Vintners Ask: Where Did the Tannin Go?

Napa grapegrowers review unusual 2011 harvest at expo

by Andrew Adams
pellenc harvester napa valley grapegrowers wine grape expo
A Pellenc grape harvester is parked near a plane at the Napa Valley Grapegrowers' Wine and Grape Expo held this week at the Napa County Airport.
Napa, Calif.—A harvest that veteran winemakers and growers called unlike any they had ever witnessed has come to a close, but the challenges are still fresh.

That was the sense at the Napa Valley Grapegrowers’ Wine and Grape Expo held Nov. 16 at the Napa County Airport. Throughout the day, a broad range of industry insiders mingled at the trade show in a spacious hanger, listened to educational seminars and kicked the tires of massive viticulture equipment parked outside next to sleek private jets.

Steve Price, a phenolics specialist with ETS labs and an Oregon Pinot Noir grower, began his seminar about grape sampling by saying that he just had to speak about tannin—or its pronounced lack—in the 2011 grape harvest. “We really haven’t seen anything like it in at least the past 15 years,” he said.

Tannin came in at levels about half what is considered normal. Price said he saw low tannin numbers throughout Oregon and California’s North Coast. He attributed the diminished tannin levels to the problematic conditions of the growing season as well as low seediness and lower grape skin tannins.

The result left winemakers facing tough choices for how to boost tannin through enzymes, temperature control, aggressive cap management such as a rack and return, or additions.

Unfortunately for some winemakers, Price said the tannin may have been just too low to bring back to what they considered “normal” for their style: These vintners may just have to make the best wines possible. “It’s a different year,” he said. “Make a different wine.”

Stress on the crush pad
With heightened disease pressure and compressed picking schedules, many winemakers also had a stressful time at the crush pad this year.

During a seminar about sorting, Lance Vande Hoef, sales manager for Pellenc America, took advantage of the unfavorable conditions to showcase Pellenc’s Selectiv’ harvester and processing equipment.

Vande Hoef showed more than 200 winemakers and growers a slide show of glistening, whole berries, free of MOG, sliding cleanly from Pellenc harvesters into bins. “Now what’s happening is eight times out of 10 the fruit gets to the winery and it looks that good; the winemaker says, ‘I just want it to go to the tank like that.’”

The Selectiv’ technology employs lateral paddles to separate grapes from stems and a series of ball-shaped rollers that allow whole grapes to fall into a collecting bin or pump, directing waste to a different exit point. The same system is employed on the Selectiv’ machine harvesters and its line of processors designed for use at the winery.

Vande Hoef said several wineries in Napa Valley already have revamped their crush pads to bypass traditional roller, encased destemmers and move grapes straight from the harvester to a pump. One grower raised the sensitive issue of contracts: How can one figure tonnage with so much sorting in the field?

Vande Hoef acknowledged that the new technology is likely to bring about “dynamic change” in grower relations, but added, “There’s real room for both parties to gain.”

Not to be outdone, Mea Leeman, Bucher Vaslin North America director of sales and marketing, unveiled her company’s entry in the sorting space race.

“Until Sept. 27, the equipment you’re about to see did not exist in anyone’s reality in North America,” she said before unveiling the Delta Oscillys 200 Destemmer. Leeman explained that the new machine uses oscillation and a force created by the grapes’ own inertia to separate them from their stems. “What we’re talking about here is a destemmer with no paddles or arms.”

Opus One, a premium Napa Valley winery, was the only winery in the United States to use an Oscillys destemmer this harvest.

Both Vande Hoef and Leeman said that while their firms’ improved processing equipment and new optical sorting machines have big sticker prices, those costs seem more reasonable when taking reduced labor into account.

Napa Valley Grapegrowers executive director Jennifer K. Putnam said more than 1,000 people attended the expo, which featured 80 exhibitors inside the airplane hangar and 10 more on the tarmac. “I think the expo was a categorical success in bringing colleagues and friends together after harvest,” she said.

The Napa Valley Viticulture Fair will take place at the county fairgrounds next year; Putnam said the expo may return to the airport in 2012.

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