Thursday, 11 September 2014

Getting the Grapes Right

Leading into vintage, a winemaker has one overarching question day in, day out:
When is the perfect time to pick the grapes?
There is obsessive observation of weather forecasts, regular vineyard visits to taste grapes and the inevitable whirlwind of grape sampling, all to gather information that can assist in getting the timing right.

This week, I was fortunate to accompany the winemaker on a trip to some contract vineyards in a neighbouring valley. Although most of the grapes for the wines at Road 13 Vineyards are grown on site, some varieties are either unavailable on the property or are sourced elsewhere based on either quality or affordability. 

On this particular day, we travelled to Keremeos, which is in the Similkameem Valley, slightly north east of Oliver. This valley has a warmer climate and does not have the tempering affects of a large body of water to counteract the contintental climate, meaning that it experiences much greater extremes in temperature. The area definitely had a stark but beautiful landscape with sheer mountainsides looming in all directions. To add to the rugged feeling of the area, it was absolutely blowing a gale whilst we were there.

Our first stop was Barren Vineyard, aptly named for the hot climate. The owner/grower appears to have been in the business for the long haul and was in the final year of a contract with Road 13 to supply Gamay Noir grapes. These grapes are actually used as a filler for their entry level red blend and contribute some fruit flavours, but not much in terms of structure or character. Unfortunately, whilst walking through the vineyards, we observed that the grapes on the western side of the rows were much less developed than those on the eastern sides, with many bunches still green. The winemaker was not very impressed, but was fair in giving the grape grower and his staff one week to address the problem. From my perspective, it was a lesson in the harsh realities of being a contract grower and how important it is to keep your client's requirements in mind in order to uphold future contracts. 

Next we moved on to Blind Creek Vineyard. I was amazed at the amount of activity occuring in this vineyard - vineyard workers on foot and on tractors were weaving in and out of the vines between the vehicles of winemakers who were driving up and down checking their selected rows of grapes.
We were here to sample some Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.

Each sample needed to contain approximately 200 grapes in total and needed to be a fair representation of the entire section of vines for that particular grape variety. So for the approximately 10 or so rows that were there, I needed to select 8 rows and then walk down between two rows at a time and stop at 5 random bunches on each side (or on each row). At each bunch, I would pick 5 grapes from different locations on the bunch (at the front, top, middle, side and back), to account for variations in sun exposure, distance from nutrients, etc.

The trip was a very insightful experience for me, as I have little experience in the vineyard. Each time I have the opportunity to add another piece to the puzzle, it makes me appreciate the end product more and more.