by crushed & stirred
It’s hot. It’s roasting hot. It is painfully hot in the press, where I’ve been today – picking out year-old grape seeds with my fingernails in anticipation of the – surprise! – start of vintage. Tomorrow.
It started as a quiet rumbling. Pierro and Cullen picking semillon and some of that rare Margaret River pinot noir. Not to worry, everyone said, Pierro and Cullen are always the first to pick. Not to worry, they said, when one day our fining trials on 2012 whites had a flight of juice samples thrown in beside it.
and then one day . . . juice!
I was still in denial when I saw bags of grapes on the smoko table.
Surely sampling goes on for a couple of weeks before fruit crosses the door. Surely. I’d even spent some time in the vineyard, dropping clusters on some cabernet that is far, far from ready. I wasn’t getting it when I was hearing that vineyards had fully pulled through veraison. I was prepared for the schedule: we’ll get in a little bit of sparkling base, then chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, then semillon, then a break before the reds.
Then came the heat. Nearly 40 degree heat, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, for days. We’re still in the middle of it. Grapes that would normally be moving along at about 2 tenths of a Brix per day at this stage have moved up 2 whole Brix.
Brix, my beloved Brix. With you as a yardstick, I have navigated my still green understanding of grape metabolism, vineyard maturity, and fermentation science. With you as a code, I have happily waded in the balmy (occasionally shark-visited) waters of the cellar social scene, trading sugary benchmarks with fellow industry rats over pints and in between normal conversation. And now, in Australia, you are relegated to the status of a factor of 1.8. In Australia, I am forced to speak the language of Baumé, yet another scale of density, with an extra hundredth thrown on and an indispensable decimal point. Baumé, you feel clunky and less specific and I have absolutely no sentimental attachment to you. I happily take on the job of taking sugars on our juice samples because our refractometer reads them in Brix, which I then convert to Baumé for our records. Baumé, you sly French bastard, you can try and make me feel like I don’t speak the language, but I’ve wiggled my way through the door before and I will do it again.
But enough. While I’ve been busy fining finished wines and complaining about Baumé and stenciling barrels, the grapes have been ripening all over Margaret River. I guess I’d been waiting for a pressure washer to hit me over the head. Pre-vintage jobs I’m typically accustomed to are: painting and sealing floors; pressure washing drains; cleaning every tank; scrubbing every corner of the winery on my hands and knees. That hasn’t happened here, because we are face deep in bottling and it’s Australia and there’s just generally a lot less scrubbing. We don’t even have any empty tanks. Finally we cleaned the press, with one day to spare (Add to the list of standard winery operations in Australia: pest control; getting wasps nests out of presses is now on my CV.)
I don’t feel like I’m in the head space of vintage yet, but I’ve started to understand that vintage isn’t really about me. After 2 months (what??!) I still haven’t had enough play time in Margaret River, but it’s time to go to work. As impressionistic as I wax here and in my head and aloud (because that is my wont), it happens every year – more than once a year, if you’re most of us. It feels like some Christmas-tax season-childbirth hybrid but despite adrenaline highs, a profound sense of satisfaction, and the joys of learning and making wine (and pain, sweat, fatigue, and sacrifice), it’s not summer camp, it’s business.
Farewell weekends. With this weather, we’ll have picked nearly all the whites within a week. Our two biggest white picks will be on Friday. And then there’s no turning back.