The Kenwood Press
: 10/01/2016

Harvesting for flavors

George MacLeod

It’s seven a.m. and outside there is a gray dawn light. From my second floor window I can see the beautiful Sonoma Valley spread out before me. The early morning light is so bright on my eyes that I have trouble seeing the computer keys. My family has suggested that I can put curtains across my big window. I say, “Not going to happen.” I will squint at the keys if I have to, but I’m not giving up this view.

This time every year, as the grapes reach full maturity, I enjoy writing about the crop we have worked so hard to cultivate, and are now harvesting. I try to find ways to explain the pure magic of what is going on out there in the vineyard.

Our family has been farming the 50 rocky hillside acres of Indian Springs Ranch for some 40 years now. And while we continually experiment with new vineyard practices, there is much that has remained the same – same vines, same soil. Even many of the Latino workers on Chuy’s team are the same. Yet each year the flavors and aromas are strikingly different. How is it possible that each vintage can produce unique flavors and aromas from the same vines?

To me the answer lies in an expanded vision of the complexity and living, dynamic nature of terroir. There’s more to terroir than soil and sun. Believing, as I do, that there are cultural, spiritual, and microclimate aspects to terroir, perhaps we can begin to understand how flavors can change from one vineyard to the next. And even from one vine to the next!

We used to pick and process all the grapes of a single variety as one wine. However, as we’ve become more skilled at identifying different flavors, we’ve found unique variations in flavors and aromas within a single vineyard block. This year we are processing three separate wines from different areas of the same Sauvignon Blanc vineyard – wines that will feature flavors of gooseberry, pineapple, stone fruit, and crisp acids.

Being able to identify these different flavors makes harvesting more difficult as we try to selectively pick for the different flavors. But when you believe that great wines are made in the vineyard…it’s what you do.

Dry farmed vineyard shows promise

After seven long years of nursing a small experimental block of 40 Zinfandel vines, we are going to harvest about 30 pounds of grapes and attempt our first dry farmed concept wine. Our goal is to learn how to grow quality grapes with little to no water. Winemaker son Richard reports that the dry farm vines are very stressed (they have not received one drop of irrigated water, EVER!) We probably allowed the vines to keep too many grape bunches for the vigor of the vine, meaning the vines are really struggling to ripen the grapes. Even so, Richard thinks he can make a very small batch of wine, which will help guide us going forward in dry farmed grapes and quality wine.

Tasting the Terroir

During this time of year all of us spend a lot of time roaming the vineyard tasting grape berries. Are they ripe? Too ripe? Are the flavors good? Any acid left? With our continued focus on various terroir blocks within our vineyard, this really is an important exercise.

We have been harvesting our grape crop now since late August. The Sauvignon Blanc came in first as usual, followed by the Merlot. Our Zinfandel is the last to be picked and will be in by the first of October.

This year, many of the Zin bunches weighed a pound each, and we have had to thin the Zin area two times to reduce fruit weight. In our large Zinfandel block, we have noted a beautiful accent of pepper and spice flavors. We will be watching (and tasting) this carefully to see how this carries forward in the final wine. Another terroir note? We think so!