Cabernets this weekend

I got word from our other grower that this weekend the fruit’s coming off his vineyard, ready or not. It’s been a difficult year for him, as it has for a lot of growers in the region: late fruit set in the spring means late ripening in the fall, and this grower is feeling that especially.


I’m still waiting for numbers from him, but I’ll be heading east on Saturday or Sunday to pick up Cabernet Sauvignon and our treasured Cabernet Franc. Late though it may be, I’m hoping we get the same luck we got with Westrey’s Oracle Pinot this year – not jammy ripe, but physiologically ripe, that special interlocking sensation when everything’s in balance and the fruit lasts and lasts on your tongue. Some of that’s due to extra hang time during cool fall nights, which keeps the acid intact even as ripeness progresses during the day. We’ll know soon enough!

In other news, the syrah is mighty happy to see us. So happy, in fact, that it’s overflowing its fermenter. In the interest of retaining thermal mass (the same principle as huddling together for warmth, I’d guess), I decided to divide one of the extra 30-gallon fermenters of syrah between another 30-gallon and the stainless steel tank. Was it close to the top? Oh, sure, a little, but what could go wrong? Now I know.

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The 2007 at June racking

A few nights ago we got together to rack our three wines, and of course, couldn’t help tasting them as they poured from barrel to tank and back into barrel.

2007 Cabernet Franc
I think the consensus was that contrary to any of our previous experiences with this wine at this stage, the Franc showed the worst of the three. It had a decent fragrance, but it was murky and lifeless in the mouth, oddly framed with a hint of oak (it’s in an essentially neutral barrel). And once past the tonsils, it was like it was never there. Overall, a far cry from the fresh, precocious party-in-your-mouth the Franc usually is — and the way it was in March, when last we racked it.

So, what’s going on? Theories abound — more in a future post — but it’s certainly true that most wines go through “dumb” or hibernative stages, where between one chemical state and another they’re kind of in limbo. I think of it like a construction project: you begin with one thing (nice bones, but what Nazi scientist designed that wallpaper!?), but before the shiny new thing emerges (did you notice it matches my iTouch?), you float like Dante through the undoing of one and the creation of the other, where your thing isn’t what it was, but it isn’t what it’ll become. It’s something, yet it’s also not quite anything, either. And you have to use a port-a-potty in the back yard for a month.

Anyway, that’s not unusual for wine as it evolves (for example, see my notes on the Sauvignon, below), but it’s not how the Franc has ever performed in the past. More soon.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Next up was the Cab. It was also a little shuttered, but more in a way you’d expect at this stage in its life. All the stuffing was there, and indeed, it had a lot of complexity and good feel in the mouth, though not much of a finish that night. All in all, however, showed pretty good life for so young a wine, and all present murmured approval into their cups.

Merlot
If you’ve got a weak heart, please skip the second half of this sentence: the merlot was the best wine of the evening. I’ll give you a minute to get your bearings. Sometimes a glass of wine helps.

While it lacked a little backbone (though in point of fact, it showed the backbone of a good Merlot), it betrayed surprising life, in addition to a bass marimba-like depth and velvetyness in the mouth. Almost complex, and a pretty good ride through the finish.

If this is in fact representative of where the Merlot will end up (no guarantees there, of course), I’d say this is due to a combination of three things: 1) wild yeast (so many gene pools, so many flavors); 2) crop load (we asked the grower to dramatically reduce yield in 2007: and 3) pulling a seignée out of it (in a nutshell, a seignée drains juice from a fermenter, increasing the proportion of flavor-packed skins to tasty juice). I’d give more of a nod to 2 and 3 than 1, but probably all played a role.

Next up is blending, so we’ll see if this was an aberration or a strategy worth repeating.

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The rack: March edition

Racking the cabernet back into barrelLast week’s racking proceeded with our characteristic machine-like efficiency – when we used our machines, that is.

The Cabernet Sauvignon continues to shine. Great fruit, good tannins which are getting better with every racking (I’ll bet from the wood — see here for our oak strategy this year), transporting aromas of pencil shavings and saddle. This one’s going to be the best Cowan by far.

Next up was the Merlot. It seemed its usual, uncomplicated and amiable self at first, but lurking around the periphery — like the sense you get walking into a familiar room which looks empty, but has someone else inside — was an off odor. It’s a slight tint of VA (or volatile acidity, which betrays a lovely smell of fingernail polish), but there was also a hint of vegetation. A bit of veg can be typical of Merlot’s flavor profile, but this felt ever so slightly beyond that. After racking, everything seemed fine – no VA, no significant veg, and nice fruit. I measured the free SO2 at about 65, which seems safe enough, so no further additions. We’ll want to keep an eye on this one, though.

Lastly, we tasted the Cabernet Franc, which seemed just fine where it was — good, approachable structure, lovely, bright fruit. So we decided to simply top the barrel and leave the racking for the next go-around in April.

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Let’s do some more numbers

Just got back the juice panel analysis of the cabernet sauvignon we picked last Saturday:

brix 24.1 degrees
glucose + fructose 25.5 g/100mL
pH 3.57
titratable acidity 0.54 g/100mL
tartaric acid 3.71 g/L
L-malic acid 3.06 g/L
potassium 1760 mg/L
alpha-amino compounds 76 mg/L
ammonia 65 mg/L
yeast assimilable nitrogen 130 mg/L (as N)

Considering other Eastern Washington fruit we’ve picked over the years, that acidity is about as perfect as you can get, and that pH is positively robust. Good structure, good health. The only minor worry is the last number, but we can easily add nutrients to the must to compensate.

All in all, pretty perfect numbers! Now all we have to do is not screw it up!

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Son of Road Trip: the Cabernet

Cabernet in the sunJust a little after 6am, Whit and I unlocked the Flexcar truck, stowed tarps and tie-downs in the back, and headed east through foggy, deserted streets. The chill was penetrating, but in that autumnal way that betrays a certain lack of conviction: soon enough, it would dissolve into a warm, Indian summer day.

A few miles past Hood River, the sun began to slice through the mist and dispel it back up into the hills, lifting a cascade of blue-monochrome buttes into view down the Gorge. By the time we crossed the Columbia and pointed north, the sun had cleared the way for a perfect grape run into the Yakima valley.

The grower had already picked a few thousand pounds for us and another guy who arrived just moments later. My spot test with the refractometer, trying to pick a random assortment of berries, pegged the sugar somewhere between 23 and 27 – pretty ripe at the upper register, maybe just shy of ripe at the bottom. Any harvest short of Château d’Yquem‘s berry-by-berry picking regimen will have this kind of variation: you just hope the spread is relatively tight and the average is where you want to be. So if this really netted us 25 brix, we wouldn’t complain.
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