A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed Cambria’s winemaker Denise about her experiences during this year’s harvest. In Part I of the interview, Denise talked about the weather, this year’s flavor profiles, and the blocks, clones and wines that she considers her favorites this harvest. In this part, she talked about her favorite part of winemaking, how to tell when grapes are ready to be harvested, and how Cambria’s new sustainability certification has changed operations in the winery!
What do you most enjoy about the winemaking process?
I especially enjoy the “agricultural” part of the winemaking process because that is what usually determines the character of the final wine product. Every block of grapes and each lot of wine has a life (or personality of its own) and evaluating the different stages of the wine and the decisions that are made during the winemaking process are always unique to each vintage. Each year, you build on your foundation of knowledge and experience different situations in the vineyards and with the wines, so it is a continual learning process – we will never know it all and that is pretty cool because there is always something new to learn about.
How much time do you spend in the vineyards leading up to harvest? And how much time do you spend in the winery?
Leading up to harvest, I probably spend about 30% -50% of my time in the vineyard. Since the winery is located in the middle of the vineyard, it is very easy to run out to different blocks and run back to the winery for a bit and then return to the vineyard. As harvest gets further along, I am required to be at the winery more because of the amount of activities that are taking place, but by that time, we have a good handle on the state of the grapes, but still spend a good amount of time monitoring the progress of the grapes.
What have you been experimenting with in the vineyards lately?
With the Pinot Noir vines, we have been experimenting more over the past three years with different degrees of leaf-pulling, cluster thinning, and shoot thinning. We have found that removing the lateral canes eliminates any second crop (second crop grows on the lateral canes) and exposing the clusters to sunlight earlier than later provides grapes with better color. Also, we have found that delaying the “green drop” a bit later, the clusters and berries stay small. When we “green drop” too early, the clusters and berries size up too much, and we lose a lot of color and flavor components.
With the Chardonnay vines, we make sure that the winter pruning is performed in a way that the vines will not be over-cropped. The Chardonnay vines are not as sensitive as the Pinot Noir vines, but you have to make sure that they are watched closely – when are the leaves starting to senesce? Or are the leaves bright green and providing enough photosynthesis to further mature the grapes? In the Santa Maria Valley, the Chardonnay grapes don’t taste good and don’t have seed or skin maturity until the grapes start to have a golden color – they don’t taste as good or make as good of a wine if they are picture perfect and bright green! All of the lots (for all varieties) are kept separate by block and clone during fermentation and aging so that we can evaluate and learn about the wines produced from all areas and blocks of the vineyard.
At what point do you really start to scrutinize the grapes for maturity?
Depending on how the weather was during the summer, we will usually start closely monitoring the grapes around the middle or end of August. If we have heat spells that accelerate the maturity, then the process is quick. If we have a long duration of cool weather, the process is long and drawn out. We will start tasting grapes and taking random Brix samples in the vineyard. When it looks like the maturity rate is progressing, we will start bringing juice samples into the lab for analyses and continue to taste the grapes and monitor the vine health.
From a sensory perspective, how do you know when a block of grapes is ready to pick?
The block is usually ready to pick when we see/taste seed maturity (brown seeds; lower astringency), skin maturity (skins are not astringent or bitter); acids are in balance and the grapes display good varietal and fruit flavors. We also look at the vine health – are they in a state where they will continue to ripen the grapes or are they done (yellowing leaves, etc)?
I just heard about Cambria becoming certified by the CCSW for sustainable practices, which is really exciting! Did the sustainability certification process greatly change your winemaking processes this harvest?
Not really, because we had already taken some huge steps towards performing sustainable practices a few years ago. This had included water conservation in the cellars; decreased use of electricity; and using less harmful chemicals for cleaning. It will be an ever-evolving process, but it is something that we have become accustomed to.