Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Day 7¼ - Hold the presses!

So, as we limp into what we now believe will be our last day (honest), the final few grapes are gathered in. Of course when we stopped last night we did have to make sure that we left enough fruit on the vine to fill at least one press, otherwise it would be a case of shoes and socks off, and start stomping!

The photo above shows me (quite rare as I am usually on the other side on the lens) measuring sulphur to add to the new grape must. Before anyone panics I should tell you that we use sulphur in solution for this operation, but it is still pretty agressive, hence the mask. If this was 100% pure sulphur, then I would probably kill everyone in the building by adding it like this! (By the way, Angela says I look much more attractive in this picture - I have no idea what she means).

Oh, and one final harvest note about temperature.... At the moment we still have an outside temperature of around 26°-28°C (80°F), whereas in the cellar, where the refridgeration is chilling tanks, it is a mere 14°C (57°F). Dressing for such a wide variation can be quite difficult, and I sometimes find myself sitting in a warm office, with the sun streaming in through the window, wearing a fleece!

So, this is really it for 2009! This photo shows Juan and David tipping the very last case of this year's harvest into the press. Down below, in the pressing room, Fran started the final cycle at 2pm, and so with all the grapes safely gathered under cloudless blue skies, we hand over to Angela to work her magic in the cellar.

With our thanks to everyone in the vineyards and the bodega who have worked so hard for the 7½ days. Now, let the cleaning begin!!!!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Day 7 - The final bunches

Herminda's office - who needs an Apple laptop when you have a Grape notebook?
(photo by mobile phone)

Whilst it was very nice to have a break from picking, today seems like a bit of an anti-climax. Having been in full harvest mode for nearly a week, it just seems really hard to re-motivate everyone, including myself, for just one last push.

The good news is that in a quiet moment Angela and I did a systematic tasking of all the musts, and all I can say is "looking good" - yes, we are very happy with what we have harvested so far. If fermentations etc. go according to plan then 2009 should be a very useful vintage. Expensive, but useful. (If you read one of my pre-harvest posts about grape prices, then you might understand where I'm coming from). Now I am not saying for one second that we make bad wines, and perhaps I shouldn't say this, but for me at least, the 2009 will be better than last year.

Finally, as the day wears on, and the grapes keep coming, we realise to our horror that we might have miscalculated. By the afternoon we have every available person out in the Pazo vineyard helping to pick the 'final' grapes, until in the end, at around 8.30pm, the daylight defeats us and we retreat back to the Bodega. The end was obviously not as nigh as we thought!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday - a day of rest

In English we call it a praying mantis, in Spanish it is a mantis religiosa - rescued from a case of grapes on Saturday. I just thought that with such a name it might be appropriate to post this picture on a Sunday.

As I explained yesterday, we have perhaps only one day of picking left (in one or two sections of our vineyards), but in the warm sunshine, fruit left on the vine for one more day can only benefit.

Despite no picking, there is still racking to be done in the cellar, and so not a day of rest for everyone.

More news on the final day tomorrow.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Day 6 - Watching the temperature

Slowly the emphasis of our work starts to shift from outdoors to indoors, as we have fewer grapes left on the vine, and more juice in our tanks. As with all wine making, temperature is the key, when we start to impose our own individual character on the fruit that we collect. In a way, it is like being a chef - yes, you need to start with the very best raw ingredients, but then the individuality of the final dish, or in our case wine, will very much depend on how we handle our fruit.

Obviously, there are many steps in the wine making process, but in each there is very little margin for error. If Gordon Ramsay does not like the piece of fish that his Chef de Partie offers up to him, he will simply chuck it in the bin and start again (and probably swear a lot in the process!). If we make a mistake in our cellar, we cannot start again, we only have one chance to get it right. At this moment, there are really two important factors that will influence the final outcome - heat and oxidation - these are our enemies, and have to be avoided at all costs. This is one of the reasons that I make such a big fuss about our cooling system - it's an important piece of kit for us!

In mentioning temperature, perhaps I should make a small comment about the weather. So far it has been really kind to us, as we still enjoy brilliant blue skies and warm sunshine. In fact, thinking back over the last few years, I don't think I can recall a vintage with absolutely 0% precipitation - perhaps I am wrong.

In view of this continued good weather we will stop picking a little early today, to give the final plots a chance to drop a bit of acidity. (We may not resume again until Monday, as the forecast for the next couple of days still looks very good). But even if we did produce an odd tank with a slightly higher acidity, we can always use small amounts for blending with other tanks in the future - like adjusting the pepper and salt in your final dish (to use my cooking analogy once again).

Oh, and by the way, the photo shows my little post-it notes stuck on the control panel - with so much movement of must around the cellar this simply gives me an at-a-glance reminder of where everything is - not very high-tech!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Day 5 - Over the hump

Some valves controlling our cooling system (obviously designed by Mr Heath Robinson himself!)

As we roll into day 5 I think it is safe to say that we are well past the mid-point of this years harvest. With around 40 pickers in our vineyards our presses are well supplied, and have no break at all between unloading and re-filling (well, they do only work once a year).

The racking of the clean 'must' is well under way, and so far the cooling system is behaving itself. Indeed, it is proving so effective that it can apparently chill the odd can of Coke! The zig-zag arrangement of pipes in the photo are known as a heat exchanger - this is a length of pipe surrounded by an outer cooling jacket through which the grape juice passes immediately after pressing. Obviously, because the exchanger is icy cold this has the effect of cooling the must very rapidly even before it reaches the temperature controlled tanks - it is just a slightly more effective way to drop the temperature quickly.

I think that's what they call product placement (using our heat exchanger)

As I mentioned a little earlier, I am the one who treads the 39 steps more than most, often rushing samples from the grape reception down to the laboratory two floors below (I lost 2kg in the first 3 days!). From what Angela has seen so far, she is pretty happy with her analysis, and it looks like it will not be necessary to make any adjustments to the acidity this year - we shall see.....

Day 4½ - The 39 steps

Erm, not really a harvest story, but more one of my stupid anecdotes - perhaps I'm just getting tired and delirious.

I may have mentioned at some point that our cellar is built on three levels. Grape reception at the top, presses in the middle and tank room (and laboratory) at the bottom.

Somehow my planning must have gone wrong, but I think that during the harvest my own job entails rushing up and down the stairs probably more than anyone else in the building (which I suppose is quite natural when you want to keep an eye on everything).

Yesterday evening, in a moment of mental and physical exhaustion, I actually counted the steps between the top and bottom levels......

Now I don't know if Angela's father was an Alfred Hitchcock fan, or if it arrived completely by accident, but we quite literally have
The 39 Steps!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Day 4 - Old 'El Pazo'

No, I'm not refering to crispy chicken fajitas or enchiladas, but to our largest vineyard which is affectionately known as 'El Pazo'. It's real title is the Pazo de Barrantes, but we usually do not refer to it as such because Marques de Caceres (the Rioja producer) actually owns a bodega in the Rias Baixas denomination which sells a wine by that name. Indeed, to cut a very long story short, the 5 hectare 'El Pazo' vineyard was orignally owned by them, but was sold to Angela's father many years ago.

So, back to the story - the Pazo vineyard includes some of our oldest vines, many around 70/80 years old. Of course these are picked seperately, pressed seperately, vinified seperately and the resultant wine is reserved for our Family Estate and Barrica labels. Unfortunately, with each year that passes the yield of these 'old vines' decreases until eventually we have to pull them up and replace them with new cuttings taken from these old, original plants. On the positive side, this is a continuous cycle, so there are always more 'old vines' evolving (if that makes any sense).

Meanwhile down in the cellar, we have started to 'rack' the clean grape must after settling. The juice which is drawn off is perfectly clean and clear, and actually makes quite an attractive drink as it is. It has the typical intense, slightly floral fruit of albariño, but then of course, it also has quite a high acidity, some of which will be lost during fermentation, and later during cold stabilisation.

The picture below is not a dirty cathedral window, but is actually the sludge which is left at the bottom of the tank after settling (photo taken from above, looking down into the tank). Very pretty, but you wouldn't want to drink it!

Back up in 'grape central' (reception), the fruit is still piling in, but somehow without too much fuss and excitement - all appears very calm and controlled. To put this into context, our sixth pressing on day four finished two hours earlier than our sixth pressing on day one - it would seem that all the first day cobwebs in our performance have been swept away, and we are now operating like a well oiled machine!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Day 3 - The numbers game

There is a fair bit of arithmetic that goes on at harvest time, not only on the winemaking side (where we calculate the sulphur etc. that we have to add to the tanks), but also on the logistics side, making sure that everything and everybody functions in the most efficient way possible.

Indeed, the reason that I picked on this as todays subject was simply because I was sitting at my desk looking at the pressing figures for yesterday. As I think I may have mentioned, months or even years ago, we have two presses, one slightly larger than the other. They both have a fixed 'operating range' - in other words, the minimum and maximum amount of grapes that we can load. This is actually a very serious consideration, as attempting to operate outside this range will probably result in extensive (and expensive) damage to our equipment.

So, as each new batch of grapes arrive in reception, not only do we have to examine the origin (seperating certain vineyard plots), but we also have to calculate the optimum loads, and allocate the grapes accordingly.

The real problem occurs when the last grapes arrive - we quite literally have to sit down with calculators and work out how best we can distribute the weights (not an easy task at the end of a long working day when you brain has already been working overtime).

Anyway, returning to my pressing figures for yesterday, I was actually quite surprised to see the volume that we had actually crushed - almost as much as our busiest day last year. The main difference was that yesterday we did not really notice it, which might be testament to the fact that we have now a well-drilled team who know exactly what they have to do.

Oh dear, I must have been tempting fate writing about the presses.... During the evening session the larger of our two presses just stopped working. Fortunately, we pay for 24 hours emergency cover during the harvest and within half an hour we had an engineer working on the problem. Luckily it turned out to be one small piece of circuit wire, a mere 3cm long, that needed replacing, and only one hour of precious pressing time was lost.

Harvest would not be harvest without at least one small hiccup, but having just said that I now have my fingers crossed that it will be the only one!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Day 2 - The sun still shines on the righteous.....

OK, so I like sunsets..... this was the view from our grape reception at the back of the Bodega yesterday evening, looking out towards the Atlantic Ocean (only a few km from us).

It's really difficult not to comment about the weather, but suffice to say that on visting several different weather websites this morning, the forecast had changed yet again. The good news is that it's sun, sun, sun all the way! I suppose that with hindsight this could, in some odd way, be considered bad news - if it wasn't for the threat of rain looming on the horizon, then perhaps we could have waited a day or two longer to tease out that last bit of sugar from the grapes. Well, I don't have a crystal ball, and weather forecasts can still be wrong (he said, trying to convince himself).

Our second day was quite unusual in that it was punctuated by foreign visitors. Normally we have a strict 'closed door' policy during the harvest and do not receive anyone, but as these customers had travelled a very long way to get here, and were making a whistlestop tour of Spain, we decided to make an exception. To be very honest it is really difficult to get your head into a guided tour when you have organised chaos unfolding around you. And so, following todays new experience, I think that we will probably retain our 'no visit' rule in the future, with the possible exception of minor royals and/or players of Liverpool FC (but not necessarily in that order).

Meanwhile, back at the harvest the throughput is accelerating as we receive more grapes than yesterday - quality still looking pretty good. The newly restored cooling system seems to be working well as we use it to chill the grape must for 'settling'. Settling is quite simply when we allow all the unwanted debris (skins, stalks, pips etc. that escape the press) to sink to the bottom of the tank over a period of about 48 hours. This process works much better when the grape juice is very cold, and if Angela had her way, we might even freeze it..... just joking.

Apart from all that, nothing much else to report, so hasta mañana!

Monday, September 21, 2009

The harvest begins (with apologies to the press)

I start this year's harvest story with an apology.... to our local press. A month ago they proclaimed that our harvest would start on 20th September, and I mocked them openly for being so presumptous. How could they possibly know so far in advance, I joked.

Well, the egg is on my face now - we have started on Monday 21st September, as I now realise that our local journalists must have much better connections than I thought, perhaps even divine!

Anyway, the first grapes were collected under a milky blue sky - at 8am when I took the photo above, we had 13°C (55°F) with 67% humidity, and a little later at midday, 26°C and 38%.
Now I don't wish to be a weather bore, but it's really interesting when you compare several different weather websites for the same location (as is my current mission in life - sad, but true). For example, three sites say tomorrow will be sunny, one says complete cloud cover. Two or three say sun for the rest of the week, another says rain at the weekend. Should it be majority rule, or do I take a mean average, that is the question? Of course we watch the barometric pressure too, but being so close to the Ocean, that can, and often does, change rather quickly.

So, enough about that, what about the grape 'must'? Well, as the first grapes entered the press, and the first 'free run' juice trickled out, the smell of fresh fruit in the press room was much more prevalent than last year, with a slight floral touch - this impression was confirmed in our tasting - delicate, floral Albariño fruit.

End of day one - early days, but so far, so good......

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tree fellers or three fellas?

A bit of light relief before the serious business starts next week.....

Well, there's nothing funny about cutting down a dead tree I hear you say, but let me tell you that this is not the first attempt.

I am not sure if this work was being carried out by contractors or by the local council, but the men who turned up last Saturday to do the job were certainly not adequately equipped. There were probably five or six men, two chainsaws and just one, very short pair of ladders (that proved to be their downfall). The ladder was barely long enough to reach even the lowest branch - they just about managed to cut it off, trim it into small pieces and load it onto their truck.

The second branch was simply too high for their woefully short ladder, and so they spent the next half-hour chatting, looking up at the tree, probably reluctantly deciding that it was impossible for them to continue any further. Very much a wasted morning!

Today the real workmen turned up - two large trucks and lots of chainsaws. Road closed, job done, as simple as that.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Counting the hours

This is the tidiest and most peaceful that you will see our grape reception for the next couple of weeks. Tomorrow we will start to distribute the grey baskets that you see neatly stacked here, in anticipation of the picking which is now iminent.

Our lab is full of grape samples and the results are looking fairly promising, so the next step is to consider the weather.

After about six weeks of dry weather we actually have a little rain today, and it is possible that we will have more tomorrow (and possibly on Saturday too). Thankfully this is mostly light rain and should not really have any adverse effect on the fruit, indeed it might almost be welcome. Following such a long, dry period the grapes have become a little dusty, and can also still have small traces of Bordeaux mixture (an innocuous treatment that was last used more than a month ago). A light shower of rain now will hopefully yield slightly cleaner fruit!

The plan is to watch what happens in the next 48 hours, and then to allow one completely dry day before the 'off'. So if the forecast is correct, this could mean that we start on Monday 21st...... or maybe not - the weather Gods will decide.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It's sample time

This week is like the proverbial 'lull before the storm'. We think we have everything in the bodega prepared, even the arrangements for an emergency generator have been made. Only a bit of last minute cleaning remains.

Meanwhile Angela is out and about, gathering grape samples, not only from our own vineyards, but also from those of our suppliers. These samples will be carefully analysed as we wait for the optimum moment to start picking. Each of our vineyards will then be sub-divided into plots, and we will gather grapes plot-by-plot in strict order of ripeness.

As usual at this time of year, I am glued to my computer screen watching the weather (well, I am British after all!) However, it goes without saying that this also plays a hugely important part in our harvest planning too.

I have also taken the oportunity to nip out with my camera to take a few vineyard shots before the serious work begins.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Almost exactly one year.

Almost exactly a year?.......That's the answer, now what was the question?

Well, that's how long it has taken to repair the tanks in our cellar following last years accident - and not a moment too soon. We have about a week to run before we start the 2009 harvest, and having just completed the full and final testing of the temperature control system, it looks like we are now up and running, and ready to receive the new grape must.

Despite the deadline creeping ever closer we have still had to do an enormous amount of chasing to get this critical job finished on time, which I suppose could be considered fairly normal for this part of the world!

The other good news is that the sun is still shining, and so, after a poor start to the year, it looks like we might have a half-decent harvest in terms of quality. However, as I mentioned only last week, the size of the crop will be small, and grape prices completely over-the-top, but then that is another story.

Returning (for the last time I hope), to the saga of the tanks, I made a final symbolic gesture to the work myself - adding the denomination 'sticker' that shows the official capacity, which in the case of this 2008 catastrophe amounted to 15 damaged tanks, each of 9,000 litres.

Thankfully, we can now put this extraordinary experience behind us.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More new signs

Our latest new sign outside the bodega

The previous, old sign - photo taken on a misty morning, facing in the opposite direction (looking away from the Bodega)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

I just can't believe what I am seeing!

The picture as it appears on the website

After yesterday's little rant about a Californian journalist, today I am almost at a loss for words!

Like every denomination or appellation on earth our production is strictly controlled. We face tough rules and regulations that we are obliged to follow, some good, others not so good, but all designed to protect the end consumer.

In our own area, not only do we have the local D.O. office who control the vineyards, and every step of our production, through quality control to final bottling, but then we also have the local fraud office, who will ensure that your stock is correct, and that every bottle is labelled correctly etc., etc. In the case of the latter, the fraud office will even penalise you if the lettering on your label is just 1mm too big, or 1mm too small, or if your bodega address is not correct.

Now, as I have already stated, this is not exclusive to our region, and these regulations apply in pretty much every wine producing area in the world. So what's my point?

Well, yesterday evening Angela stumbled across a new website relating to the wines of our D.O. which even carries the name 'vino albariño' in it's web address. On face value the site looks innocuous enough, giving good detail about our region and it's sub zones. It also includes details of local hotels and restaurants, with many links to some useful websites around Galicia.

BUT THEN..... The part I could not believe.

They have a page that offers wine by mail order - they call it 'Artesan Wine', and they are selling it over the internet completely WITHOUT LABEL! (See photo above)

How can this be? Surely this must be illegal? Is there anyone out there who has ever seen this before, or who thinks that this is an acceptable practise? Your comments please!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Each to his own opinion....

Usually when I mention journalists, it is because they have written something flattering about one of our wines, but not on this occasion. For the very first time I am making a post because I feel moved to disagree with a comment about a particular wine..... and it is not one of ours!

The journalist in question is a guy called W. Blake Gray, who used to write for the San Francisco Chronicle, but then a year or two ago moved to the L.A. Times.

Following a visit to Rias Baixas he recently wrote an informative piece about our denomination, except that one or two of his tasting observations left me a little puzzled.

I have always agreed with the old adage that one man's meat is another man's poison, which is part of what makes the wine world so interesting - we don't all like the same wines. However, in this case I do find the closing paragraph of his article at the very least a little misleading, if not a bit of an exaggeration. I quote:

"I don't think I've tasted a better 2008 Albariño than Martin Códax, with green apple and peach flavors and excellent balance. And at $14.99, it's the cheapest of all the major exports. Gallo's efficient distribution has a huge benefit. Don't you love it when the least expensive wine is best?"

Now, I have the upmost respect for our local co-operative Martin Codax and the job that they do for our region - indeed they do make some very good wine, but to say they are the best, does a great disservice to many other top wine cellars in our region (including our own). Great quality/price possibly, excellent value for money perhaps, but to state clearly that it's the best?

But it is not just this judgement that puzzles me, he goes on to remark about another wine from our other co-operative:

"I really liked a non-exported Albariño fermented in Galician oak, which combines the understated toastiness of French oak with the dill and coconut notes of American oak. In fact, I liked most oak-fermented Albariños I encountered in Rías Baixas. Yet, the fashion for un-oaked wines is so strong that more than one winery said their American importers refuse to handle their oak-fermented bottlings. I hope that changes."

Dill and coconut? - My own understanding of why our regions oaked wines are not extensively exported is just a little different..... As Angela will attest, I have never been wholly convinced that Albariño marries well with oak, despite the fact that we actually make a little ourselves. I simply feel that the delicate Albariño grape does not have enough weight and body to support the use of oak (except perhaps in a very ripe vintage, when the alcohol, glycerol and therefore mouthfeel, is a little elevated). In a 'typical' vintage, Albariño could potentially be a little lightweight, and just leave leave the consumer with a sensation of oak and acidity. For my own palate oak fermented Albariño is little like oak fermented Chablis..... no thank you!

Oh, and by the way, one last observation that he made, once again about Martin Codax:

"That's thanks to a stubborn ninth-generation winemaker at Martin Codax, he does what he wants. That includes rejecting more than 30% of the grapes the co-op's members brought him last year."

Impossible! Martin Codax is by far the biggest producer in our denomination, and each year presses at least a couple of million kilos of Albariño grapes. If they rejected 30% of their grapes as claimed in this article, then the repercussions for our entire area would be disastrous - not to mention that it would leave them desperately short of wine. Sorry, Mr Blake Gray but this sounds like a bit of a tall story to me, or at the very least, is a bit exaggerated.

A. J. Charles McCarthy

Controversial footnote for conspiracy theorists:
L.A. Times = California
California = E&J Gallo
E&J Gallo = Martin Codax
Any connection? (Gallo does get a significant mention in the text)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Dutch Auction or just a free-for-all?

A real Dutch (flower) auction

I may be having deja-vu, or perhaps I'm just getting old and repeating myself, but it's that time of year when we start the annual scramble to buy grapes. The phrase I have used in the past to describe our negotiation is a 'Dutch auction', but I have since realised that this might be a slight mis-use of the expression.

Strictly speaking a Dutch auction is where the auctioneer begins with a high asking price, which is then gradually lowered until a prospective customer eventually accepts the price on offer. This is not quite how it works in Galicia, so perhaps a more accurate expression might be free-for-all!

Whilst we are fortunate enough to have many very loyal grape suppliers, who sell to us year-on-year without too much argument, we still have to ensure that our scale of payment is adjusted to reflect the open market price. To supplement this we also incentivize our growers by paying on a sliding scale - the higher the quality, the more we pay.

In some cases however, this is not enough, especially in difficult years when grapes might be in short supply. Many unscrupulous growers simply sit on the fence, do not commit to any one Bodega, and wait until they achieve the very best price. Whilst I do understand this, and many will say that this is good business practice, it simply does not provide for good continuity, and merely serves to artificially inflate the market. More significantly for us this can have a knock-on effect on our final bottle price, and in the long-term can potentially damage the market for Albariño as a whole. Unfortunately these few 'renegade' growers refuse to accept this logic and therefore persist in causing grape prices to fluctuate.

As viticulturalist, our own in-house negotiator is Angela, and I have to admit that I really do not envy her in this task.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A new direction?

Little by little we strive to improve everything that we do, not only in the wine making department, but also in the image of our bodega as a whole.

Last year, you may recall, we refurbished the front of the bodega, and replaced the logo on the building with some rather smart new lettering. In keeping with this philosophy we decided that it was now time to upgrade our image on the roadside, and so we have just installed some rather attractive new roadsigns adjacent to the main road.

In keeping with Spanish tradition we first had to submit our plans not only to the local mayor's office, but in turn to the local government office in Pontevedra, for rubber stamping. I think that the entire process (without exaggerating), took nearly a year to complete..... say no more.