Harvest’s Last Hurrah

La Crema Winemaker, Elizabeth Grant-Douglas explains the centuries-old method used to produce our Late Harvest Gewürztraminer. It is a process that requires the help of an odd ally: Fungus.

There is a certain satisfaction to watching the first serious winter storm pass through wine country once the last grapes have been picked.  All through harvest, winemakers are glued to their weather forecasts hoping for warm, clear days and cool, foggy nights.  It’s a welcome relief when we can finally be a little more casual about the weather reports, perhaps checking to see if some golf might be in order.

Here at La Crema, we are finally at that stage.  Our last 6 tons of grapes were picked on November 27th for our Anderson Valley dessert wine.  We’d been keeping an eye on this little block of Gewürztraminer through the regular harvest but they didn’t start to get really interesting until long after the rest of the grapes were in.

After diligently protecting all of our other grapes from rot and damage, we were watching them hopefully for shriveling and the first signs of the Botrytis fungus to occur.

Perhaps that last bit demands a little explanation.  In order to make our chosen style of late harvest wine it is important to start with fruit that has been concentrated by either moisture loss in the form of raisining or the activity of a grey, fuzzy fungus that makes holes in the grape skins, allowing them to dry out.

If you are lucky enough to get a block of vineyard that is falling prey to the Botrytis fungus you get the additional benefit of the pretty, honeyed tones that come along with the concentration of sugar.  This method has been a tradition for centuries in the famous dessert wines of Hungary (Tokaji ), France (Sauternes) and Germany (Rheingau) but the appearance of the grapes is not for the faint of heart.

Once we felt that these grapes from Anderson Valley were appropriately shriveled and furry we brought them to the winery for a long, gentle pressing, keeping juice from the various stages of extraction separate.  These lots are now slowly fermenting at cool temperatures and will likely need a few weeks to reach the point when we feel that the sweetness and alcohol levels are in perfect balance.

Come March we will be bottling this wine under the La Crema “Sweet As” label.  The name was inspired by a favorite phrase of our former Kiwi enologist, Andrew Barlow.  It took us a while to figure out, but in New Zealand slang, if something is described to be “sweet  as,” all was good.  That sentiment certainly applies in this case.  Time to raise a glass and toast the end of Harvest 2012.