The Final 2011 Harvest Update

October 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Earlier this week we picked our final block of fruit – Cabernet Franc from Vineyard 3 – which pushed us to a Sunset Hills record of harvesting 85 tons of fruit in one very busy harvest season.  There’s still a hearty amount of red fermentations rocking in the cellar, plenty of draining and pressing and barreling down in our future, but I think harvest technically ends with the last picking.

Har vestnoun – the season when ripened crops are gathered (Origin Old English haerfest)

The 2011 season will of course be remembered as that one really rainy year in Virginia, much like 2003 will now be remembered as that other really rainy year in Virginia, the one like 2011.  Across the state winegrowers had difficulties starting in August, when it rained roughly 3 inches more than normal, heading into September, when much of the state was drenched by a hurricane, and continuing into October, when the sun just didn’t want to shine and the winds just didn’t want to blow.  Different sections of the Old Dominion were, of course, hit in varying degrees by this poor ripening weather, but everybody was struggling to one degree or another.

Why do winegrowers freak out when it rains during ripening season?  Many reasons.  Fruit doesn’t ripen when water is continually injected into it; the sun doesn’t generally shine when it’s raining (meaning fruit doesn’t ripen); many of the mildew problems Virginia always has the potential for become exacerbated by wet, cloudy weather; color is affected; concentration is affected; the vines are confused; and nobody likes working in the rain.  With all this wetness comes the risk of rotten fruit (which doesn’t make good wine), unconcentrated fruit (which doesn’t make good wine), and unripe fruit (which, you guessed it, doesn’t make good wine).

Virginia had all of these problems in 2011.  Sunset Hills had all of these problems as well.  However, when I retrospectively consider our vineyard actions during the worsening part of the season, I am grateful for (nearly) all of the vineyard decisions we made: we cropped low, we obsessively pulled leaves, we maintained healthy canopy, we dropped unwanted fruit throughout the poor weather, and we did not pick early.  We picked very late, and very slow.  We picked every single vineyard block considerably later than we’d ever picked it before – our last viognier block came in five weeks later than the same block last year – and we picked at 30%-40% of our normal speed, to ensure that no poor fruit entered the winery. 

I’m looking through my cellar book now and am very excited about the wines we’ve made, and are still making.  We brought in (nearly) all of our blocks at a full ripeness, and flavors during fermentation and slightly post-fermentation are promising.   We have our first port-style wine, our first Albarino, some exotic Petit Manseng, some wonderful barrel fermented Merlot rosé, some extraordinarily dark and powerful Merlot, loads of Petit Verdot, slatey, fruit-driven Cabernet Franc, and all kinds of other goodies.

It’s too early to say anything definitive about the wines, or how the blends will shuffle out, other than that I am sincerely proud of what we’ve done with our vineyards and fermentations for the 2011 season.  There could have been (and probably was) a lot of bad wine made in Virginia this year, but I can confidently say none of it will come from us (unless I accidentally drop my boot in Tank 4) and that, in fact, we’ll have a lot of bottlings to contradict the season.  We’ll be opening our cellar and barrels to the public this winter for barrel tastings, and I will be proud to showcase the wines.  In the meantime, I leave you with some inky Cab Franc . . .



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