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The Impact of the Drought on the 2022 Harvest
One thing defines this year’s grape growing season: drought. Sure, year-in and year-out we have weather challenges with viticulture in Texas, but this year the lack of rain was the most significant factor impacting our vineyards.
Let me put this in perspective. In a normal year, we get about 32 inches of rain on our Kuhlken Estate Vineyard just north of Fredericksburg, Texas. This year by the end of July, we only had 3.5 inches of rain. The rains never came. The driest year I’ve ever farmed.
The drought and extensive heat were really hard on the vineyards in the Texas Hill Country. The lack of rain began impacting the vines during the winter, causing a delay in bud break this Spring. Budbreak came about two to three weeks later than usual, which is the latest I’ve seen in 17 years of farming.
Kuhlken Estate Vineyard is in a phase of rebuilding. We have replanted significant portions of the property over the past two years with almost 6,000 new vines in 2021 and close to 7,000 more this year. The drought made it hard on the young vines. We had to irrigate with well water almost non-stop to keep them alive. We were in survival mode. The one-year-old vines had better root structures and were more drought tolerant, but the newly planted vines needed a lot of water. We were watering in 12-hour stretches across 14 zones for 11 weeks straight.
Despite the late bud break, we had an early harvest in the Hill Country and in the High Plains. The intense heat spurred the grapes to ripen quickly pushing up the sugar levels. We are three to four weeks ahead of our typical harvest dates. In 2019 we harvested in mid-October, but this year we were done by the end of August. We usually have a lull between completing the harvest in the Hill Country and starting our work in the High Plains. Not this year. We were bringing in grapes from both AVAs at the same time, which required more planning and logistics to bring in the grapes and process them in the cellar. It was a fast-paced harvest.
Small Lots in the Hill Country and High Plains
We did not harvest grapes from the Kuhlken Estate Vineyards this year with the acreage all replanted in the past two years. Our Petite Sirah started producing second-year fruit, but we cut it to allow the vines to continue to mature for future vintages. We expect to get more than a ton of grapes from that block next year, and 3 to 5 tons an acre in a couple more years.
We manage Loyal Valley Vineyards near Fredericksburg, and we picked a beautiful crop there this year. The Mourvèdre looks excellent with larger, high-quality clusters. I can’t wait to taste this vintage when it is ready in a few years. The Cabernet vines produced a pretty light crop with small, tight clusters. I’m confident it will make stellar wine.
Our team worked closely with our grower partners in the High Plains. David Kuhlken, as always, was our field general in the vineyards directing our work. I made decisions on the ground about when to pick grapes in each block that we manage in the High Plains. Fortunately, we had excellent crops from the blocks managed by our long-term growers at the Bingham Family Vineyards and Reddy Vineyards. The Viognier, Graciano, and Tempranillo all look fantastic. We got excellent Roussanne and Tempranillo from Lahey and other vineyards. We also picked a beautiful lot of Mourvèdre and gorgeous Grenache for rosé from Desert Willow Vineyards near Seminole, Texas and look forward to these wines.
And Then the Rains Came
We were very lucky that we were able to pick all of our fruit before the rains came in late August and early September. There has been seven inches of rain since we harvested. It looks like Spring at Kuhlken Estate Vineyards now with all of the rain. We have wildflowers now. It is a blessing to have this rain, as we still have two months of growing season for our baby vines. This will give the vines a nice long rest before they need to begin producing next year. We will guard against winter damage by watering and applying Zinc.
Small But Excellent 2022 Vintage
While we had high-quality fruit from our vineyards, the crop yield tonnage was down across the board for all vineyards that we work with. We had smaller clusters, and smaller berries on the vines, resulting in lower weight of the crop per acre. Where we typically have harvested four 4 tons per acre, we picked two tons this year. A huge benefit from smaller berries is that we get more skin with each lot, which leads to greater structure, color and more phenolics in the wine. The wine will be awesome in this vintage, but we will just make less of it.
Even though the overall quality of the grapes is excellent, we have some challenges. Much of the fruit came in with high pH, and low acidity. High pH is difficult because if the juice isn’t handled with care, it allows for bacteria to get into the wine. With the compressed harvest schedule and fruit coming in from both regions at the same time, it was a tricky year for winemakers, and our winemaking team was certainly up for the challenge.
While we wait for the 2022 vintage to be ready, we get to enjoy the wines made from the beautiful harvests of 2018 through 2021. Open a bottle with your friends and family and raise a toast to another successful harvest.
Why in the Heck do We Age Wine in a Barrel?
What’s the big deal with barrel-aging wine? Winemakers age wine in barrels for numerous reasons. Some reasons are practical, while others border on mystical. Here are some thoughts on the barrel aging process and how it’s important in making our Pedernales Cellars wines.
Pedernales Cellars Barrel Program
Our barrel program at Pedernales Cellars is ever-evolving, based on our experience and the varietals we are working with any given season. Sure, you could throw any old wine into any old barrel and call it a day, but we have been keenly focused on making the best oak selections for each variety and vineyard. The types of barrels we keep in our rotation for barrel aging make a difference in the way the wine tastes. And that’s why it matters at the end of the day.
Practical vs. Mystical Reasons
The practical reason for barrel aging is that barrels are generally a safe place to store large amounts of wine over time. As long as the barrels are clean, we feel confident that the wine isn’t going to be overly exposed to oxygen or spoilage organisms. As a result, we don’t need to pay a lot of ongoing attention to the barreled wine. We check our barrels once every eight weeks or so. Tanks, on the other hand, need to be monitored a little more regularly to ensure they are tightly sealed or that the headspace is gassed. We check our tanks weekly, at a minimum.
The mystical reasons for barrel aging involve a lot of confusing chemistry and language that even I can’t understand half the time. But the gist is that a number of chemical reactions occur during the aging process. Proteins, tannins, acids, and other compounds react amongst themselves, each other, and with oxygen to alter the structure of the wine. OK, maybe we can call it science rather than mysticism.
One of the most important and obvious effects of barrel aging is the “softening” of a wine. Tannins — the naturally occurring compounds that exist in grape skins, seeds, and stems that give wines their characteristic dryness or astringency — polymerize during aging. This means they are forming longer chains and structures that help in smoothing the texture of the wine and making it more pleasant to drink. At least we hope it becomes more pleasing to the palate after being aged in the right barrel for the right amount of time.
The Effects of Barrel Coopering
Aside from structural changes, different barrels contribute different aromatics and flavor compounds to a wine. American oak is famous for contributing vanilla, coconut, and even dill, while French oak has a more subtle effect and can help boost the fruit profile of wine (generally speaking) while also contributing dark chocolate, and roasted coffee bean flavors. Aside from the origin of the wood, the importance of coopering cannot be understated. Coopering, or the barrel-making process, includes the toasting and seasoning of the barrels where we will age the wine. This process is critical and varies by cooperage or barrel-making company.
A French oak barrel made with wood grown in Allier by one cooper may have a completely different effect on the same wine as an Allier French oak barrel from another cooper. This is why we frequently experiment with different barrels and cooperages as well as types of oak and barrel sizes.
American oak can be sourced from Pennsylvania, Missouri, Minnesota. These American oak barrels can be toasted with fire or convection. They can be toasted lightly, medium, medium-plus, or heavy. The coopers may accomplish these toasts quickly or slow and low. The barrel heads may or may not be toasted. You get the idea. here’s a nearly endless number of combinations. Each barrel is unique.
Experience: The Best Teacher
The factors above are why it is incredibly helpful to have experience working with specific vineyards and varietals over time. It allows us to plan, as much as possible, for what type of barrel might be best matched with what variety. While one vineyard’s Tempranillo might be perfectly ready after 12 months in neutral oak, another block might be better served with 18 months in new French Oak. Winemakers learn through regularly tasting their wines and tracking changes.
Progress can be slow in winemaking. After all, we only have one time a year to experiment on each block, so it’s important to make the most of it and take good notes throughout the process. Ideally, our experience and knowledge of the effects of barrel aging on the specific varieties and blocks we are working with help us perfect the wines.
Your Homework Assignment
Open two different wines side by side and evaluate the flavors. Roll it around in your mouth and see if you can taste subtle differences in the types of flavors that barrel aging can impart. Our 2018 Texas Tempranillo Reserve is aged for 18 months French and American oak. Do you pick up coconut notes? How about chocolate? Compare that to our 2018 Texas Mourvèdre that is aged in stainless steel rather than oak barrels. Do you taste a difference? Not all science is boring.