We’ve been growing the German-Swiss cross Müller-Thurgau since 1986. Over the years, we’ve made wines in a range of styles from dry to off-dry, semi-sweet to dessert, even sparkling. Both the sparkling and still wines have become quite popular and are usually the top sellers in the tasting room.
While Müller-Thurgau is widely planted in Germany, it also does quite well in the Alto Adige of northern Italy. These vineyards are planted at high elevations, with close spacing. In reading the online winemaking notes, we noticed a couple of key production differences. First, the wines are fermented and aged in concrete or old oak casks. Concrete is an area of interest, but not an investment we're ready to make quite yet. Second, the grapes are crushed before pressing.
Foot crushing the Müller-Thurgau
We found the idea of crushing Müller-Thurgau very intriguing. As a rule, we whole cluster press our white wine grapes. Whole cluster pressing reduces the extraction of harsh tannins. These compounds may impart bitterness or astringency on the palate. However, Müller-Thurgau is a grape that is naturally low in tannins. Further, we wondered if crushing the grapes might result in a wine with more varietal expression. However, we don't own a machine that crushes grapes, so how would we experiment with crushing the fruit? Taking another cue from the old world, we decided to adopt a low-tech solution: feet.
During the harvest of 2018, we invited folks up to the vineyard on the day of the Müller-Thurgau pick to help us with this very important task! The harvest started at dawn, finishing around noon. We lined up the bins of grapes on the crush pad, and after a foot sanitizing dip and rinse, people climbed into the boxes one by one and went to work. It only took about 15 minutes, but squashing grapes with your feet is a quite a workout!
We noticed a difference between whole cluster pressing and crushing immediately; the press yield was 14% higher in the crushed fruit. During primary fermentation, the tanks produced a cornucopia of tropical aromas. After fermentation, we noticed the wine was quite flavorful, which is unusual for Müller-Thurgau at that stage. We continued to observe amplified flavor through the spring, finding the variety’s trademark peach and starfruit profile, but also lychee, passionfruit, mango, lime, gooseberry, and sweet basil.
Based on the flavor profile of the 2018 Müller-Thurgau, we decided to crush in 2019 as well. Now that we have another vintage for comparison, we're convinced that crushing is the best protocol for this variety. The 2018 Müller-Thurgau Estate will be released February 6.
Made from rehydrated grape pressings, Piquette is a lower-alcohol beverage full of fizz and fruit. We read about this nearly forgotten beverage of the ancient farm worker during harvest and decided to give it a try with Müller-Thurgau. Grape solids usually go to the compost pile after pressing, but there’s still sugar and flavor in those skins and pulp that can be extracted after a few days of steeping in water and pressed again. We were delighted to find this humble drink to be tart and citrusy, with a gentle sparkle on the palate. The finished alcohol is 7.5%, perfect for a sunny midday refresher.
Bottled in single-serving 12-ounce longnecks and sharable 750 mL sparkling formats, the Piquette will be released on the first day of spring, March 19.
Also known as méthode ancestrale, this is the oldest method of sparkling production, in which the wine is bottled before primary fermentation is complete, finishing in the bottle. The active yeast consumes the residual sugar from the grapes, generating pressure, resulting in a gentle fizz with loads of yellow fruit flavors. Typically, the wine is not disgorged, and will have a cloudy appearance from the spent yeast in the bottle.
We released a small 20-case lot of Pinot Gris made in this style over the summer, and it sold out quickly. Between the strong response in the tasting room and our desire to grow in our knowledge of sparkling wines, we have increased production this year. Look for the 2019 Pétillant-Naturel Pinot Gris this spring.
We’ve been bottling standalone clones of Pinot Noir since the 2014 vintage (click here for more explanation). In 2017, we expanded the collection to include five clones: Pommard, Wädenswil, 115, 667, and 777. These are wines we make for ourselves, to learn more about clonal selection and expression, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised that these wines have gained a following over the last few years. We’ll be releasing the elegant 2017s throughout the spring and summer and will host a comparative tasting on April 25 & 26 (reservations recommended).
The short answer is that the grapes are doing just fine. We’re still about 15 inches behind in rainfall for the calendar year, so the vineyard has absorbed the recent rain quickly. It’s been 104 days since bloom, and the Pinot Noir looks full, healthy, and on track to harvest in a couple of weeks.
The only crop damage we're seeing so far is due to sunburn, and that happened long before September.
--Keith Kramer, owner
The concern with excess rainfall just before harvest is twofold: first, water has the potential to puff up the fruit, diluting sugars, acids, and flavors. In extreme cases, the skins can split, leading to rot. While crop losses due to rain-fueled disease is always a consideration in this region, our farming team keeps this in mind throughout the growing season, taking steps to promote good air flow and an open canopy.
The most challenging harvest in this regard was in 2013. Typhoon Pabuk dumped inches of rain on us over a single weekend when there was Pinot Noir still ripening on the vine. Good farming practices, meticulous sorting, and thoughtful winemaking produced some truly stunning wines that year. Plus, the drama of a once-in-a-hundred years storm made for some great conversation. This year hardly compares to that vintage, as the rain has been much lighter, spread over several weeks.
It’s not unusual for the Willamette Valley to receive an inch or two of rainfall in September. Looking at the monthly totals since our first harvest in 1989, preharvest precipitation is something of an annual event. It’s clear that 2019 is above average, but not record-breaking. The amount of rain this year is closest to 2010, and it’s tempting to draw a comparison to one of our favorite vintages. While the weeks leading up to the harvest are defining ones, it’s only part of the story.
If we layer Growing Degree Days into the discussion, a different picture of vintage 2019 begins to emerge. Growing Degree Days (GDDs) are a measure of heat accumulation throughout the growing season.
It’s interesting to note that classic “warm” vintages like 2004, 2006, and 2009, are on par with our current “mild” summer in terms of GDDs. Of the three, the most apt vintage comparison might be 2004. ’04 is remembered for a warm and dry summer, followed by September rain. What comes up less in this conversation, is that the weeks during harvest in October were beautiful that year.
We've been farming this property for 35 years. In that time, we've experienced a vast range of harvest conditions--wet, dry, humid, cool, early, and late. The vintages we find compelling often have rainy Septembers: 2004, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2017.
The short answer is that Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir Blanc are both white wines. However, one is a white wine made from white grapes, whereas the other is a white wine made from red grapes.
A clone of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc is the result of a mutation where the DNA sequence that dictates skin color jumped, creating a gap in the code. This is how all mutations in grapevines occur--some are more easily observed than others for future propogation. Like other clones of Pinot Noir, Blanc has its own personality, both in the vineyard and in the glass. Although Pinot Blanc favors cool climates, it's late ripening.
Flavor Profile: lemon, pear, apple, apricot, almond, stony minerality
Pinot Gris is also a clone of Pinot Noir where the DNA color sequence jumped partially, resulting in the mauve hues we observe at harvest.
Flavor Profile: apple, pear, honey, flint, spearmint, citrus, peach
A white wine made from a dark-skinnned grape, the Pinot Noir clusters are pressed immediately after harvest, limiting the color extraction and flavor influence from the skins. For red wines, the skins are usually present for the duration of the fermentation; for rosé, the skin contact is limited to a few hours or days.
Flavor Profile: apple, peach, clover, honeydew melon, jasmine
I never really gave clonal choice too much thought until recently. As a second generation winemaker with an established vineyard, our clonal selections were made many years before I decided to pursue a career in wine. Why focus on this aspect when there are so many variables at play—soil type, elevation, vine density, vine age, slope, trellis system, own rooted or grafted? Aside from the differences in ripening time, are the clones of Pinot Noir really all that distinguishable, or is it mere trivia?
There are more known clones of Pinot Noir than any other grape variety. When we established our vineyard in 1984, there were three clones available: Pommard, Wädenswil and Gamay Beaujolais. The Dijon clones, such as 114, 115, 667, etc., began to come into Oregon in the late 80s and early 90s. These clones may differ in any number of ways—cluster size and shape, berry size, color, early or late ripening, etc. Now there are over 50 clones of Pinot Noir available in the United States, and we’re up to 9 at our estate.
As interest in these new clones has increased, we began to study them more closely in our vineyard. The higher crop levels in 2014 led us to introduce a series of single clone wines of Pinot Noir: Dijon 115, Dijon 777, and Pommard. For these, we followed similar winemaking protocols to allow for the clearest clonal expression possible. The fruit was harvested by hand and 25% whole clusters were layered on the bottom of 1-ton vats, and topped with destemmed fruit. After a 5-day cold soak, fermentation began. The must was pumped over and punched down twice daily and pressed at dryness. The wine was aged in neutral French oak barrels for 14 months and bottled.
It is too early to ascribe personalities to each of these clones based on one vintage. However, these three wines are quite different from one another, leading me to rethink perspective on clonal significance. The Dijon 777 clone is remarkably spicy, with dark berry fruit and black tea. Whereas the Dijon 115 is far subtler, with a delicate earthiness and minerality. The Pommard is the closest to what I would describe as a classic Oregon Pinot Noir, but perhaps that’s due to my familiarity with our Pommard-dominant vineyard? With this series and those to come in future vintages, we hope to further our understanding of each clone in the vineyard and in the cellar.
Vintage 2017 opened with a severe winter followed by a long, rainy spring. With five months of overcast skies and very few sunbreaks, the vines were slow to start. We observed over 50% budbreak by April 28, a bit late for our vineyard. The canopy started filling in when the sun finally came out in late May. Summer weather fully arrived the third week of June, and with temperatures in the high 80s, bloom rapidly occurred during the fourth week. Conditions were ideal for this growth milestone, contributing to excellent fruit set—the best we have seen since the 2009 and 2014 vintages. Veraison started on August 7, hitting the 50% mark two weeks later.
With our fullest crop in years, and a warm and dry forecast, we were on track for a big harvest. 2017 had some catching up to do for heat units, and by early September our GDDs were even with 2016. This, combined with low disease pressure, and an anticipated late September/early October harvest contributed to our decision to do minimal cluster thinning. In these conditions, carrying a heavier crop load forces the vine to work harder, slowing down ripeness, resulting in more balance.
We started to notice a shift in flavor development after Labor Day Weekend, and began sampling the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay blocks for the sparkling harvest soon after. The sparkling harvest began on September 15, with the Pinot Meunier. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay came in over the next several days. This was by far our largest sparkling yield, bringing in 10.3 tons from the estate, with an additional 9 tons from other sites. The increased crop load was due a combination of excellent conditions during bloom and fruit set, to our decision to thin minimally, and also due to heavier cluster weights. In a typical harvest, clusters from mature Pinot varieties will weigh `150 to 200 grams. In 2017, average cluster weights were closer to 300 grams, and some, as in the case of the Grüner Veltiner, tipped the scales at nearly two pounds! This trend would continue throughout much of the harvest.
Much of the rest of late September and early October was dedicated to harvesting and pressing grapes for white wine production—Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gruner Veltliner, and Muller-Thurgau. Pinot Noir from warmer sites started coming in on October 9, with our estate fruit being harvested in mid-October. Before long, every fermentation vessel in the winery was full, and we had to purchase a few more tanks and vats to accommodate the extra fruit. Harvest concluded October 28, with the Carmine pick. By then, we were at full capacity—every tank, vat, barrel, and carboy was full. Overall, we brought in nearly 94 tons of grapes—20 more tons than our biggest year to date in 2014.
Once the fruit is picked, it is delivered to the crush pad for processing. For white and sparkling base wines, the grapes are sorted then pressed; for red and roses, the fruit is sorted and destemmed. This year, the fruit was in excellent condition, so most of the sorting required was to remove leaves and other non-grape material. The sound quality and overall ripeness of the Pinots led us to continue with whole cluster experimentation in higher percentages than ever before. We also expanded the number of clones of Pinot Noir we are working with to nine total.
A combination of cool October nights and whole cluster fermentation extended maceration in the red ferments to an average of 30 days. We typically press at dryness, and that usually happens on a 10-14-day schedule when the fruit is all destemmed. With whole cluster ferments, sugars are trapped in the berries, limiting the sugars available to the yeast, prolonging fermentation. This meant that our fermentation management routine was extended by several weeks, and pushed our pressing dates further into November. Our last press was on the day before Thanksgiving, November 22. This is extraordinarily late compared to the last few years, when we were picked, pressed, and barreled down by mid-October.
For the white wines, fermentations were steady and healthy. Tank space is always a concern in years where yields are high, and in some cases, we elected to ferment in stainless or neutral barrels. In addition to barrel fermented Chardonnay, we also have Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir Blanc wintering over in barrels. These vessels will be stirred bimonthly through the spring, and either blended in with their tank counterpart to enhance mouthfeel and complexity, or be bottled on their own in the fall of 2018.
As we put another harvest behind us, the 2017s are wintering over in tanks and barrels. After the New Year, we’ll begin to taste the wines individually, and start to make blending decisions and form bottling plans. The first wines of the vintage will be available in a few months, some won’t be bottled until the spring of 2019. We are looking forward to what this record-setting harvest has in store.
Dosage is a finishing syrup added to most champagnes and sparkling wines after the second fermentation in the bottle. Adding very small amounts of sugar can help to balance high acid wines, emphasize fruit, and improve texture. For one of the best explanations on this subject, see A Seasoning for Champagne, by Peter Liem.
In the cellar, the first introduction to our sparkling wines is often a few months after it's been bottled, to see how the second fizz-creating fermentation is coming along. Tasting a sparkling wine for the first time in this raw state, dry, and dancing on cells of suspended yeast, is always a thrill.
Once the fermentation is complete, we begin to assess the necessity of dosage, and prepare a range of wines with sugar levels up to 10 grams per liter. In our history of making sparkling wines, the dosage levels have ranged from 3 to 8 grams per liter. However, these preferences aren't always clear cut, and we often have a fondness for the crisp, tart, and very dry wines without dosage as well.
The low to zero dosage movement is a relatively recent trend, and more commonly found among grower-producers than big sparkling houses. While we certainly identify with the grower model, our interest in the style is rooted the idea that with a great fruit source, followed by good fermentation and cellar practices, that perhaps the best course of action is to take none, and let the wine speak for itself.
Vintage describes the year of the grape harvest, and in the US, wines with a vintage year on the label indicate that 95% of the grapes were from that year. By contrast, nonvintage wines are blends of wines from grapes that were harvested from two or more years. Seventy to eighty percent of Champagne is nonvintage, with blending specialists carefully combining dozens, sometimes hundreds, of base wines together to reflect a house style, the signature of the producer. Vintage wines are rarer, and it is common for a sparkling house to produce vintage wines in years that are deemed to be of superior quality.
Our goals with the sparkling wines are different than that of many large sparkling houses. The two nonvintage wines we produce are estate grown, and therefore have site expression. The composition of the nonvintage wines are as follows:
So, while these nonvintage wines are wines of place, the 2015 vintage Brut is a wine of both place and time. 2015 was warm and early, with higher than average yields. The fruit was remarkably balanced however, with excellent structure. What distinguishes this vintage for the Brut especially is the amount of Pinot Meunier in the blend, 22 percent, up from just 15 percent in 2014. We are still learning what the Pinot Meunier contributes to the wine, but one of the early observations is the enhanced midpalate presence and fruity aromas. The fruit for this wine is sourced from blocks dedicated to our sparkling program, and the blend is determined by the yields at harvest.
With base wines of different vintages, blends, and dosage, these wines seem quite different. But, how does this translate in the glass? Early observations are that the nonvintage wines boast a finer, more delicate mousse, with pronounced yeastiness and an increased emphasis on tree fruit flavors. By contrast, the vintage wines are incredibly fresh and light, with a fine, yet plentiful bead, showing much more minerality and citrus notes. The tone and texture of these young wines will change as they evolve in the bottle, and it is always exciting to track their progress.
Whole cluster fermentation refers to the practice of fermenting entire bunches of grapes, stems and all. Typically, our grapes go through a destemmer, a machine that knocks the berries off the stems, removing the stems from the fermentation entirely. In the process many of the berries split and begin to release juice immediately. With whole cluster, the fruit stays intact longer, releasing the sugar available to the yeast more slowly, and the presence of the stem has an impact on aroma, flavor, and structure of the wine. Are these features beneficial to the overall quality of the wine? How much whole cluster is the ideal amount, if any? Will our ideas about this change as the wine ages? With the vintage? These are all questions we hope to answer through our whole cluster trial.
In 2014, we harvested five tons of Pinot Noir from the same part of the vineyard, and separated the fruit into five fermenters. We added a whole cluster layer in four of these vats, 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100%. The fifth bin was all destemmed. We proceeded with our typical fermentation management protocols, with pumpovers and punch downs twice daily, and pressing at dryness. The wines were aged in older French oak barrels and bottled the winter of 2016.
We observed differences in the fermentation kinetics almost immediately. The vats with higher percentages of whole cluster fermented at lower temperatures:
Furthermore, we found that the chemistry of the finished wines was varied, although this could be due to differences in ripeness levels in the field, and/or clonal differences throughout the block:
It is important to note that each vintage is unique, so for us to learn anything meaningful from this exercise, we will need to repeat the experiment over multiple vintages in varying conditions.
However, you can be part of this experiment! By tasting these wines and giving feedback, your subjective observations are an invaluable aspect of this process.
Our 2014 whole cluster Pinot Noir set includes one bottle each of the experimental wines, and the 2014 Pinot Noir Estate, for a total of six. Presented in a beautiful wooden box, this collection is a lovely gift, and fun to share at a dinner party or with a group of friends.