Harvest 2018: The Soul of a Card Counter

It was an August of glancing blows.  The rains came and fell heavily on the west side of Mount Alto, and then again on the east side of the James River, but each time, the eastern slope of Mount Alto was spared the worst.  It’s all about perspective, getting 5” of an inch of rain in a month when the next mountain over gets 10” makes you feel lucky.  It was no lazy August, but given the rain we did get, we had astonishingly small berries on the clusters, excellent fruit chemistry, and were actually entertaining fantasies of 3 more weeks of sunshine and a relaxed harvest of perfectly ripened grapes.  The skins of the Cabernet were just starting to feel supple when a pre-hurricane cold front dropped over an inch on us.  Berry weight jumped up rapidly, and a very small portion of the berries began to split, and we began to sweat — but then 5 days of sunshine and 90+ temperatures dried up the split berries, and returned berry weight to its modest baseline — we felt that we’d dodged another one.  We checked in with Matthieu, and agreed that another 10 days or so would be perfect — so we’d count on our luck to hold with Florence coming up the coast.  We checked in with Luc Tessier to help us screw up our courage for the days to come…

 “You see, to make a great wine, you must have the soul of a gambler.” - Luc Tessier

“You see, to make a great wine, you must have the soul of a gambler.” - Luc Tessier

And then we took one on the chin.  An inch one night, 2 inches the next, and the clusters began to fall like dominoes.  The soul of a gambler got exchanged for the soul of a card counter — we estimated our risks and measured a rapidly escalating level of of fruit loss, and put the cards on the table (the sorting table that is — ok, no more gambling analogies).  Harvest was a tempest: we tried to balance speed (every hour more berries split) with accuracy, field-sorting to remove hopeless clusters.  The decision to harvest was made at 11 pm on a Sunday — we all called in our work favors to get the day off and started first thing Monday morning.  We worked dawn till dark with intermittent rains — in all another 3” falling before we could finish up (making an even 6” for the last 3 days of the season).

 What a machine?! And damn those are some good-lookin’ berries!

What a machine?! And damn those are some good-lookin’ berries!

Once we reached the winery, we sorted clusters again on the conveyor belt, sent them into the destemmer and then passed the berries over the vibrating sorting table to insure that only intact berries reached the fermenter.  Ultimately, the final yield got reduced by about 40% due to all of the triage, but it was what we needed to insure healthy grapes.  With an early harvest like this, and modern wine-making techniques, it can be tempting to try to intervene — put back what nature left out. But given that this was only the 2nd harvest on our new site, we had no way of truly knowing what might be missing — David was fearless, insisting that the only way to understand our terroir was to follow a low-intervention route with the goal of simply seeing how it had responded to this rainy vintage (David really does have the soul of a gambler). 

 Mary Lou with one last minute bit of sorting after the crush.  photo: C. Burda

Mary Lou with one last minute bit of sorting after the crush. photo: C. Burda

So, Matthieu navigated an old-school approach, fermenting in neutral barrel, with just twice daily punch downs to gently extract from skins and seeds lest green flavors resulted from our early harvest. In contrast to tumult of the last couple weeks before harvest, fermentation delivered one pleasant surprise after another, first yielding a surprisingly dark color, and then a highly aromatic nose, with red-berries all over the palate.  And as fermentation came to a close we realized we would suffer none of the “green” flavors so feared in a vintage like this.  Perhaps the few weeks of dry in July and the modestly wet August were all we needed?  Perhaps it’s just terroir?

Fermentation is done, and the vintage is now resting in barrel, and we’ll let it be till spring, then we’ll start evaluating it.  Early forecast is that it will be a wine to release and drink early — a wine for pleasure if not contemplation — which will be just fine by us.  This was an exhausting vintage — hard-working, nail-biting, comfort-zone expanding — and we’re thirsty.

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Mid-Season on Mount Alto 2018

It is early August and the grapes have now started turning color, so seemed like a good time to catch up and reflect on the season thus far.  April saw us planting more Cabernet Sauvignon vines, new clones and root-stocks to increase diversity and total potential yield, with ultimate tonnage capacity up by 40%.  We extended our rows into some of our rockiest soils, and are super excited to see what they might yield.  Bud break occurred in the 3rd week of April, 2 weeks later than 2017.  The non-stop rains in late May and early June finally gave way to an extraordinarily dry July. The challenges of a wet spring were many: outrageous canopy growth, disease pressure, worries about rain-compromised pollination, and the need to work around the weather.  All told, we weathered each of these challenges well, and we entered July with a well managed canopy, and a healthy (albeit modest) crop of grapes for vintage 2018. 

  Photo Credit: C. Burda

Photo Credit: C. Burda

When we are deep in the thick of sun-up to sun-down canopy management in the dog-days of June, it is hard to think that it will ever settle down.  But the relentless hours spent shoot-thinning in June result in a July that is tranquilo, and allows us time for house-keeping.  The June to July shift in vineyard intensity is abrupt -- we find ourselves looking beyond the rows as if emerging from a fog.  We mowed the grounds, prepared our electric fence to keep raccoons from ripening berries, hung bird netting, did tractor maintenance, and finally, we were able to take a moment to taste the previous vintage that has been evolving in the winery. 

The 2017 vintage is our first wine, and while it is hard to be objective at this stage, we can say that the results are not only encouraging, but honestly, quite exciting.  Winter and early spring tastings saw a wine that was very shy, defying any categorization, but the wine that greeted us in early July was much more forthcoming with firm tannin structure, a lively assortment of flavors and aromas of ripe berries.  When it first hit my palate, hidden amongst the red berry,  I noted a hint of cinnamon -- surprising, but when I reviewed tasting notes of other red wines grown in schist soils across the world, I found that cinnamon spice flavors are commonly mentioned.   Is this the first inkling of a common, terroir-driven thread in our wines grown on a hillside of schist and quartz soils?  It's probably too soon to tell, as our wine growing mentors remind us that well-crafted wines will continually evolve and surprise during their first 36 months or so. 

We can't wait to follow the 2017 vintages progress, and will bide our time stewarding the 2018 vintage through veraison and harvest.  

The Mount Alto Crew