Another year gone, and another harvest in the cellar. I’m writing this on September 28 after punching down our estate Cabernet Franc and Merlot, the latter of which we harvested three days ago and is already showing phenomenal flavor development. Without a doubt, 2016 is going to go down as a stellar vintage for reds and could turn out to be a surprisingly good vintage for whites as well.

The 2016 season started out early. In Hiawassee we had a cold and wet winter with two snowfalls of over eight inches. The cold weather wasn’t a real threat to the vines, as temperatures stayed consistently cool before gradually warming in March. We recorded full budbreak on April 15, about two weeks earlier than last year. Early budbreaks always scare me as our vineyards are at risk of heavy frost until mid-May. Fortunately the weather continued to rise and we came through the frost season with no damage.

Spring continued to warm gradually and we recorded great flowering and fruitset on all varietals except our Vignoles. For some reason, our Vignoles decided to take a year off, setting no fruit and shutting down by mid summer. Vignoles is a large component of our Trillium blend, so enjoy the 2015 Trillium while you can – it may be another year or two before we have more!

By June we were in the midst of a long, dry summer that continued through July when we began recording veraison, the first stages of ripeness, on our earliest varietals. While this signals that harvest is approaching, it also represents one of the most vulnerable periods for the grape, as the softening skin and increasing sugar make the berries targets for pests, mold and rot. Birds represented a large threat, as bird damage to an individual berry on our tight-clustered varieties could lead to rot over the entire cluster. Indeed, in 2015 we lost over 20% of our Pinot Gris and Merlot crops due to damage and rot from birds. For the first time ever we netted all of our vines.

While the nets helped with the bird pressure, we also embarked on a ongoing program of shoot and leaf thinning to promote sun and air circulation through our vine canopy. All the shoots on all of our vines were hand-positioned pointing straight up, with unnecessary shoots and leaves removed by hand. This not only opened up the canopy to prevent disease, but also allowed the grapes to receive additional sunlight to develop flavors. This required quite a bit of time, but I believe the increased fruit quality was well worth it.

All of this was aided by what was shaping up to be a phenomenal vintage. At the end of July, if you had asked, I would have scored the vintage an A+: dry, warm weather, cool nights and occasional evening showers were moving the fruit along nicely. Of course, this being agriculture, it couldn’t last.

As July turned to August the weather changed as well. August was cool and wet – exactly the weather we didn’t want as the grapes approached full ripeness. During the second half of August we recorded over 10” of rain at the vineyard while the rest of the state suffered a drought. We also saw a few days where the temperature never rose above 80. On one particular day I drove from a meeting in Dahlonega with blue skies and 93 degrees to our vineyard where it was raining and 77.

Credit to Sanford for all but saving the crop during this time. Unsure of when or if the rain would end, we thinned the crop fairly aggressively, allowing each vine to focus its energy on ripening fewer clusters. It meant a smaller crop, but one of higher quality. We also trimmed all the shoots and stuck with our spray program despite the weather.

The result was that we came through a long period of inclement weather at the worst possible time with flying colors. Harvest began on August 24 with out Pinot Gris, which was head and shoulders above the 2015 vintage. Careful attention in the vineyard had kept the fruit very clean, and the cool nights had preserved a bracing acidity. The 2016 Pinot Gris will be released in spring as a single varietal. It’s shaping up to be a big, fat buttery wine – the only downside is we’ll only have 30 cases!

Our first real crop of Traminette came in on September 6. These were 4th year vines and we hadn’t planned on a harvest, yet the young vines gave us 1,800 lbs of good quality fruit. After an overnight rest on the skins, we pressed and fermented. Fermentation lasted 21 days – a slow, cool fermentation that preserved all of the spicy and floral aromas. This leads me to one of the biggest changes in the cellar this year – temperature control. This year we purchased an installed a chilling unit that allows us to cool wine to low temperatures and maintain longer fermentations. On our red wines, it allows us to hold a wine at low temperatures before fermentation, drawing out flavor outside of the presence of alcohol.

We started harvesting our Cabernet Franc on September 20. We severely underestimated our crop here and wound up harvesting almost two tons of fruit and harvest stretched over three days. The first batch, harvested earliest, was set aside for our pure estate wine – no sulfites, naturally fermented, with no winemaking additives whatsoever. While fermentation is almost complete on this lot, it’s already showing the tight tannins and signature strawberry jam aroma that’s come to define Hightower Creek Vineyards Cabernet Franc. I’ll still maintain that Sanford grows some of the best Cabernet Franc anywhere.

An aside here to thank our vineyard volunteers. I can’t thank these brave souls enough. They braved early mornings, wet grass, hard work and yellow jackets (so, so many yellow jackets) to help us bring in our best harvest ever. To give you an idea, we harvested over 3,000 pounds of Cabernet Franc. With eight volunteers, this came to each person picking almost 400 pounds of fruit. We couldn’t do this without them.

Harvest wrapped up on Sunday, September 25 with our Merlot. Once again, the quantity was a pleasant surprise. We harvested so much Merlot that we wound up pressing a portion directly to Rosé as we were completely out of fermentation space. Fruit quality was excellent, and after only three days the wine has taken on a deep color. Again, credit to Sanford for such great fruit.

In addition to our estate grapes, we also received some really awesome fruit from our partner vineyards: Seyval from Crane Creek Vineyards, Chambourcin from Odom Springs Vineyards, Cabernet Franc from Frogtown Cellars, and Norton from Beaverdam Vineyards and Redtail Mountain Vineyards. It’s great to be able to rely on partners who are demonstrably passionate about growing great fruit year after year. I hope to be able to release “vineyard designated” wines from partner vineyards soon.

While it’s all potential now, I’m excited by the early signs from this vintage. Having spent a full year in the vineyard watching these grapes bud, flower, set and ripen, it feels great to have successfully wrapped up harvest. While the grapes’ journey in the vineyard is now over, the journey into Hightower Creek Vineyards wine is just beginning. I feel extremely lucky to be along for the ride.

Travis Green