Greetings from the wilds of Santa Barbara County.
As we present a new offering of wines from vintage 2017, the 2021 harvest looms. The vines are energetically working day and night to ripen the fruit. The weather leads the charge, prompting all the mysterious intangibles to collide, conjoin, comingle, while readying the grapes to produce their unique and indelible stamp of authenticity we call a vintage. Great sites and superlative farming are vital but so is luck and serendipity. As long as wine is grown and made by human beings as a noble pursuit of representing a time, place, and a point of view, we will have wines with stories to tell. May their tales be beautiful and long lasting.
Today, as we project 2021 Pinot Noir harvest dates to start mid-September, our review of harvest dates in 2017 paints a much different picture. Our 2017 Pinot harvest began in the Santa Rita Hills on August 28 and was completed by September 5. It had been such a warm summer and it continued unabated into harvest. There had been a ferocious heat wave predicted, the Pinot was ready, we made the call to pick. The dreaded heat wave arrived around September 9, the day we pulled the first of our Chardonnay from the Sierra Madre Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. Temperatures rocketed, from 105 to 110 degrees for 3 to 4 days. When air temperatures stay that high for more than 24 hours, the vines react and go into protection mode. The stomata on the leaves close so that the vines can conserve moisture. Photosynthesis shuts down thus so does ripening. What can happen is that the clusters shrivel as the juice in the berries evaporates. Yes, flavors can concentrate, but acidities usually also transpire leading to potentially flabby over-ripe flavors.
In 2017 the Pinot missed the worst of the heat but not so for the Chardonnay. On September 9, our first pick of the Sierra Madre Chardonnay registered at 21.4 brix or a potential alcohol of 12.5%. We let the vines ride out the heat, monitored the sugar and acid, then after everything cooled down, we waited for the vines to recover and fire back up. Twelve days later on September 21, we made the call to pick the rest of our block of Sierra Madre Chardonnay. The Brix level was 21.4! Clusters were miraculously plump and intact, but the vines had done their job for the year. Any further sugar accumulation or flavor development would only happen by shrivel, evaporation and loss of acidity. We opted for freshness.
The inaugural vintage of Aether was 2013. Although I personally had twenty one prior vintages, this new beginning was and still is an amazing chance to continue the exploration, development and understanding of this fantastic world of wine.
How do we make “better” wines? Wines that let themselves be what they are, what they want to be by varietal, vineyard, vintage How do we make wines that speak clearly without the undue burden of oak and over-ripeness?
In all candor in a former lifetime, I made wines from incredible vineyards and beautiful fruit that often showed their full ripe character, which we then buttressed with expensive new oak barrels beautifully crafted by artisan French coopers. These wines were popular and delicious and many have held up amazingly well. Those were wines of their time, fashionable wines but somehow not the classic flavors that I love and admire in the wines from our friends in Burgundy.
Yes, the French are a gastronomic culture that we can learn much from. Recipes and techniques for the dining table are available from cookbooks. With wine not so much. Winegrowing and winemaking are always a moving target. It starts with seasonal variation, crop load, weather, and the ever present intangibles. Couple this with the evolution of the finished product in the bottle. A wines’ journey through life is metaphorically parallel to the arc of our own lives. Whew, big responsibility. Set the wheels in motion and set each wine free to chart its own course.
How do we achieve wine nirvana with that perfect moment of equilibrium and ecstasy that a great wine experience gives? We are working on it! In the meantime, fresh flavors, delicious fruit supported by a cast of tannin and acidity with no new oak for the Pinot and longer barrel aging when possible works. Native fermentation, when conditions allow, on primary and malo for both Pinot and Chardonnay. For Pinot, free run and press wine kept separate until assemblage. Some whole clusters for aromas and texture. Not that hard, right? Most important is intuition and of course honing your palate to the precision and creative artistry of a sushi master.
The journey continues.
– Jeff Fink, Winemaker