May 7, 2020 |
27 Blocks: Harvest in a Bottle
About 10 years ago, my dad started talking about planting a grape called Marquette. He was excited about this variety because it’s related to Pinot Noir and rumored to be darker in color; I was skeptical. We already had obscure grape varieties in our vineyard, like Carmine and Müller-Thurgau. Did we really need another grape that nobody knows? By the time we had the debate, my Dad had already put the order in for the vines. It takes 3-4 years for young grape vines to start producing, so I had time to mull over what to do with this new fruit.
The first modest crop was harvested a few years later, producing just a few gallons of dark red wine that was very high in alcohol, with disjointed acidity. I wasn’t excited for future harvests. This isn’t to disparage Marquette, but this variety was developed to grow in Minnesota, and even our cool climate in the Willamette Valley is much too warm for it. This mismatch presents multiple challenges. First, when the Marquette blooms in the late spring, we’re still in the rainy season. This leads to poor fruit set. The other issue is with ripening. In too warm a climate, Marquette achieves very high sugars weeks ahead of everything else, and acidity that’s out of balance. Further, this early ripening fruit draws birds.
So when my Dad delivered several totes of Marquette grapes before harvest was underway in 2017, I didn’t know what I was going to do at first. It was such a low volume of grapes with wonky chemistry. I was concerned the fermentation would be prone to spoilage, and the wine would be out of whack. Then I remembered that in 2013, when our harvest was small, we combined parcels of Pinot Noir we might not have otherwise for practical reasons. Honestly, I wasn’t invested in the quality of this fruit, so I added grapes wherever I could find them—young vine Pinot Noir, field samples of the Müller-Thurgau, a few buckets of Chardonnay that wouldn’t fit in the press. I figured the chemistry of the other grapes would mellow out the Marquette, and at least I could get enough grapes to punch the mass down properly. By the end of the harvest, I had a bin full of fermenting fruit, with all 9 grape varieties from the 27 Blocks in our estate vineyard.
Harvest ended, we pressed the wines and barreled them down for the winter, and I kind of forgot that this mish-mosh even existed.
Sorting Marquette in 2019
Barrel tasting the Marquette & More
The following spring, when we were racking and blending the Pinots, I came across these three barrels marked “Marquette and More.” I wondered how this Frankenstein wine would taste. I grabbed a wine thief to take a sample and gave it to my dad Keith. He swirled the glass, rolled it around his mouth, and said, “What Pinot is this?” Incredulous, I grabbed a second sample, and presented it to my mom Trudy ‘ruthless palate’ Kramer, who said, “What Pinot is this?” I realized at that point I might need to reconsider my opinion regarding the place of Marquette in our vineyard.
We sat down and tasted the wine again as a family, trying to figure out what is was. Mom and Dad were excited to have a Marquette based blend that tasted so balanced and fruity, and I was frustrated that I was wrong. To make things worse, I didn’t really know what the composition of the wine even was, because I just kept adding grapes to the vat during a chaotic harvest and didn’t keep records. What is this wine?? My sister Becky, queen of pointing out the obvious stated, “Well Kim, it’s a single vineyard red wine.” She was right, and that’s when I started to understand what we had created.
The making of 27 Blocks starts with our early-ripening fruit—Marquette and young vine Pinot Noir. As the harvest continues, we'll continue to add other grapes as they ripen. This may include clusters we pick to evaluate maturity, fruit from a plant that was passed over by the crew, or the last buckets of the day. If there are grapes that don’t have a place otherwise, 27 Blocks is that place. This is a wine that is cumulative, fermenting a little bit more with the addition of new grapes over the weeks that harvest unfolds. In this way, 27 Blocks is harvest itself.
The distinction between a wine that’s co-fermented and a blend is important here—27 Blocks is a wine where different grapes are fermented together. A cofermented wine is like a stew, where the chef builds layers of flavors that integrate, and deepen with time. This is quite different than a blend, where finished wines are combined. In my cooking analogy, a blend would be more like a salad by comparison.
So, what is 27 Blocks? It’s a wine that taught me to be open to new ideas. It’s the story of our harvest in a bottle. It’s a red wine made from all the grapes that we grow throughout our vineyard. It’s delicious, easy to drink, and great with food. It’s a lot of things, and it’s only something that we can make. And I think that’s pretty great. I hope you do too.
The label is a patchwork quilt, representing the blocks of grapevines in our vineyard.