It's been a long time between drinks, as they say, but our new Pinot Noir is just about ready for release. Our last release, the 2008, caused a sensation and sold out in record time. There was no 2009 under the Squitchy Lane label thanks to bushfires and heat waves. If I remember correctly, the 2008 was last on sale in December 2009 so we have endured eighteen months without our most popular wine.
Making Pinot Noir is an elusive and mysterious thing. Making good Pinot Noir is even more so. I have quite definite views on what's good and what's not in the world of Pinot Noir. Not for me the dark-coloured, over-extracted wines that confuse power with quality. On the other hand, I am not keen on the herbal-influenced wines that make a virtue out of being grown in very cool places where the grapes struggle to ripen properly.
What I do like is elegance. Silkiness is also necessary, as is a good percentage of new oak. It's quite remarkable how good Pinot Noir can integrate new barrels without being dominated by oak flavours. Our winemaking style is, in many ways, quite straightforward. We don't use stalks or whole bunches--instead, we crush very gently so a good proportion of whole berries pass into the fermenter. We then ferment on skins for about seven days and press to tank for overnight settling before racking to barrel after twenty-four hours. Pressings are kept separate. The wine is quite cloudy when it goes to barrel and these lees are an important part of the style. They add a certain body and texture to the finished wine.
And I like low alcohol. This is achieved in the vineyard by getting vines in balance and ripening evenly. Flavours should accumulate quickly so harvest can take place before sugars rise too high. Our 2010 is a shade under 13.0% but shows full ripeness.
I am very happy with this wine--I think it is the best ever under the Squitchy Lane label.
The colour is bright garnet, not too deep. The bouquet shows plenty of the MV6 clone influence--this clone is probably the most "fruity" and you can see the jubey, plum and berry characters quite clearly. The palate is silky, seductive and long with harmony the key word. It's still young and only just coming around after bottling but I like what I see. Whether it's best enjoyed soon or with a few year's bottle age is a good question--I can't give a definitive answer except to say that I will be enjoying it over the next twelve months. There is so much that is attractive about the wine now that I find it hard to resist.
The last few years have been difficult in the Yarra Valley--2008 was bountiful but often excessively so and some wines could be criticised for lacking true concentration, ripeness and depth, 2009 was the terrifying bushfire and heatwave season where many wineries produced nothing at all and those that did often declassified the wines to a lower quality level, 2010 was benign (thank goodness) and as for 2011, it's the most difficult vintage I have seen in over twenty years of making wine. Not the worst, but the most difficult.
When you sum all that up, a wine such as the 2010 Pinot Noir seems like a gift from the heavens. Whoever it was that said "wine is proof that God wants us to be happy" must have had wines like this in mind.
Keep an eye on the Squitchy Lane website for release details.
Here'a quick snapshot of how the new vintage wines are progressing:
Fume Blanc--has finished fermenting in older oak barrels (although I have introduced one new barrel, specially selected for its low oak impact) and has a small amount of sulphur dioxide added to prevent oxidation. It is now resting on its lees in the barrels where it will remain for at least a few months longer. In style, there is a definite connection with the 2010 but there also some interesting vintage differences. This year there are perhaps more gooseberry and lantana flavours with slightly less passionfruit depth. It's a little lower in alcohol with a touch more acidity. I am very pleased with this wine and I feel it could be the wine of the vintage.
Chardonnay--has just completed its fermentation in a mix of new and old barrels. We will stir the barrels weekly for a month or so and then decide the next steps. We are encouraging malo-lactic fermentation in a few barrels to give a richer, fuller mouthfeel to the final blend. The cool weather this year has kept acidity levels higher than we have seen for some time and I want to make sure the wine is not too "tight". Our two different clones have produced quite different wines--the P58 as usual is the richer and more effusive, while the 95/96 blend shows the typical citrus and grapefruit pith flavours with an elegant reserve that we don't see in the other wine.
Pinot Noir--was fermented on skins in small vats for 8 days then pressed to barrel. The secondary, malo-lactic fermentation is just about complete. We have assessed the vats and made an early decision to include all parcels in the blend. The hard selection work took place in the vineyard where any fruit that we thought not up to standard was left behind.
Merlot--picked last Friday so it's very early to comment. I like the ripe, fleshy flavours so far but we need to make sure the extraction is correct for the wine's ultimate balance. The acid/tannin ratio this year is quite different from previous harvests so a gentle hand is required while the wine remains on skins.
Cabernet Sauvignon--to be picked next week. The fruit looks in great condition and we are hoping the next few days of warmer weather will complete the ripening process. No matter what, this will be a year of lower alcohols in our reds. It's a return to the Yarra wines of last century. Just recently I have had the good fortune to taste a couple of these (Yeringberg 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon and Seville Estate 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon) and the immediate impression was how well these wines had survived and how fresh they looked. They were beautiful examples of the medium-bodied claret style. And that's how I see the 2011 wines.
I was in Western Australia last week and the winemakers there were all commenting on how dry it was. Many of them said it was the driest vintage in living memory. Here's a shot of a vineyard in the Frankland River region...
Now that's dry! And here we are in the Yarra Valley, with the wettest January to March period on record in Victoria and the coldest March since 1995, wondering how long it will take to get the grapes ripe. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon look great but are ripening very slowly. Here's a shot taken in our vineyard this morning....
The Pinot Noir that was picked last Friday has just commenced fermenting. It's been cooler than usual so the ferments haven't been too vigorous--we often have to cool them down a little so they don't get out of control but so far, that hasn't been necessary this year.
Here's a picture of the grapes in the fermenter immediately after crushing on Friday:
It looks pretty messy, doesn't it? It's really just a mass of grape skins, seeds, pulp and juice. There's no real aroma and while it tastes sweet with all the natural grape sugar, it certainly doesn't taste at all like wine. The sugar level here is 12.7 Baume or 23 Brix (that's slightly more than 230 g/L of sugar, or 23%. That's why grapes make such good wine--they have more sugar than any other fruit).
After a few days, when fermentation begins, the carbon dioxide produced gets caught up in the grape skins and lifts them up to form what is known as the "cap". This cap of skins effectively sits on top of the juice so we have two distinct layers.
Here's a picture of the cap, taken today from the same position as the photo above:
I hope you can see a difference. The task now is to make sure we mix the two layers to extract the colour and flavour from the skins. We do this twice a day, sometimes by pumping over (taking fermenting juice from the bottom of the vat and circulating it over the cap) as in the picture below or by plunging the cap (breaking it up and pushing it down into the juice) with a large paddle. That's hard work!
The grapes are finally just about ready and the ominous weather forecast for next week had us calling our picking crew and polishing the rust off our own secateurs.
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in two days--could we do it?
Well, we gave it a good shot.
The grapes were in very good condition, although there were some patches of Pinot Noir that the birds had ravaged. They like to peck the grapes and suck out some juice, leaving the punctured berry behind which opens the way for mould, vinegar flies and other undesirable things.
Here's a bucket of Sauvignon Blanc, waiting to be picked up:
As you can see, beautiful clean fruit, ready for the trip to the winery:
It's a challenging and interesting season. The cool, humid weather has allowed the grapes to retain high natural acidity. This is great because it means we don't have to add any and I have no doubt that natural acidity tastes better (and "softer") than added acid. I can't explain why this may be so but it is in keeping with our desire to interfere as little as possible in the winemaking process. As we are fond of saying, we like to let the grapes do the talking....
Up early and out to sample in the vineyard, I was taken aback (again) by the beauty of the scene.
On a more practical note, my purpose was to assess the flavour development in the early-ripening varieties, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The mild weather this year has delayed ripening by at least three weeks compared to last year but finally the fruit is nearly ready.
In the Chardonnay we can see the citrus "lemonade" fruit characters we seek. The MV6 clone Pinot Noir is very expressive with a delightful musky overtone and the Sauvignon Blanc is just starting to show all the gooseberry and passionfruit flavour that we liked so much in the 2010.
We'll give these blocks one more week of ripening and commence picking on Monday 21 March. To put that into perspective, by this time last year we had harvested all blocks except for the young vine Cabernet Sauvignon.
One of the hazards of wandering down the vine rows is being entangled in spider webs. These webs, usually spun by St Andrews Cross spiders, can be quite large and often very sticky. The spiders are harmless (or so I have been told) and they do catch plenty of insects.With gaze focused on the grapes, it is easy to get caught up in these wonderfully-constructed webs. Not a bad price to pay though for such tranquility and beauty.
For several years now we have wanted to finish off our bottles with a stylish, embossed capsule that features the Squitchy Lane crest. Well, we have finally done it--pictured above is a top view of the 2010 Squitchy Lane Chardonnay, bottled yesterday (25 February 2011).
All subsequent bottlings of Squitchy Lane wines will feature this capsule.
The Chardonnay itself probably has more intense fruit lift than any since 2006. It's a great mix of citrus, pineapple, melon and peach with a touch of nectarine. The oak blends nicely into the middle of the palate. Release date is likely to be 6-9 months away.
The rain has gone, the sun has been shining (albeit half-heartedly) and a steady breeze has been blowing for the past few days--just the right conditions to ripen our precious crop.
We have netted the vineyard to keep birds away from the grapes. This may seem heartless but these birds can do enormous damage. Look at the photo below to see what can happen.
This shot was taken at the end of a row, where the birds begin their attack. A flock of silvereyes or starlings can strip the fruit from a bunch much more quickly than you can load a shotgun to scare them off. We find nets work better.
Now that the birds are under control, we just need to keep the diseases at bay. Fortunately, our vineyard team have done a great job under the most threatening conditions we have seen for many years. Downy mildew, powdery mildew and botrytis are our biggest fears and the incredible rainfall so far this season has placed enormous pressure on vineyards throughout eastern Australia.
We can report no botrytis, no downy mildew and only a small amount of powdery mildew that we have managed to subdue so that it is no longer a threat. Two or three weeks of warm dry weather and we will be very happy.
Crop thinning and leaf plucking have been mandatory this year to thin out the bunches, reducing clumping where humidity increase can allow diseases to enter and to open up the canopy to air flow. Pictured below is a good example of what we have achieved--a narrow band of canopy where humidity is low and air movement is encouraged plus bunches separate and not deeply buried inside the canopy. If the weather holds, we reckon this could be a great year for Pinot Noir.
By the way, the sugar levels we measured today are:
Pinot Noir--10.2 baume
We expect to harvest when levels are between 12.0 and 13.0. That's probably 3 weeks away.
I will keep you posted.
I have re-printed below an extract from Wikipedia which I think unintentionally sums up our attitude at the moment. This season has the highest disease pressure that I have experienced in the Yarra Valley, not to mention other areas of Victoria where it has actually rained a lot--Mildura, King Valley, Strahbogie Ranges to name a few. We have weathered the mildew storm--see attached photograph of downy mildew on a leaf--but now we are entering the danger zone for botrytis infection."Botryotinia fuckeliana is a plant pathogen, and the causal agent of gray mold disease.
If botrytis takes hold, we will harvest as quickly as possible in order to prevent its spread and minimise the damage to fruit quality. There are a few winemaking tricks we can use, but we'd rather not have to face the problem.
By the way, the 2010 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay will be bottled next week. For the first time, we have a reasonable volume of Pinot Noir, so for those of you with fond memories of the 2008, you are in luck. I think this new wine is "better" than the '08 (and I use the inverted commas to emphasise that it is my opinion) although I have a feeling that nostalgia may win the day. In any case, it's a lovely wine with a rare depth and softness.
The Chardonnay also has great depth and richness.
Release dates are not yet certain but we will give them the necessary time to show their best before showing them to you.