S1 EP0021 - In the Vineyard

Dealing with problems in the vineyard, and making winemaking/picking decisions


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Episode 0021:

Finger Lakes Viticulture – September 2, 2021

I want to start by thanking each one of you that has downloaded the show, shared it with friends, subscribed, ranked, and commented via your favorite podcast platforms.  As of this week, our show ranked 79th in the US on Apple Podcasts in the food and wine category.  We’ve also built a strong audience in both New Zealand and Norway, where in each of those countries, we ranked in the top 10 on these charts as well.  Thanks for the support, as we continue to climb charts, build listenerships, and grow this community.  In six months, we’ve accomplished alot, and I promise, there is so much more to come!

Thanks also for joining us for our bi-weekly “in the vineyard update.”  With the calendar now showing September, things are about to get extremely busy as harvest is nearly here in the Finger Lakes for my winery, Missick Cellars.  I had planned to end Season 1 of Viticulture in August, and take a few months off to focus on the winemaking tasks at hand.  With some great shows edited and ready to be delivered to you, we will keep on pushing through into October with interviews with winemakers, technologists and philosophers.  As of now, I’m not planning on producing any “In the Vineyard” updates for YouTube throughout harvest, but we will drop some special audio only updates, so stay tuned. For Season 2, we will continue with our long form interviews, we will feature some podcasts via a sub-series called “In the Cellar,” and will be adding a new Substack feature called “Long Reads.”  In this segment, planned as a separate release of the podcast, we’ll go through some long form written content on broad subjects ranging from wine, viticulture, and makers generally, reading passages and providing commentary.  

As we’ve mentioned many times, growing degree days don’t tell the whole story of a vintage, but they do give us a window into the nature of a vintage.  So far this year, as of August 30, we are at 2261.  So far, over the last decade only four vintages have shown more accumulated growing degree days. 2012, 2016, 2018 and 2020 were all slightly warmer, with 2016 marking 2,310 GDD, 2018 marking 2,363, and 2020, with 2,307.  In contrast to our current positioning at 2,261 GDD, throughout the previous decade, the other 6 vintages ranged between a low of 2059 GDD and and a high 2180 GDD.  

The challenge in the vineyard remains moisture.  Moisture with this heat can create a situation with compromised fruit in the vineyard, and that compromised fruit usually means sour rot.  

Sour rot is unmistakable and nasty.  Essentially, as berries move past rapid cell division and begin accumulating sugar post veraison, once sugar content in the berry exceeds 8%, the potential for sour rot exists if the skins become compromised.  As long as the juice and sugar are enclosed in the skin of the berry, this problem will not raise its head.  In general, the skins become compromised from a number of different variables.  From birds and insects feeding on berries and breaking skins, to mechanical or growth cracks.  Mechanical cracks happen when operating machinery in the vineyard and some implement injures the berries, and growth cracks most often happen after heavy rains, which cause the grapes to swell beyond their capacity to hold the water, and cause ruptures in the skin.  Finally, skins can become compromised by powdery mildew as well.  

Once the skin has been damaged, the stage is set for sour rot.  Most sour rot is caused by acetic acid which essentially turns the sweetening juice inside the grape into vinegar.  It’s spread by the drosophila fly, which is a tiny fly that swarms cluster and acts as a vector for the spread of the acetic acid.  

Sour rot is not something that is a major problem in every vintage in the Finger Lakes, but it is a persistent issue we deal with.  Some years are drastically worse than others.  I’ve referenced 2018, which was a vintage with a perfect confluence of circumstances to promote sour rot.  In 2020, the vintage was nearly perfect with no real pressure on the grapes from sour rot.

Although 2021 is nowhere near as bad as 2018, it certainly has not been a relatively easy vintage like 2020.  The pressure we are dealing with is above average, and that will impact picking decisions and therefore wine styles.  It was also mean a variable harvest across varietals and sites.

For a peek behind the curtain of the mind of a winemaker, I am noticing increasing pressure from sour rot in our Riesling, but not in our Chenin Blanc or our Cabernet Franc.  Consequently, I will target an earlier harvest than usual for our Riesling.  Without high sugar ripeness, and with higher titratable acidity and low pH, this is not the optimum picking for producing weighty dry riesling.  It can however, make delightful low alcohol and Kabinet style Rieslings.  To understand what I mean by Kabinet, with a K, we need to take a look at the German classifications for Riesling based on what we call the must weight.

I’m going to really simplify this and the German classification system, but must weight is the average sugar reading for a particular lot of picked fruit.  In the United States, we use a measurement for sugar ripeness known as brix, where the higher the brix, the higher the sugar.  As a general rule, the German classification rates wine types from lowest brix at harvest to highest brix at harvest as Kabinet, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese.  Wines, at least in the first three classifications, can be produced from dry to off dry, and even some sweetness.  Picking at a Kabinet level usually requires a minimum brix of 17.  We can make a very simple calculation for potential alcohol based on brix, by multiplying the brix by .545.  In other words, at 17 brix, a wine that is fermented to dryness has a potential alcohol of around 9%.  In order to find a sugar acid balance, these wines will often be left with some residual sugar, and finished with a potential alcohol of around 8%.  At these levels, these grapes may not produce the most complex wines, but they can make delicious, low alcohol, very enjoyable wines.  Additionally, due to the low alcohol, high acid, and bit of residual sugar, these wines can have very long lives.  

When grapes are becoming compromised, and the decision is made to pick early, all is not lost.  We can still make delicious, approachable and enjoyable wines.  Of course, the other component of that is to make sure you’re picking only the cleanest fruit.  In circumstances like this, we will continue dropping bad fruit, and ensure that our hands are not even touching sour rot clusters when it comes time to harvest our fruit.    

As a veteran, the news of the last few weeks have been difficult to watch.  I’ve made time to reach out to many fellow veterans, friends who served selfelssly in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  The images on our televisions and in our news feeds brings back a lot of memories for many vets, and I’d like to encourage you to check in on those you may know that have served.  Lend a listening ear, be a friend.  Many need that right now.  

If you like this podcast, please be sure to rate us 5 stars in Apple podcasts and like our videos on YouTube.  It really helps with the ratings and in introducing new folks to the show.  Be sure to tune in next week, where I speak with Katarina Axelsson, co-founder and CEO at Tastry, touted as being the world’s first artificial intelligence driven sensory sciences company, with a tagline that Tastry taught a computer to taste.  Katarina’s story is inspiring, and weaves wine and technology in a way that represents the cutting edge of the wine industry.