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To date, 2010 has been a year of extremes – record snowfall in the winter (affectionately known as snomageddon), and extreme heat with drought conditions throughout the summer.

Today’s Virginia Wine Month series post provides winemaker insights in to the 2010 growing season from Derek Pross at Gadino Cellars.

Guest Post – Derek Pross:  Winemaker Thoughs on the 2010 Harvest

After record snowfall from the winter of 2010, a cool spring followed with average rainfall. The summer was accentuated by a record tying number of 90 degree plus days – 67, for the summer coupled with drought conditions.  Usually harvest begins around Labor Day and extends deep into October with the threat and attack of high amounts of rain from Tropical Storms and Hurricanes impacting the Eastern Seaboard.

To me, the most unusual phenomenon of the 2010 growing season was the record tying heat that resulted in the most compact harvest schedule I’ve ever seen in Virginia. We thought, and wrongly so, that high heat and drought conditions would stop the vines from photosynthesizing which could keep the fruit from maturing. In hindsight, this was incorrect because the fruit was still maturing, and/or raisining increasing the sugar levels per volume juice that we eventually pressed out during harvest. As an example, we typically expect 150 to 160 gallons of juice from every ton of fruit, one varietal this year gave us 118 gallons of juice! The raisining of the fruit accounted for this.

Regarding the harvest, we typically begin to check grape parameters around mid-August, which we did. To our amazement harvest was imminent. We began to harvest the week following. We also have long-term contracts with other winegrowers for some of our fruit. We got on the phone and in the truck to collect parameters near and far. We were checking sugar levels (Brix), acidity, color of the seeds, and sensory analyses of the flavors of the juice and skins.  Based on that input we make the determination to harvest; ideally. However, real logistical constraints such as available cellar/tank/bin/barrel space, weather forecast and number of hours I can throw into processing grapes create a delicate balancing act, or perhaps juggling act to determine the harvest date. Once the grapes are in some of the parameters can be corrected if necessary, but fruit maturity cannot.

Again, we were taken aback by the suddenness of the grape maturity across Virginia in both reds and whites. Once we understood the need to move quickly for harvest we put it in overdrive. Pulling samples in our vineyard and others, harvesting grapes and processing grapes day after day while we continued pull grapes from our vineyard while driving lugs and bins in the evening to winegrowers only to turn around in the early morning to pick them up and process – either press or destem and crush.  We did this day in and day out for nearly three weeks solid.

To give you some idea of our harvest and crush process, we whole cluster press our white grapes and crush/destem our red grapes into bins for fermentation. Grapes hitting our crush pad are sorted to remove materials other than grapes (time consuming). Our press can handle approximately 1.25 tons of whole clusters at a time and the press cycle takes about 2 to 2.5 hours usually. After each press cycle the grape stems (racci) need to be cleared from the press into a bin (to be taken by tractor to compost) and hosed out (or cleaned if it’s the last load, a 45 minute task minimum) Three to five tons of grapes takes all day and into the evening. The juice chemistries (Brix, pH, Ta, YAN – Yeast Assumable Nitrogen) must be measured to determine what must be done in terms of acid correction and additive nutrient levels while inoculating the juice with yeast to become wine in the future. For white wines, the pressing off the juice is followed by a 24-hour cold soak in one of our chilled wine tanks. After that, the juice is racked off to a new tank or barrels and inoculated with yeast and nutrients. All barrels used must be identified and unstacked and moved out of the barrel room to the crush pad and barrel washed. Finally all equipment and tanks used must be cleaned after the days use. The racking and cleaning is at least a 4 hour task. Red grapes get crushed and destemmed immediately, same chemistries are run as in the whites and inoculated in bins followed by pressing out later.

Now run these tasks concurrently – delivering bins/lugs, picking them up, harvesting your own vineyard, pressing out juice or crushing/destemming, racking, inoculating, identifying short and long term storage (tanks/barrels), running lab tests and of course cleaning. Repeat day after day. Also, the fermenting juice in the cellar and in bins is turning into wine and has to be monitored – temperatures, chemistries and when fermentation is completed, moved to a final resting place (tank/barrel) and “locked down”. All of these tasks happen in a relatively small area so the space to drive a forklift and pallet jack, run hoses etc… becomes a real challenge. Further, as these tasks overlap and run onto each other the workload becomes a physical and mental grind. At the end of the day even our three-pound Strahman hose nozzle seems like it weighs fifty pounds. I expect these tasks to happen every year from Sep-Nov. I just don’t expect it to happen in one month! There were days where I actually racked white wines, pressed out white grapes or red wine bins and crushed and destemmed red grapes.

While it’s still too early to tell what the final wines are going to be like, all the fruit we took in was mature, acids were good to great, sugar levels were above average and YAN were a little low on average. Our sensory analysis tells that we have great potential in our 2010 wines to please the palate. At the time of this writing, our Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Viognier and Seyval Blanc have finished fermenting. Our Merlot and Petit Verdot are finished as well with the secondary fermentations (MaloLactic) nearing completion. This usually occurs by mid-November!  I cannot overstate how condensed this harvest has been. The challenge now, as always, lies in working with the wines in the cellar through blending session to bottling. Look for some big wines coming out of the 2010 harvest.

Time to get back to the cellar. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to get out and explore Virginia wines during October – Virginia Wine Month. Cheers!

Be sure to visit Gadino Cellars online and friend ’em up!

Thank you Derek for taking the time out of your schedule to share your experiences with us.