2021 Pinot Noir

2021 Pinot Noir

The 2021 growing season, and the red wines that resulted, are a study in contrast and perseverance.  In my vintage notes for the 2021 Pinot Noir there is written but one telltale comment, “One of those years.”

As a varietal Pinot Noir presents inherent contradictions.  In the vineyard, it is a grape that requires intense labour, constant attention and a heavy hand, at times, to properly manage the canopy.  In the winery, conversely, I’ve come to learn that restraint, patience and a gentle approach are critical to successfully translating terroir.

So that is why, given the difficult fall conditions of 2021, I took a different attitude toward crafting my Pinot Noir.  Instead of lamenting the breakdown of clusters and writing off the vintage, I took the long view.  Past vintages (and wiser winemaking colleagues than I) have taught me that the final sprint to cut out all of the rotten clusters and berries is not the end of the game, but actually just the end of the first half.  I’ve been witness to many great late-game comebacks in my life, mostly against my rooting interest, but this could represent a moment of redemption!

So it was with guarded optimism that we harvested our Pinot Noir on September 21st, surely to get them off before the next imminent downpour.  The ripening parameters were to my liking, but the field was soaked and my time was limited to cull out as much rot as possible prior to the handpick.  I conjured up my best Edward Scissorhands, minus the Johnny Depp looks, and set to work.

Once the fruit was picked, sorted and gently destemmed into one tonne bins, they were sealed for a four-day cold soak.  It is normally my hope that the wild fermentations would kick off right after the fourth day, but that is rarely the case.  Thankfully, in this instance the stars seemed to align and when I cracked the bin lids on day four, I was greeted with a nice firm cap of skins and whole berries and the wonderful smells of a burgeoning fermentation.  We were off to the races; the comeback was afoot!

Indigenous yeast fermentations can be a wild ride at times, but those driving the 2021 Pinot bins were models of consistency and aromatic beauty. Must temperatures hovered around 20C and peaked at 32C, and the bins were dry in seven days.

The bins were lightly pressed, then racked into five French oak barrels.  This is where the restraint and patience are put into practice.  Aside from the odd tasting session and biannual racking, there is not much to do over the next two years providing the wines are sound.

The final barrel tasting and blending sessions are the make or break moment when everything is on the line.  So many combinations, so many possibilities, it can send your mind in many different directions.  Some wines, however, present clarity in those moments and that was the case for the 2021 Pinot.  It ended up being “one of those years” when the cooperage variables of barrel age, forest, grain tightness and toast level all line up in sync with the wine.  The result is a wine that stars the terroir, while the oak and the winemaker play the supporting role.

Sometimes you just have to trust that the vineyard can be the hero in the end.

2023 Sauvignon Blanc

2023 Sauvignon Blanc

As the first buds of 2023 started to push from their winter cocoons, the countdown was on to see whether the fickle new trunks we painstakingly established the previous summer were up to the task of supporting vegetative growth.  It was a nervous, yet fascinating time to observe the delicate first spring growth of a Sauvignon Blanc grapevine.

We didn’t have to wait long.  The one thing about young trunks (young anything for that matter) is that they are vigorous and impatient.  Two years’ worth of underutilized nutrient supply awaited the voracious and deep roots of these vines.  Early season conditions were very conducive to growth, so much so that efforts were soon undertaken to balance the number of primary shoots on each new trunk.  It can be difficult to summon the aggressiveness required when thinning these vigorous canes, especially the year after a light crop, but the alternative is a crowded and unruly canopy – no thanks!

The rebound season stretched on through the summer months, with more than adequate precipitation to support the now thriving vines.  It became apparent that we were dealing with a bumper crop of large-berried clusters, so extra attention was paid to achieving proper fruit exposure and cluster spacing to combat fungal growth.  Thankfully, a relatively dry and cool September resulted in super-clean fruit.  The deficit in precipitation seemed to dilute the water status in the berries to the point where the intensity of flavours was more noticeable in the week leading up to harvest.

We chose to harvest our bountiful crop of Sauvignon Blanc on September 25th, and ended up with about 2300L of juice after the press cycle.  After cold-settling the juice, it was racked into eight French oak barrels (80%) and one tank (20%).  The barrels were of varying ages (2-15 years) and mostly neutral in their tannic contribution.

The vessels were warmed to 20°C and then inoculated with X5 yeast.  Once fermentations were established, the barrels were cooled to 8°C for about two weeks, then allowed to warm again to finish.  I find that pushing the lower end temperature limits of the yeast tends to maximize the aromatic intensity.  One must be cautious, however, not to overly stress the yeast – it’s a fine line!

The finished wine represents an amalgam of all the terroir-derived elements that Sauvignon Blanc enthusiasts would come to expect.  It is less overtly opulent than the light-crop 2022 vintage, putting it more in line with a typical vintage like 2019 or 2021.  Aromatically, there is an intense intermingling of tropical and citrus characters, with some typical Sauv Blanc gooseberry present as well.  The TA for this wine is 7.9 g/L, which balances well with the 8 g/L of residual sugar and contributes to noticeable length on the palate.

This wine evokes a personal feeling of satisfaction and thankfulness, born out of the travails of re-establishing a beloved vineyard.  Perhaps that is why I enjoy it so much.  I hope this feeling of rejuvenation and joy is perceptible to all those that give it a try.

2021 Cabernet Sauvignon


2021 Cabernet Sauvignon

Tasting through Cabernet Sauvignon barrels early in their evolution can be a mouth-puckering challenge.  The tannins at this stage tend to be bold and chewy, often times completely masking the subtle nuance of flavours.  You are comforted in the knowledge that there is ample time for correction, with a full 24-30 months spent in barrel, but it is still a little disconcerting.

I can’t imagine having to make blending or culling decisions prior to that timeframe because I’ve seen so many “late” mouthfeel transformations during the last few months in barrel.  Obviously, the tannic profile of the fruit and the oak strategy employed have a lot to do with those transformations, but it is definitely something I track in the wines made from our older blocks of Cab Sauv.

Enter our new planting of Clone 191 Cabernet Sauvignon.

The 2021 vintage marked the first fruit we were able to harvest from that 14-row, 2019 planting.  There is a certain first crop mythology that floats about in wine circles that I’ve always been skeptical of.  It goes that wine made from a first crop can be magical and mature beyond its years, then the field usually goes through some growing pains before finding itself again and establishing consistency.

In early barrel sampling sessions, the Clone 191 wine was noticeably smoother and had more discernable ripe red fruit flavours than the older block Clone 169 wine.  So much so, that I was starting to become a believer in the whole first crop myth.  I wouldn’t fully buy in until much later, when I witnessed the emerging dynamic between the two clones in the final blend.  My expectation was that the older block wine would swallow up the new kid and assert its veteran dominance, but a pleasantly harmonious blend arose instead.

Featuring a combination of cherry, wild blackberry, flinty minerality and a subtle floral note; there is also an unforeseen component to the mouthfeel and structure of this Cab that can only be attributed to the new planting.  I will be keen to see how this wine ages.

It’s hard for me not to emotionally personify the Old Block as a humble mentor that realizes its days are numbered and the torch must eventually be passed.  Due to increasing rates of grapevine virus infection (red blotch and leafroll virus), winterkill and old age, our beloved original Cabernet Sauvignon blocks will gradually need to be replaced.  It’s a bittersweet scenario, but it rekindles my excitement to work with new fruit and a yet to be determined potential.  There are also good feelings associated with sustaining the vineyard for the generations to come.

2023 Pinot Gris


2023 Pinot Gris

“Strength in Subtlety”

I relish every opportunity I get to craft wine from Pinot Gris grapes.

It was such a disappointment not to have our usual allotment to vinify in 2022.  Being unable to taste and share one of my favourite varietals with our customers was a harsh dose of grape growing reality.

A renewed excitement built up within me as the 2023 growing season unfolded.  Our two distinct Pinot Gris vineyards, one old and one new, showed early signs of life and fruitfulness.  Planted in heavier clay, these vines tend to exhibit stark growth variation depending on water status.  In dry seasons the growth is less vigorous and drought stress is likely, while in wetter years like 2023 the vines can get a little out of control if one is not careful.

Thankfully, I enjoy spending time with my Pinot Gris.  Getting to them early is critical, as they respond well to aptly-timed shoot positioning and leaf removal.  Once cluster spacing is adequately set within the canopy, efforts can turn to routine hedging and exposure.  Cluster and berry size was above average in 2023, making for some tense moments during late summer rain events.

The visual appeal of crimson-hued Pinot Gris clusters adorning green grapevines in September is something one has to witness in person to truly appreciate.  There is almost a mystical sheen to the skins that I’m convinced finds its way into the textural elements of the wine.  Moderate September temperatures and low humidity kept the dreaded botrytis at bay, allowing for gradual flavour accumulation and acid decline within those crimson berries.

In 2023, we were afforded the rare vintage where we could choose a precise harvest date at our leisure, aided by the fact that it would be some of the first non-sparkling fruit to be taken off in the region – i.e. picking crews were ready and waiting!  That beautiful day came on September 25th, with both blocks being harvested, destemmed and pressed.  The juice was sweet and tasty, with 20.5 °Brix of sugars and TA that seemed just right at 7.4 g/L.

Fermentations were encouraged to start wild, taking place in a combination of older French oak (67%) and tank (33%).  The barrels and tank were cooled to 10°C once the fermentations were established, in an effort to stretch out the process for maximal flavour and aroma development.   After 21 days, all vessels were stopped at a specific gravity of 0.998, which equated to about 8.1 g/L of residual sugar.  The wine was aged a further 5 months before blending and bottling.  Total production was 107 cases.

I adore the subtle nature of Pinot Gris.  It will not wow crowds with aromatic intensity like Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, but instead rewards those who are willing to look deeper behind the unassuming facade.  It is both humble and complex, perhaps something many can relate to.  The lovely aromas are an invitation take a sip and experience the true delights that Pinot Gris can offer.

2023 Riesling


2023 Riesling

Does Riesling have an image problem?

I’ve heard tale of debates on this controversial topic in recent years, and have been reticent to give my two cents, until now.  I’ve never been one to really care about my own image, but my wines – that’s a different story!

Like anything in life that is abundant, reliable, low maintenance and versatile, Riesling tends to get taken for granted.  Our region is not completely blameless in this oversight, as we’ve come to treat Riesling as a “plateau priced” varietal that is often overcropped and in surplus.

Riesling is a great blending varietal due to its intense aromatics and reliable balancing acidity.  In fact, it may be such a good blender that it has exacerbated the aforementioned issues.  It also tends to be a great value per price point single varietal wine, which can be a double-edged sword, making it relatively easy and inexpensive to find a decent bottle, yet hard to justify paying more to explore single vineyard terroir.

In our experience, Riesling tends to be the slowest seller of our whites each vintage, and I feel strongly that this does not reflect a quality disparity amongst the wines.  The other whites tend to be more niche and get more fanfare, but the Riesling is often my preference.

There is a hidden benefit to the slower Riesling sales, however, in that it’s usually available for tastings in our barn throughout the summer.   In the many tastings I’ve conducted over the years, I would say that Riesling is the wine that tends to get the most surprise reactions from our guests.  Expectations of something sweet and dull or dry and bracing are quickly cast aside.

Niagara Riesling has consistently proven to be a unique take on the varietal and should continue to be celebrated as such.  I encourage people to explore the many different clonal and terroir variations that we can offer throughout our region.  As a grape grower and winemaker, I will continue to treat Riesling with the same reverence and effort that I afford all other noble grape varietals.

2023 “Jean’s Block” Riesling

There is usually a lot of drama and bluster in my yearly recap of vinifying Riesling.  For once, I am extremely grateful to report, that was not the case.  We’re talking drama free, and borderline enjoyable!

In terms of fruit cleanliness, the Riesling we harvested in 2023 stands on its own amongst previous Jean’s Block vintages.  As much as I’d like to take credit for this result, it is 100% due to the lack of late season precipitation and humidity.  Okay, maybe 99%.

Harvest date was October 11, and the pressed juice was cool-fermented with W15 yeast in stainless steel tanks.  Fermentation was slow and steady over 26 days, then stopped at a specific gravity of 1.004 and 10.7% abv.  Total production was 100 cases.

I think the cleanliness of fruit is reflected in the purity of the aromatics.  There are distinct layers of apple, citrus and floral notes.  I always associate Riesling with Springtime in Niagara, as it abounds with freshness and hints of tree fruit blossoms.

2021 Syrah

2021 Syrah

The nadir of the 2021 vintage on our farm was surely encountered in the days leading up to the Syrah harvest.

Soaking rain, followed by consecutive days of dense fog and stagnant air combined to put our nearly-ripe Syrah on the precipice of breakdown.  I remember taking pictures of the pea soup fog and the mushrooms sprouting out of the vine trunks, just to have record of how dire the situation was.  Beset by an unsettling feeling, I began to notice that the skins on a few, then many berries were starting to lose their integrity and become discoloured and mouldy.  It was evident that some kind of fungal pathogen, likely Botrytis, was taking over and there was little time to act.

I’d seen this many times before, but not with such rapidity.  The only course of action was to get the grapes off as soon as possible and deal with the soggy consequences in the winery.

The vigilance in fruit selection we employed that foggy October day bordered on silliness, with all clusters having to be methodically pored over to remove the worst-affected berries.  The Syrah clusters were abnormally tight in 2021, which only added to their susceptibility.  We ended up with less than one tonne of fruit when all was said and done, our lowest yield to date, but to have any fruit to vinify in this freak scenario was a victory in itself.

My first concern as a winemaker when working with “soft” skins is the unknown extent of the botrytis.  Unlike white grapes that are pressed off the skins before fermentation, red grapes are fermented with skins and even given some extended maceration time afterwards if so desired.  Having a high percentage of compromised skins in the must can lead to many issues with fermentation dynamics and eventually fining or filtration.  So, with that in mind, the remedial protocol I employed was to forgo a cold soak, expediate the fermentation process and lightly press at dryness to limit overall contact with the skins.

The finished wine was pleasantly smooth from the get-go, likely due to a combination of limited skin contact and the clarification enzymes I added to remove unwanted botrytis metabolites.  I think the saving grace for this wine (but the kiss of death for the greater crop) was just how ripe the fruit was when the rains came and the fog eventually rolled in.  All components, including tannins, acid, pH and sugars were at or near optimal levels by the time we rushed in to hand pick.

It’s crazy to say, but at the moment this might be my favourite of the 2021 reds.  It features invitingly smooth tannins, but doesn’t lack structure or length.  I love the cool climate Syrah staple of pepperiness and blackberry, and the savoury components present on the palate.  Total production was 42 cases, two of which will be set aside for my own personal collection.

Just another unique entry into the ever-widening Syrah vintage variation spectrum.  After all, variety is the spice of life!

Life on the Farm

The end of a growing season is always a natural time for reflection, and this year I find myself contemplating larger themes and looking for meaning amidst the rows and barrels.  Inevitably, I come to the conclusion that I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to spend my days working on a family farm.

Life on a farm is all I’ve ever known.  It has been the constant that has shaped my personal relationships, my career and my thoughts.  Sure, there were brief times when I seriously considered other callings, but a sense of duty and the love of a challenge eventually superseded any alternative ambitions.

My thoughts on farm life, stewardship and succession have evolved through the years as I’ve grown and matured.  A young child can’t help but be ignorant to the challenges of succession, and is likely to perceive the passing down of land as a given part of the family story, the way things have always worked.  But with each passing year and vintage, one becomes increasingly aware of how tenuous and vulnerable a farm can be, and how relatively small a window of time each steward occupies in the grand scheme of things.

I draw inspiration from the previous generations and land inhabitants whom I envision living a more mindful, “in the moment”  lifestyle, one that I strive to emulate.  Enjoying the here and now can add fulfillment to our lives, while devoting enough time to future planning is our moral obligation.  The balance between these two is the burden that can weigh heaviest on farmers.  One of my biggest faults is worrying too much in the moment, which is not beneficial to either of these pursuits!

Fretting about the failure of a crop can sometimes blind me from the mind-nourishing aspect of vineyard work.  Just being outside, genuinely endeavouring to help things grow should be considered a triumph, not whether your Pinot Noir is squeaky clean (although that would be a nice consolation).  Working in a vineyard can be equal parts exercise, meditation and stimulation – a payoff, of sorts, for the sacrifices that accompany a year-round farm operation.

In short, 2023 marked a wonderful year of rejuvenation for our vineyard.  Young blocks that had struggled to get established, finally flourished, while the older blocks that were decimated by cold-induced trunk damage returned to full production.  The crops were bountiful and we experienced a dream September for ripening grapes that made up for a less than ideal summer.  The wines show great promise!

So my resolution, as I set out to make the first pruning cuts of 2024, is to view time in the vineyard as the unrelenting yearly cycle that is made up of individual vintages whose varied characteristics are formed through memorable daily experiences, both positive and negative.  In other words, life.

It is filled with tremendous volatility, but there is also comfort in it’s reliable churn.

2020 Pinot Noir

It is perhaps unfair to compare and contrast the work that goes into growing Pinot Noir with that applied to other varietals, but that is exactly what I intend to do here.

The only time I don’t wake up thinking about Pinot Noir is the short window of time between bottling day (early April) and budbreak (late April) – a most joyous stretch that I cherish akin to The Masters each Spring.  The other 11 months and change can only be described as an all out battle of wills that would provide a fitting test for even the “Tiger Woods” of grape growers.  For the record, I’ve had my share of Greg Norman-esque collapses through the years.

In the Lowrey Vineyard, the cycle begins in December with the first pruning cuts of the season.  Traditionally, we opt to prune our old Pinot block first each winter, as the vines usually winterize and harden off earlier than our other varietals.  Excess wood is trimmed away from the vine until we are left with four canes to choose from, each housing 8-10 buds.  Two of those four canes will be tied down and two left as insurance, to be removed after a successful budbreak in Spring.

Budbreak is always a nervous time, especially in early awakening varietals like Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.  Minor frost damage is usually inevitable, so it becomes more about avoiding the killer frost.  Windmills can be handy in this pursuit, but they are not the magic shield that they are sometimes made out to be.

Once the frost worries subside, the real fun begins.  I would estimate that I average at least a couple of hours each day through the growing season tending to Pinot Noir.  It is at this point where every vine becomes a puzzle that needs to be solved, but with a solution that is constantly evolving based on the conditions.  Pinot Noir vines grow very vigorously, and it is easy to get behind in taming the growth should you get complacent.  Recent research has shed light on the benefits of early season basal leaf removal in berry set of Pinot Noir, so that is now a focal point along with regular thinning practices.  The ultimate goal is establishing proper shoot spacing, cluster load and berry set prior to bloom phase.

As the canopy takes shape, the bloom through veraison stage shifts focus to disease prevention and maintenance.  Depending on the day, I might be tinkering with shoot positioning, removing leaves, cluster thinning or hedging.  Although all varietals have need of these jobs in varying degrees, no varietal demands the attention to detail required in Pinot Noir.  It is reflected in the make or break nature of Pinot, which is certainly not for the faint of heart.  I may have alluded to this once or twice over the years.

The “easy” stage of Pinot growing ends abruptly, as the berries fully colour up and start to accumulate enough sugar to entice a shocking number of pests to have a taste.  It is a time when the tightness of the cluster, and any trapped debris within, can pose a potential threat of Botrytis.  It is important to be especially vigilant with both your eyes and nose when walking through the vineyard on the hunt for any signs of rot.  If found, the offending clusters are removed promptly to prevent disease spread via fruit flies.  This constant daily search for rot can take a mental toll, so I make sure to break up my days by working in easier varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon.

The final gauntlet of Pinot Noir growing revolves around when to harvest the crop.  I’ve written about this agonizing decision many times in the past, but there are so many variables at play it doesn’t hurt to review.  Every vintage presents a new set of parameters that you must adapt to:  cluster tightness, skin thickness, crop load, weather conditions, disease pressure, seed ripeness, flavour development, berry composition (sugars and acids) and stem ripeness (should you choose to include whole clusters in your fermentations).

Once a picking date is settled upon, or more likely forces itself upon you, we now enter the thorough Pinot Noir sorting process.  Ours is three stage: a walkthrough visual inspection of every cluster in the rows we choose to harvest, a second closer inspection of each cluster by the hand-picking crew and, finally, a third rotten berry inspection en route to the destemmer.  Only then can I feel confident that the fruit we’ve worked so hard to keep clean and ripen is fit to be vinified.

The 2020 vintage was characterized by an early budbreak and some long stretches of the hot and dry conditions that winemakers dream about.  There were the usual challenges (detailed above), but ultimately the fruit came in ripe and beautiful on September 18th (21.6 degrees Brix, 7.0 g/L TA).  Our fruit was harvested from rows 2-5 of our oldest vines and rows 8 and 15 from the slightly younger plantings.  Whole clusters were added to two separate bins (10%) and then filled with destemmed berries (90%).  The clean fruit was allowed to soak in the bins for seven days before natural fermentation began.

Fermentations were punched down by hand three times daily, reached a peak temperature of 30C, and were dry after seven days.  The new wines were pressed after a five-day post ferment maceration.  Five French oak barrels were filled (20% new oak) and allowed to undergo malolactic fermentation over the next couple of months. The wine spent 24 months in oak before bottling 122 cases on April 6th, 2023.

I am in love with this Pinot Noir right now, mainly due to its striking aromatics of ripe cherry, black currant jam and truffle/mushroom.  It is very tempting to advise enjoying it now, but I’m sure it will evolve and improve over the next few years.  If you like a Pinot that exhibits a bit of youthful tannin, then by all means give it a go!

A Vintage For The Ages

Well, that was special.  It was almost like mother nature knew she owed us one.

I’ll preface by saying that all vintages are difficult undertakings that require a tremendous amount of patience and co-operation from all ends of the industry.  Some are beasts that we never wish to encounter again, while others are a little more forgiving and borderline enjoyable – but no vintage that I’ve ever experienced has gone as smoothly as 2020.

For months I’ve been afraid to verbalize my thoughts on our good fortunes, in fear that it would cause some catastrophic shift in the weather.  There were moments (hurricane tracking, sporadic hail) when it appeared that our luck may have run out, but somehow, each time the threat magically diminished.

In my experience, it is rare that a good stretch of summer weather for ripening grapes (warm, sunny, relatively dry, but not too dry!)  transitions smoothly and holds for an entire fall harvest.  In 2020, the smaller berry sizes and lower crop levels we saw were primarily the product of below average precipitation.  Unlike other dry years, however, we didn’t experience much in the way of drought stress or sustained stretches of mildew-inducing humidity.  All of these factors combined to give us some of the cleanest fruit we’ve ever harvested – across the board.

It was a year where everything seemed to ripen at once – making it much easier to line up our varietals for processing, given the seemingly endless days of perfect picking weather.  Admittedly, I come at things from a very small production winery perspective, so I’m sure there were logistical issues associated with having all varietals concurrently ripe that became difficult for larger wineries and growers.  Fortunately, few will ever complain about having to wait a bit longer to harvest their ripe, clean fruit – certainly not the birds!

At Five Rows, our vintage usually gets off to a fast start, with three early varietals that represent some of the first fruit harvested in the region: Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.  We then bide our time until the Riesling and Syrah are ready, while the Cabernet Sauvignon is hung until the very end of the season for maximum ripeness.  In 2020, the latter three varietals were all picked on dates much earlier than average – and all showed ripeness levels that we’ve rarely achieved.  I had to look twice at the refractometer when my first Syrah sample read 26 degrees Brix – was this St. David’s or the Barossa Valley!?

One would think that the ripest grapes always translate to the best wines, but personal experience tells me there is more to it than that.  Working with abnormally ripe fruit actually presents some new challenges when it comes to fermentation dynamics.  In a “cooler” climate like Niagara, we are used to harvesting grapes with ample acidity and relatively low pH, making it less favourable for undesirable microbes to flourish in the primary fermentation.  When the opposite proved true in 2020 (lower TA, higher pH), fruit cleanliness became the key to trusting our normal protocol of a spontaneous (“wild”) start to fermentation.  The higher initial sugar content in the grapes also leads to an increase in potential alcohol and longer fermentations, meaning particular attention had to be paid to yeast and malolactic bacteria viability.  There were a few stragglers, but eventually all of my fermentations arrived at a nice, dry endpoint.

It’s early days yet, but the 2020 reds seem like they could have a bright future ahead.  Their obvious ripeness is sure to be the initial attention grabber, but their overall balance and familiar Lowrey Vineyard aromatics will tell the story of a special vintage form a unique place.  A place where we can ripen a wide range of varietals and still make elegant, terroir-expressing wines.

I am far too grizzled a grape grower to think that the stretch of conditions we experienced in 2020 could happen again in my lifetime, but I do feel it bodes well for future vintages.  There will always be an underlying fear of extreme weather events, but to know that all six of our varietals hit peak ripeness levels in one singular vintage is a very exciting prospect.

Thankfully, not all things arriving in 2020 turned out so bad after all (just the vast majority).




Vintage 2018: A Tale of Two Seasons

Now that the last of the Cabernet Sauvignon is finally in barrel, it’s time to take a relaxing look back at the complex 2018 Vintage.  Legitimate attempts are made to positively reminisce, only to get bogged down each time with flashbacks to rainy days and rotten fruit.  It turns out that there will be nothing “relaxing” about this exercise after all!

I will never take a dry October for granted again.  It becomes apparent, in a year such as this, how extremely fortunate we are as winemakers when late fall conditions are either dry or warm or both.  We come to accept that early harvest weather is nearly always variable due to August and September heat and thunderstorm threats, but in recent years we’ve been treated to glorious October and November days that were perfect for ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  This was certainly not the case in 2018!  However, do not despair Cab lovers, the last month of hang time does not tell the whole story of 2018 – making it a truly one of a kind and intriguing vintage.

After a normal budbreak date and good initial bud survival rates, the vines took off and never slowed down.  Continued lush growth, even through a very dry season, illustrated how important the rainy year of 2017 was to replenish the water table for deep-rooted, old vines.  In fact, 2017 and 2018 would prove to be polar opposite vintages from a climate pattern standpoint, which should make for some interesting comparative tastings in the future.

As the summer progressed, wary farmers would shy away from predicting just how good the season was shaping up to be, perhaps because they could sense an eventual turn for the worse.  I’ve learned the hard way to trust the intuition of wise old farmers…and only hope that I can become one someday.

A very hot, humid stretch in late August brought about a rapid transition through veraison and left winemakers drooling at the possibilities.  Negatively, it also ramped up disease pressure from both botrytis and Grape Berry Moth, creating breakdown chaos all over the peninsula.  All the early varietals were ready to pick at once – and two weeks early at that!

It was setting up to be an easy glide into the later varietals, when the aforementioned rains innocently started to fall.  What followed was a miserable cycle of vineyard work, fruit sampling, cursing, thinning clusters, sampling again and more cursing.  It took much perseverance and the continued ruthless thinning of rotten berries to salvage any kind of quality crop.

As a grape grower, it was a minor victory just to have all of your fruit accepted by wineries in 2018.  The predominant post-harvest feeling among winemakers was that the early varietals showed much promise, but achieving peak phenolic ripeness in the later stuff (Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc) was hit and miss depending on the vineyard.  My hope is that the summer heat, combined with the late season grunt work, was enough to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon worthy of a Five Rows handwritten label.

Perspective is understandably clouded in the aftermath of a challenging vintage, but my years in this industry have taught me that time will soften my feelings about 2018, just like time in barrel will soften the wines.