Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Martin Estate Harvest 2009: Quality Trumps Quantity

It was a long, late harvest in the Napa Valley this year, thanks to back to back bouts of early autumn storms that took many growers in the valley by surprise. While we anticipated the first round of rain that hit in early October, the quarter inch expected from round two quickly accelerated to several inches in some spots, although only an inch fell here at our Rutherford estate.

Martin Estate has many factors working in its favor when challenges like these arise. We have long been advocates of hand harvesting, and our commitment to this delicate, intimate style of farming served us well this year. When dirt softens into mud, human feet are much more adept at maneuvering between the vines than machines, and at Martin Estate, the rainy days didn’t cause harvest to come to a halt. We were able to patiently wait for the acids and sugars in our grapes to come into balance before we began to pick – in both rain and sunshine.

In addition, we use small 30-pound picking bins throughout the harvest. Because this method allow us to assert quality control right there in the vineyard, the micro-bins are essential to maintaining the premium standards for which we have become known.

Before the second rain drenched the Napa Valley, vineyard manager Josh Clark dropped all of Martin Estate’s fruit that looked compromised, including a few bunches in our sunnier southern exposure that had started to shrivel – as full-time winemaker Frederic Delivert says, “We are growing grapes not raisins!” When picking finally commenced, we started with the most delicate varieties – Merlot and Petite Verdot – and finished with the thicker skinned Cabernet Sauvignon.

Only the very best berries went into the bins, which were literally walked to the winery, where they were hand sorted and destemmed in yet one more step to remove any inferior material. The Cabernet was brought in last, and thanks to our new, state-of-the-art crush equipment, Frederic was able to process the remaining fruit in less than two days. In other words, the risk for this year’s crop was minimal – but any risk keeps the blood pumping and energies high.

We are finally in the last stage of harvest, with separate whole berry fermentations in 500-litre French barriques focusing the specific characters of each lot before being pressed in a small basket press. Frederic monitors the process without interruption, allowing him to make press cuts at exactly the right moment.

This harvest is one of the lowest yielding in Martin Estate’s history. Clone 6, which is the foundation for the Martin Estate Reserve Cabernet, came in at less than one ton per acre, justifying its reputation as a winemaker’s dream and a grower’s nightmare!

Frederic, however, observes the small lots in his winery with a smile, because while the yields may be low, the fruit is high caliber. Small but spectacular! Quality trumps quantity every day in Fred’s book. And that makes the last few weeks’ early mornings and late nights filled with punch downs, hose hauling, draining, and pressing more than worth it.

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