Harvest: Like a Game of Chess

by Enologist Michelle Zentmyer Moss

“I will sing a song of battle
Planned in days long past and over.
Men of skill and science set it
On a plain of eight divisions,
And designed in squares all chequered.”

The Song of Chess by Abraham ibn Ezra

Punch downs and pump overs and brix checks, oh my! Harvest is well underway, and our crew is often here from dawn until dusk, diligently working to provide you with the best wines possible under the direction of our talented and innovative leader, Terry Culton. It is through his orchestration of operations that the Le Vigne wines come to life.

Even through the throes of harvest, we still find time to have fun together. It is tradition that the first grapes picked for the current vintage are blessed with the previous year’s wine. This year, sangiovese for sparkling wine came in first. Terry and Anthony each popped a bottle of last year’s sparkling wine and poured tastings for the Le Vigne staff to enjoy as the grapes were processed. For sparkling wine, the grapes went direct to the press which lightly squeezed out the juice without much color or tannins from the skins, seeds and stems. Though the juice has finished its alcoholic fermentation, the sparkling wine making is far from over. Check out the August blog post, Bubbles!, to learn more about this process.

Terry has maps of each of our estate vineyards up on the wall of his office and uses orange tape to mark each block after harvesting the fruit. This helps to visualize the progress we have made and how much is left to bring in. Just today, we finished harvesting all fruit from our Acquarello Estate Vineyard and only have a few varieties left in the Domenico Estate Vineyard. Did you notice the sparkling wine cage to the right of the map? That is from Terry’s first harvest with Le Vigne! Even though we are nearing the finish line of harvesting, we still have a long road ahead of us for the 2021 vintage.

During fermentation of must (juice, skins and seeds), yeast convert the natural sugar into mainly alcohol (ethanol), CO2 (carbon dioxide), and heat. The CO2 bubbles push the solids to the top of the fermentation vessel forming a cap. It is imperative for the quality and health of a wine that the cap is redistributed throughout the juice. Depending on the vessel being used, we perform punch downs or pump overs. In the photo below, Anthony is punching through the cap of Terry’s special cab/syrah cofermentation with dried stem inclusion. For this fermentation, Terry selected a dairy tank for the large surface area at the top, which allows the juice to have more skin contact for greater extraction of flavors and color.

Several processes come after alcoholic fermentation such as pressing, barreling down and malolactic fermentation. It is Terry’s goal to have all wines pressed by Thanksgiving to give the crew a well-deserved four-day weekend. Once in barrel, I will continue to monitor the progress of each lot’s malolactic fermentation. With the cold nights that Paso Robles experiences, this can often be a very slow process. Each week, I pull samples from the barrels and determine the malate and volatile acidity concentrations. At this stage, the wine is unprotected from spoilage so we must pay close attention to this analysis. The malate should decrease at a steady rate with low, and not increasing, volatile acidity. Once the malate nears zero, we can take steps necessary to protect the wine during barrel aging.

Harvest is an exciting process with many moving parts. Watching Terry and Anthony plan each day reminds me of playing a game of chess. The tank board is their game board, each lot of juice/wine are the chess pieces, and time is their opponent. They must be able to visualize and predict the future days to ensure that needed tank space is available when each variety ripens or is ready to be pressed. This is Terry’s 30th harvest and, much like a grandmaster, Terry is highly skilled in managing each phase of winemaking.

While the 2021 vintage of the white and rosé wines will be available next year, it will be quite some time before the reds are bottled and ready to be enjoyed. I can tell you though, that it is shaping up to be an excellent vintage; The Sauvignon Blanc is incredibly flavorful with tropical flavors, the Grenache is delicious with intriguing spice, and the Viognier has pretty stone fruit characteristics. We are all excited about this vintage and look forward to sharing it with you in time. Until then, enjoy the current wines, stay tuned for the 2019 vintage releases (Terry’s first Le Vigne vintage) and come see us!

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