.
Simple, But Not Easy
Overall, 2017 has the early makings of a great year. The aromas are vibrant, acidity is high and alcohol is relatively low.
The process of making great wine is simple: grow ripe, flavorful grapes and shepherd them carefully through fermentation, aging, and bottling. That's it. But as simple as it is, it's certainly not easy. At the end of the day, we're farmers. We battle weather, fungi, insects, and wildlife. We are tireless because we know a great bottle of wine reflects its maker's hard work and creativity.
So, what should we expect from the wines? I’ll save that for a future post. And we look forward to sharing the results with you.
We wish you and yours a happy Thanksgiving!