After a hectic two months, the 2015 harvest season has drawn to a close. The grapes that only weeks ago were hanging on vines have been crushed, pressed and laid down in barrels to rest for the winter. Overall, this was one of the more challenging vintage’s we’ve had – from tornados and hurricanes to birds and bears – but the quality of the wine was phenomenal and we’re excited to begin releasing the 2015 vintages next summer.
Harvest this year was very much a game of chicken with mother nature. For the type of wine we strive to produce, longer hang time for the grapes and optimum ripeness is a necessity. However those longer hang times mean exposing the grapes to all of the dangers of nature. It’s tough to watch a harvest be slowly diminished by birds while waiting for the grapes to ripen. We’re constantly praying for that next rainstorm on the radar to miss us, or to give us a few more days of warm temperatures to raise the sugar content of our grapes. It’s a stressful time, with tension building and building until the harvest begins and the period of frenetic activity commences.
Our harvest season started in the last week of August with Pinot Gris and Vignoles followed by Traminette and Seyval Blanc. The fruit progressed perfectly through a long growing season that began with budbreak in April, slowly building sugar while retaining a lively acidity – perfect for the type of crisp whites we like at Hightower Creek. As the temperatures rose, late afternoon thunderstorms began appearing, causing the berries to swell and, occasionally, burst. The exposed berries attracted insects and birds while also forcing us to leave the grapes hanging for a longer period in order to gain optimum ripeness. This, in turn, led to a much lower yield then normal. Losses to birds and damaged berries totaled 30% in some cases leading to a much smaller than normal white harvest.
The white grapes were sorted, crushed, and immediately pressed. Vignoles and Pinot Gris were both fermented in neutral French oak barrels, destined, along with Seyval Blanc, for our Trillium blend. The remainder of the Seyval was co-fermented with our tiny amount of Traminette in stainless steel for Chatuga White. In both cases, temperatures were held in the low 60s with fermentation completing after around 15 days.
While working with the whites in the cellar, the reds continued to ripen on the vine. Again we faced substantial losses from birds and even bears! Apparently a neighborhood bear has developed an appetite for Cabernet Franc, as we discovered when entire clusters would disappear from the vines. Luckily, Cabernet Franc ripens early here and we picked some fantastic quality fruit! 23 brix, 8g/L total acidity, 3.4pH – I couldn’t be any happier with those numbers! All the credit to Sanford who kept the vineyard in great shape.
After the Cabernet Franc, the flood gates opened both figuratively and literally. A couple of tropical storms began to force our hand. Chambourcin, Norton, and Merlot were all frantically harvested before the rain (in fact, we were harvesting Merlot IN the rain!). It was just in time, too. During the 48 hours after harvest was complete we received over 7 inches of rain at the vineyard – a devastating amount for a crop at the ripeness levels we achieved. While I would have loved a few more days of hang time for the Merlot, I’m very happy with the quality.
With all of these grapes coming in almost simultaneously, the cellar was more packed than it has ever been! Every available container and every inch of space was utilized for fermentation. We continued our program of native fermentations on our red wines this year, with the hope of developing a consistent, unique “Hightower Creek” profile. This was supplemented with a commercial yeast chosen to increase structure and tannin development in our Deliverance blend. The different wines stayed on the skins for between 10 – 20 days depending on the type before being pressed, settled, and racked to barrels.
All told, we processed close to 2,000 gallons of wine in 2015. This is a TINY amount compared to most vineyards, but it was our largest harvest to date. As with every harvest we’ve learned important lessons that we are excited to put into place next year – bird netting, a different approach to temperature control, and new techniques both in the vineyard and in the cellar.
As for the wines, they are very much in their “terrible twos” stage right now. I love them, but boy can they make a mess! After racking to barrels malolactic fermentation began almost immediately – something that doesn’t normally occur until spring. We’ve cleaned many an overflowing barrel already this year. I’m looking forward to them calming down for winter! With all that said, they are already delicious – if you see me around the tasting room sipping something that looks a little cloudier than normal, it’s probably a barrel sample from one of our 2015 babies!
So what’s next for us? Lot’s of cleaning first. All of the equipment that won’t be used until next year needs to be cleaned, serviced and stored away. Then it’s on to the vineyard, pruning, repairing trellises and replanting where necessary. Work never really stops and the cycle continues for vintage 2016.