Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Unrequited French Love: Petit Verdot


When I was living in Paris in my early 20s I always knew that I would marry a French woman. I imagined she would be petite like so many mignon gals from France I knew at the time but I never foresaw her surnom would be Verdot. At last, I have found her, the most fragrant of the fair. Maligned in Bordeaux where she is used only sparingly in blends, she has blossomed in San Diego County in your vineyard. I can't think of anyone who doesn't like la mademoiselle who has tasted le vin we have made from the Petit Verdot grapes of your estate. Ma maitresse que je l'aime!

As for the 2010 vintage, she presents certain issues. As Coyote Karen would say, perhaps it's menopause. Namely, in your attempt to restructure your vineyard this year you have been more than parsimonious with water. You have been Robespierre and simply cut it off and the vines have had to make due. What you have achieved are berries that are small, indeed, we could say petit. And, if your aim was to stress the vines, that too has been achieved. In the three previous years we have picked these grapes on average in the middle of September. Now we are in the middle of October, and we will be fighting the bees and the yellow jackets for more than our fair share. Yet, despite the long hang time and the mini heat waves, the sugars just don't seem to mount with these grapes. Last year, they reached 23 brix. But, a week ago, you were still at 22 brix. The bees, causing damage now with each berry invaded another pimple on my lady's complexion, tell me it's time to harvest. Just to be sure, we walked the vineyard, taking a random sample of 60 berries, 10 each from the six rows. The refractometer indicates a shade over 22 brix. The pH meter says 3.53 and the acid TA measurement is .68 The pH and acid readings are good and although the brix are a little less than perfect, what woman is? I'll take her, and perhaps by grabbing those raisins from lack of water and throwing those into the mix she'll become a little more sweet, like giving your date a box of chocolates.

We have learned from experience it's a challenge for Lady Petit Verdot to stand on her own. But with just a slight touch of make-up she is airbrushed to absolute perfection achieving supermodel status. Our aim this year is to take that dry-farmed Cab of yours, which we just pressed the other night and is so full of promise, and blend some of mademoiselle Verdot with it and with some of the Malbec to achieve the finest "Merleatage" ever created by a dog (or at least by a Blue-Merle Australian Shepherd). And, if it turns out as well as I think it can, I'll commission our tres chere amie Kelly P. of Salud Scent Studio to capture its fragrance in a tantalizing perfume worthy of the First Lady of France.

We're sorry you won't by able to join us for the pick but do keep resting that gash in your head and if the doctors allow you to drink a glass of wine I hope you'll do that as we travail. Enjoy the view from the window as we battle against the bees and the yellow jackets and the rising heat to bring these grapes home to the barrel. If, as you did during the Cab harvest a month ago, you are able to bring us a container of your 2009 Meritage wine, or for that matter any year, it makes a fitting winemaker's lunch with a pleasing taste that lasts all afternoon. (Hey Google, when are you going to add scratch and sniff to Blogger?)

(Photos of the Petit Verdot vineyard, vines and berries.)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Good Chemistry, Questionable Grapes


I much prefer Coyote Karen as a lab partner, but how could I refuse your request to run an acid test on the Petit Sirah we picked this morning especially after you crushed it and Gatored it over to our place? Thank you.

I apologize for the delay in getting back to you with the lab results. I just returned to the house with Bluey in tow. He had been out chasing she-coyotes in heat, again. (I guess I would do the same if I were him -- after all, aren't all men dogs?) I should have known something was up last week as he began making low moans that grew into howls. I thought he was lamenting the loss of his friend Carlyle, the neighbor's cat, who went missing after an evening outside attending the Coyote's Ball. Instead, it was either an 8-year itch or a mid-life crisis, because for all the years of his life he's never, ever been one to roam. Well, that's what a hot bitch in a fur coat can do to a dog (and a man).

After the harvest I had planned to bring Bluey to the Three Priests for the Blessing of the Animals (if not outright confession for his recent transgressions) as the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, is upon us. As I was getting ready to leave, the Queen showed up short of breath yelling "Karl Rove" had returned from the dead. (She can't pronounce C-a-r-l-y-l-e; the word comes out sounding like the Republican political strategist, which reminds me of our old friend Joe the Wino -- where is he? Out campaigning with the Tea Party?) Now a cat who dances with coyotes, disappears for a week and was proclaimed a goner but returns is a sight to be seen. He's our neighbor's cat and good vineyard friend. They asked us to look after him but it was like looking after a ghost because he was not to be seen, only a trail of dried blood drops from the cathouse to the woods as Carlyle had been injured just after they left. I went up to the house and sure enough he was asleep under the deck (had he been there the whole week and simply ignored our calls when changing his water and leaving fresh food?) I approached him carefully (perhaps he had rabies?) but he seemed well enough, if a bit beat up and tired. I put him inside the neighbor's house, feed him and comforted him. It was too late to drive to the church service, so (with apologies to the Three Priests for missing yet another church service) we just gave thanks where we were for the bountiful harvest and all the animals in our lives, especially the cats and dogs that survived while playing around with coyotes.

I headed back down the mountain to do your lab work, started a barbecue of sausages (somehow we had forgotten to eat today despite all the work) and then went out and took a sample of Grenache berries to measure their ripeness and to provide a control for the tests. The grill was smokey when I came back and the sausages were darker than a black cat. So much for eating.

I had 3 samples to test. The sample of Petit Sirah (PS) you gave me. The Grenache from our vineyard (as a control), and a sample of PS I took from our share of today's harvest. That sure was one of the most interesting harvests we've seen over the years, a perfect storm of powdery mildew, Pierce's disease and a blasted heat wave that taken together ravaged the grapes resulting in the lowest amount of juice we've ever seen. The mildew had decimated a good percentage of the vineyard, reducing what should have been plump grapes to dried out shells, without flavor nor sugar. And, what were plump berries just a week ago were shriveled by the surprise heat wave this week. Decimated by Pierce's disease and a fraction of its former self, it's become something of a family tradition to travel to Valley Center, the next hill over, each year for this harvest of the Scotchman's grapes and this year did not disappoint. In another chapter of the miracle of Don's vineyard, somehow, grape must was produced again this year in abundant quantity which should yield a barrel or two of distinguished wine. Yet, this 2010 vintage, with all of those skins, is going to present a challenge. Here's my strategy: cold soak for 4 days to extract as much fruit flavors and "soft tannins" as possible. Then, ferment for 3 - 4 days (without extending the fermentation beyond that). Then, pressing lightly (which is our normal custom) to produce a well balanced finished product to be blended to perfection with another grape, perhaps Petit Verdot to make another round of "Petit-Petit."

We were both pleasantly surprised to see that the brix (i.e., sugars) were in good shape ... close to 23.5 and likely to increase nicely with cold soaking because of all the raisins (not to mention skins) which should result in a bold Petit Sirah). And the pH was under control. But as I left, you pulled me aside and whispered that you were getting a reading of .9 on the acid, and would I mind checking it at our place because surely the acid could not be that high? Perhaps your test chemicals were out of date?

I have good news and good news and good news. There's nothing wrong with your testing procedure, nor your chemicals. Of the sample you gave me, I also measured TA (tartaric acid) of .91 with my equipment and my methodology. And, it should be noted that I measured .97 on not such a random sample from "our grapes" from the same vineyard. (For the record, I tested the acid of our Grenache, which was low as expected given the long hang time of this year's harvest.) Although you're concerned that the level of acid of PS is too high, let me share with you some wisdom about brix and acid from a master, my old mentor Angelo Pellegrini (bless his heart) who wrote almost 30 years ago in his book "Lean Years, Happy Years" :

"It has been established by years of experience that ... the sugar and acidity in the must will be adequate if the range is between 20 and 24 percent by volume of the one and .6 and 1 percent of the other. These are the minimum and the optimum.... I have found that when the sugar percentage is 23-plus and the total acidity near .8, the result will be a wine that will elicit the highest praise. Of such a wine we would say that the total acidity and the sugar in the must were in nearly perfect balance."

We are not too far from that my friend, and, with the luxury (and skill) of blending, we can achieve it.

So let us drink to the memory of Angelo, to the celebration of the harvest, to the nubile maidens (those who joined us and to those who dream of joining us some day) who crush the grapes, and to the cats and dogs and coyotes, and to good wine and good friends and our induction into the Order of Wise Old Peasants. Cheers!

Test Results:

Your Petit Sirah Sample: 23 brix; pH = 3.45; TA= .91
Our Petit Sirah Sample: 23.5 brix; pH = 3.54 TA = .97
Our Grenache Sample: 24 brix; pH = 3.55; TA=.56

Brix measured with refractometer.

Editor's Note: We welcome low acid on the Grenache because we have plenty of high acid wine with which to blend. Stay tuned for the Grenache harvest next week and the waiting of Petit Verdot.

Pictures: From top to bottom: 1) Bluey's Call of the Wild 2) Carlyle (aka, Karl Rove) 3) Petit Sirah vineyard in Valley Center, CA 4) Example of Powdery Mildew damage