by Paul Brock
December 2, 2015
Silver Thread Harvest 2015: A Winegrowing Opus in Two Acts
Since winegrowing is inherently artistic, it seems fitting to compare the 2015 harvest to a large-scale artistic work with two distinct parts. It began with ideal conditions during a warm, sunny and dry September for the harvest of early varieties: Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay. Due to the favorable September weather, the stage was set for great wine from the later-season varieties: Riesling, Cabernet Franc & Cabernet Sauvignon. Then harvest took a 180-degree turn. September ended with a torrential rain event and temperatures plunged into the 30s in early October. The fruit was suitable for outstanding wine, but the additional sugar accumulation we expected was stunted by the cold October temperatures. We anticipate all of the 2015 wines to have ripe flavors, moderate alcohol and moderate acidity typical of a growing season with average temperatures. Despite some drama in the second half, 2015 harvest ended happily ever after.
Act I: Sublime September
We could not have written a better script to start the 2015 harvest. June & July’s incessant rains finally gave way to sunshine in August. Temperatures in the 70s and 80s extended into September and made for beautiful ripening and low disease pressure. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer, the early-ripening varieties, benefited greatly from these conditions.
Harvest began on September 11 with Pinot Noir. It is always a humbling moment early in the season when we decide to harvest those first grapes… a lot of anticipation and work went into the vineyard this year. We were able to secure a local crew to hand pick. The grapes were clean and perfectly ripe. At Silver Thread we follow traditional vinification techniques for Pinot Noir that were developed in the vineyards of Burgundy over a thousand years ago.
Pink juice for Rosé of Pinot Noir was pumped out of the red fermenters after a few hours on the skins. This method of making rosé is called “saignée,” which is French for “bleeding.” It leaves a higher skin-to-juice ratio than would normally be achieved in Pinot Noir. As a result, we are able to make Rosé while increasing the concentration of aromatics and flavors in the red Pinot Noir.
On September 24th, our neighbors at Doyle Vineyard Management used their machine harvester to pick our Gewurztraminer. (See our earlier article for a comparison of machine vs. hand-picked fruit.) The fruit was cold soaked on the skins over night before being drained off and pressed. Once again we were able to harvest very clean fruit that was bursting with Gewurztraminer aromas of lychee. It is always gratifying to harvest and vinify Gewurztraminer as it is so reflective of its wine right out of the vineyard.
All hands were on deck at Silver Thread as our crew hand-harvested Chardonnay on September 25th. Paul, Shannon, Duane, previous-owner Richard Figiel and our intern Greg all worked side by side to get the grapes off the vine. It was a quick turnaround from press to fermentation and into barrel over the following two days. There the Chardonnay will stay until sometime in the summer of 2016. As of this writing the neutral barrel fermentation is complete. Every two weeks during this aging period we will stir the lees (a process by which each barrel is stirred to re-suspend the yeast which did the fermentation) and top the barrels—also practices that are traditional in Burgundy.
The weather continued fair for a few more days after Chardonnay harvest. Then skies opened up and 3 inches of rain came in a 24 hour period over the last two days of September. What had been a month of sunny days in the 70s and 80s became a series of cloudy days in the 50s and 60s. Remarkably, the Finger Lakes got lucky as the rest of the East Coast saw weather much more severe throughout the week (remember Hurricane Joaquin?).
Act II: Obstinate October
The torrential rain storm was a turning point of the 2015 harvest. Up until that time, the fruit was fine–disease free, full of flavor and low in acid. The only thing missing was a few more days of sugar accumulation for Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. What had been rapid sugar increase slowed to a grinding halt. With the risk of ripe fruit starting to succumb to fungal disease and a deteriorating forecast, it was time to start picking.
On a chilly October 2 (it never even got to 50F!), Duane and Paul joined Donna and Louis Gridley to hand-pick Gridley Bluff Point Vineyard Riesling. The vineyard had experienced a very difficult winter: about a third of the vines were lost to winter kill and many of the remaining vines were not carrying a full crop load. Thus, the fruit was riper than any of our other Riesling vineyards and it was the right decision to give the vines the rest of the growing season off to prepare for the winter. It was cold. The fruit was beautiful but there was not nearly enough of it.
The next week was spent scouting for disease pressure and breakdown in the remaining fruit, and watching the forecast. What started as an easy harvest was coming to a rapid end. Freeze warnings were coming… the ripening season was over.
October 8th saw the harvest of our allotment of Doyle Fournier Vineyard Riesling. You could have called it “Caywood Riesling Day” as the vineyard crews from Doyle, Wagner and Lamoreaux Landing could all be seen driving their harvesters through Riesling vines before sunrise. Shannon and Duane also began hand-picking our lower vineyard STV fruit (the first of three harvests of Riesling from that vineyard).
While we had netted most of our red varieties for the first time ever to protect them from bird and small mammal damage, there was one row of Cabernet Sauvignon that had not been protected. As in the past, the critters let us know that it was time, the fruit was ripe… get it now, or let it be eaten. On October 10th the first Cabernet Sauvignon was harvested. On this day we were joined for hand harvesting by our friend Ian Barry, from Barry Family Cellars, on his day off. Richard, Duane and Paul represented the Silver Thread crew. Remarkably, this was about the same date that we had harvested Cabernet Sauvignon in the past two years.
The last of the lower vineyard Riesling was hand-picked on October 11th by Duane and Paul. On October 14th the Doyle crew machine-harvested to upper vineyard STV Riesling. The vines were proud, the fruit was showy, and it was time. It seemed that the forecast had performed and about-face from just two weeks before. Not a single day was forecast in the 60s and worse yet… snow was coming.
Knowing that no sugar accumulates without a canopy, everyone region-wide decided to “call ‘em in.” On October 17th Paul, Duane and Greg finished the Cabernet Sauvignon and started the Cabernet Franc hand-harvest in our lower vineyard. We continued picking as the snow fell on October 18th with the kids even lending a hand. Shannon and Duane finished off the Cabernet Franc on October 21, a relatively balmy and sunny day compared to the previous weekend… we had done it! The vines had done it! The 2015 grape growing season at Silver Thread was over.
While the previous two weeks had been a whirlwind (did I mention the Vidal had also been picked for our Good Earth white wine?) it was time to get back to it… Back to what? Oh yeah, making wine!! Yields were slightly lower than what we consider our average, however we were up when compared to any other vineyard in the Finger Lakes. The previous winter had snuck up on most vineyards and reminded us to be grateful of what we have. This is good for our vines at Silver Thread as our relatively normal yields allowed them to be balanced through the growing season and did not produce excessive vigor (a detriment to future growing seasons). Quality of the wine will be determined over the next several months. One thing is for certain, we had all of the ingredients for some outstanding wines… ripe and clean fruit. This story is not over!
As I write this on December 2 we quietly celebrated the official end to the last of our fermentations just a few hours ago… one Riesling fermentation and all the Blackbird varieties ended their fermentations today. The most dramatic part of the magnum opus of 2015 harvest has drawn to a close. We are very pleased with the quality of what is in the tanks and barrels, and cannot wait to share with you!