Road Trip One: Quest for Merlot

The Gorge a little after dawn, heading eastThere’s nothing quite like the first run of the season. It’s early and dim, but it isn’t long before you’ve shaken the Portland traffic and the sun starts to rise, raking across the suede hills on the other side of the Columbia and shimmering the mist rising off of it. On the second, third, and fourth runs… well, it’ll still be stunning, but the season will then be a little older, a little more corporeal, not quite as lush with promise — its ineffability worn thin enough in some places to reveal the eff’ing tedious 8 hour slog up and down I-84 that whizzed right by on the first run.

So I tried to pay attention as I pointed the Ziptruck east toward the Tri Cities and Merlot from Horse Heaven. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to pay attention to traffic reports before I set out, so I was also rewarded with a bridge closure at Maryhill and an hour-long detour. It beats working, don’t get me wrong, but also meant the fruit would get that much warmer as the day got hotter.

You want cold fruit for the same reason you keep things cool in a refrigerator: to slow down the inevitable feast by micro- and other card-carrying organisms. That slows down spoilage, of course, but in this case, also helps to put off the drunken riot yeasts will start once they get a taste of the good stuff. We like to crush and give the juice a little quality time with the skins (where most of the flavor comes from), but once the yeasts show up, that romantic evening for two quickly accelerates into table dancing, beer bongs, and karaoke.

I didn’t pull into the vineyard until nearly noon. The affable grower rounded up a crew to gather the yellow totes of fruit, left by the pickers up and down the rows where they’d filled them, but by the time it hit the back of the truck the clusters were easily over 70 degrees…

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2007 Chroma results

With fresh reference samples of some acids to work with, I put all four wines through paper chromatography yesterday [what the heck is “paper cro-magni-wha…?”: more background here]. Bask in the aurora borealitic results above.

To the left, along the baseline and on top of those tiny X’s, I placed drops of tartaric, malic and lactic acid, spaced about an inch apart. You’ll note that directly above them there are balloon-like blobs, some closer to the baseline, others closer to the top of the page. If a wine has any of those acids in it, we’d expect to see a blob about the same distance up the page above its X. Crude? Yes. Beautiful? Oh, yeah.

So take a look at the blobs to the right, above drops of the Franc, Cab, Merlot and Pinto. Drawing a horizontal line from the reference blobs on the left, you can see that all of our wines have tartaric acid (not surprisingly), and all have lactic acid. That the Franc, Cab and Merlot don’t have a blob at the malic latitude suggests that all the malic acid in those wines has been converted to lactic acid, so we can assume that malolactic fermentation has finished. Or, in non-science speak, these wines are done fermenting and are more or less safe to bottle without risk of further CO2 bubble production, popping corks down the line and embarrassing Garagistes at parties.

On the far right, however, the Pinto does show some kind of blob at the malic level, though it’s not especially distinct. I took the pH of all our wines prior to running the test (you can see those numbers next to the names), and the Pinto was just a hair above 3, which is pretty acidic (the typical range of wine hits between 3.3 and 3.6). So my guess would be that that much acid has inhibited malolactic fermentation, slowing its progress through this wine. That said, I remember the Pinto tasting great (and not “acidic”), so I’m not sure what to make of or do with this result. Is malo stuck, or simply taking its time? Dunno.

In any case, the reason I ran the test in the first place is for the Franc, whose results indicate malolactic is over and we can therefore trust the acid numbers we got earlier. So in the next day or so, I’ll be adding SO2 and some acid to try to perk up our old friend.

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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.

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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Road trip for Franc and Merlot

Mmmm - the gods seem pleasedAt about 7am Saturday morning, Hal and I set out with Laura’s truck and trailer to find America – and barring that, ripe Cabernet Franc and Merlot. We’d packed plenty of tie-downs and enough plastic sheeting to Cristo a garage, having learned in previous years that you can’t have too much grape-wrap.

The morning was drizzly in Portland, but as we passed the Dalles, the weather lightened and the low autumnal sun began to slice across the hills, giving them the soft suppleness of suede. As we crossed the Columbia at Biggs and scaled the bluffs overlooking the water, the view downriver was both calm and majestic. It’s a 3-1/2 hour drive each way to the vineyard, but that glance over your shoulder in the early morning light always makes it easier.

Bins formerly full of ripe grapesJust out of Sunnyside, we pulled into the vineyard, where, as advertised, it was indeed sunny. The grower had already stacked the Franc in small white picking bins, ready for weighing. We’d always rather taste and test the grapes before they’re picked, but this grower just does what he does and you hope for the best.

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