Letters from Lodi
An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.
Michael David picks 2013 Chardonnay (early spring leads to one of Lodi’s earliest harvests)
This past Monday, August 5 Lodi’s Phillips Farms (the agricultural arm of Michael David Winery) began its second week of harvest 2013 with a picking of Chardonnay at their Bare Ranch property on Woodbridge Rd. “In my lifetime,” says Kevin Phillips, the Phillips family’s VP of Operations and vineyard manager, “2013 is only the second time we ever started picking in July… the first time was in 2003.”
According to Mr. Phillips, 2013 is running “two to three weeks earlier than normal for most varieties,” but not because of the scorching hot summer experienced not only in Lodi, but also up and down the entire West Coast from Santa Barbara to Walla Walla. This is simply because “spring came early this year,” says Phillips. “Bud break was early, flowering and veraison came early, everything started two to three weeks earlier than usual.”
Explains Phillips, “Because of the early start, hang time is actually normal in 2013. Sugar ripening is going according to schedule, crop yields look to be about average, and quality is looking good. So far, a nice, clean crop load, with all the right chemistry.”
Last week Tuesday, July 30, Phillips began picking both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for what they call their “champagne” cuvées – wines made from grapes picked at lower sugars (at around 21° Brix, or sugar readings) and with higher, perceptively tart acidity to go along with lower alcohols. This week (August 5 through 8), Phillips tells us, “the sugars in our Chardonnay are running between 21° and 22° Brix – still with really crisp acid, pH running about 3.2, and total acidity about 0.8%. This is what we call our ‘early run,’ which gives us crisp, clean, Granny Smith apple-like flavors…
“About this time next week, we’ll be out picking our ‘medium run’ at closer to 24° Brix° – these will be the Chardonnays that are a little lower in acid, but give us flavors of riper melon and pear, not quite tropical. At the final end of our Chardonnay harvest we’ll be picking grapes closer to 25° Brix, when the flavors are definitely in the tropical fruit range – like mango, pineapple and banana. The entire combination covers every aspect of the Chardonnay fruit profile, which we like to blend all together to produce the freshest, most complex Chardonnay possible.”
Up until 2011, Michael David’s Chardonnay was bottled as “7 Heavenly Chards” – a sub-label that was just recently discarded by the winery, beginning with the currently released 2012 vintage. Adds Phillips, “I would say that each year about 40% of our Chardonnay comes from our early run, 40% from our medium run, 15% from our late run, and 5% from our ‘champagne’ run.” Also per Michael David Winery’s house style, about half of the Chardonnay is fermented in stainless steel tanks (including the entirety of the “early run” picked this past week), and the other half in mostly neutral white oak barrels (including most of the tropical fruit style “final” picks).
Out in Bare Ranch, Phillips had nearly his entire full-time crew doing a full-court press on the Chardonnay vines – Phillips Farms employ 32 vineyard workers all-year-round to work the 360 or so acres owned by the family (Michael David Winery also purchases fruit from over 60 other growers in the Lodi AVA). The Chardonnay bunches on Bare Ranch are that of a modestly sized, ultra-premium quality Dijon clone – less than two-thirds the cluster weight and berry size than that of workhorse cultivars like Davis clones 04 and 05 (which dominate most of Lodi’s Chardonnay plantings).
Bare Ranch sits on what Mr. Phillips calls “a big sand pit… very low vigor site, low in organic material.” In an average year like 2013, the trellised Chardonnay vines will yield about 6 tons per acre (less than 5 in smaller vintages like 2011). The low fertility of this particular part of the Mokelumne River AVA‘s west end is visibly evidenced by the 80-year old head trained Zinfandel vines planted just east of the Chardonnay block: unlike the humongous bearings of many of Lodi’s older Zinfandel plantings, the Bare Ranch vines look slight – more like 20-year old vines – with slim trunks and almost scraggly canopies.