We’re currently in the home stretch for 2011 in central IL, so I thought I’d share a few observations. First, our grapes have ripened EARLY this year! It seems like things are
about two weeks ahead of what I would expect in a typical season, not that we ever get a typical season in central IL! We picked Leon Millot, a red Kuhlmann variety, on Aug 15th, kicking the harvest season off with a 6AM harvest party! We had an eager group of staff and volunteers to help get the fruit out in a timely fashion. In the hot summer months, it’s critical to keep the fruit as cool as possible in order to preserve optimum quality. In some locales, they will only harvest the fruit at night, using huge flood lights to guide them!
Illinois has several regions, and each has had its own challenges this year. I’m only speaking for the central region, but we really had optimal conditions for grapes this year. The challenges mainly came early in the Spring with lots of rain, but those who remained committed to strict fungal management programs should have been rewarded with beautiful fruit later in the season. Most people don’t realize that fighting early infection is critical to producing a good crop of grapes, and ultimately excellent wine. In Manito, July brought extreme heat and very dry conditions, which lead into the first part of August. Grapes, unlike most crops, are typically fine with this. Take a look at California, Washington state, Australia, and many other commercially important grape producing regions – mostly desert.
Our grapes endure even more extreme conditions than most in Illinois. Our soil is sand, with limited water- and nutrient-holding capacity. We use supplemental irrigation as necessary, but really try to keep it to a minimum. Lots of water produces lots of leaves and shoots, but we’re not in the business of harvesting leaves and shoots! With irrigation, you can really fine-tune the size of the grapevine, providing just enough shoot and leaf growth to successfully ripen a crop without causing excessive shading. Dense, heavily-shaded canopies lead to high-pH, acidic wines with lower sugar and increased vegetative aromas and flavors.
So, all in all, it’s been a pretty good season, thanks in large part to the efforts of new vineyard manager Doug Abbott. In his first season, he quickly adopted the high level of paranoia and fear essential to successful vineyard management! Think about it – fungal problems, insect damage, nutrition, pruning and canopy management, birds – certainly enough to drive anyone a bit crazy. In fact, if you’re a grape grower in the Midwest, and you’re not a little nuts, you just aren’t trying hard enough!
Once the fruit comes in, then my work gets started! As a winemaker, you have to have the
plan in place before the fruit arrives, then adapt the plan as necessary. For example, the above-mentioned Leon Millot is going to be made into a dry, oak-aged red. This means the fruit will be crushed, and then fermented on the skins for several days. I knew this, in addition to malolactic fermentation, would raise the pH to levels unsafe for long-term aging, so I made an acid addition up front to lower the pH a bit. Anyway, the plan and adjustment changes for each variety as it comes in. The pressure is really on with this one – it seems to be a local favorite, so I really need to deliver the goods. Luckily, the fruit quality was excellent, so all I need to do is not meddle too much. Hopefully, by next summer, we’ll have some great products to show for all of our efforts this year!
In other news, the Illinois wine industry was recently featured in a segment on the Today show. I wrote the proposal, and was excited to discover that it was accepted. The end result was not anything close to what I was wanting (mostly boring, academic, informative stuff), but was still great for the industry.
Back to work now.