By mid to late summer, winemaker Stephen Rigby is balancing more than the glasses he uses to sample what’s in the tanks. He’s looking at the weather, watching for veraison and making sure that personnel and equipment are ready for harvest.
When Rigby arrived at Hauser Estate Winery in Biglerville, PA in January of 2011, he came with considerable experience gained at wineries throughout the south. He found that the cultivars established at Hauser were similar to others along the east coast, including Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc and Pinot gris, which he says has become more popular lately. “There are a lot of hybrid varieties out here,” said Rigby. “On the red side, there are few that excel in the vineyard and in the wine, but Chambourcin is one that does.”
Hauser Estate Winery is built into a hillside, so most of it is essentially underground. This means that the temperature inside the cellar varies by only 10 degrees, between 50 and 60 degrees F, throughout the year. The consistent temperature helps save energy, which Rigby says is a significant cost in wineries. A solar system provides energy for the hot water system.
After completing bottling of the 2012 reds several weeks ago, Rigby is currently monitoring 2013 with an eye on where the blends for those may go in regard to creating various varietal wines such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon. “We usually do a Bordeaux-style blend, using a portion of those, and Petit Verdot goes into that too,” he said. “All of the grapes may play a background role in each of the varietal wines. We like to blend based on vineyard block and/or clone. At times, it’s almost like blending different varieties because there can be some distinct clonal differences.”
As for variation from year to year, Rigby says as the winemaker/grower, it’s a matter of learning how to adjust to the season. He also says people realize that the variations from year to year are possible, although there is enough consistency that wines are easily distinguishable. “The first year I was here, in 2011, was incredibly challenging,” said Rigby. “That was the year that during the ripening months of September and October, we saw almost no sunshine. Grapes are not going to ripen with as much sugar, acidity is higher and wines will have more challenges from potential rot. Careful picking and sorting comes into play. Then because of the lower sugar and higher acidity, the wines are going to be a little more moderate in alcohol, and a little more delicate as opposed to 2013, which had much higher sugar levels and concentration of color and flavor; and more intense, more age-worthy.”
From now until fall, Rigby keeps a close watch on weather and records rainfall and other weather data. “If we see that we’re getting similar weather patterns in one year, we can start making plans and approach the wine the same way as that other year,” he said. “The weather can be perfect until August, then everything might change entirely. The reality is that you can set up and project where you might be, but you’ll never really know until it’s time to bring the grapes in.”
As harvest approaches, both Rigby and his wife Joyce, who supervises growing at Hauser Estate Winery, keep close eye on the vineyard. “I get a lot more involved after veraison,” he said, noting that the wine-making process starts to become intense when the grapes develop color and the winemakers bring in samples. “I’ll go out every few days and take samples, and evaluate them chemically. I look at the condition of the fruit, chew on the skin and check the seeds. That helps us determine whether we’re going to pick based on sugars, acidity and flavors or when that next storm is going to roll through.”
Rigby says it’s important that other tasks have been completed well in advance of harvest — tanks are clean and machinery is in good shape and ready for use so that time can be spent monitoring fruit in preparation for harvest.
Grapes are picked into lugs and moved to the winery, and may be processed if temperatures aren’t too high. “Early in the season, we try to get out and pick at first light when it’s nice and cool,” said Rigby. “It’s good to stop picking by noon so we don’t get hot fruit coming in. Ideally, we try to keep the fruit as cool as possible when we bring it in.”
When Rigby doesn’t have the luxury of stopping at noon, he plans for cooling. “By the time we get some of the fruit in, we have to put crews on processing,” said Rigby. We’re looking at a 15 to 20-hour day, and we have to do it all again tomorrow. I like the idea of chilling fruit overnight – it allows us to have a more sane schedule. So today we might process that fruit that was picked yesterday, and today’s picking goes into coolers to be processed tomorrow. That way we can start working fruit first thing in the morning rather than waiting for crews to come in with fruit.”
Rigby says in addition to buying time, overnight chilling seems to help the fruit retain more potential flavor aromatic compounds. “The fruit seems to have a chance to be more expressive as wine if we keep the grapes cool and fresh,” he said. “Hot fruit, once crushed and processed, can take off on a fermentation without any control over it.”
With reds, which are fermented on the skins, Rigby will often destem the grapes and put them in the fermenter for a few days of cold-soaking. “The berries are loosening up and letting go of the juice and color,” he said. “After that, we allow the grapes to warm up and start fermenting.”
Rigby says allowing for cooling has an additional benefit: crews start each day well-rested, which contributes to a safer harvest. “After the harvest ends, we’re still working fermentation for a month or so,” he said. “We try to give people a break as much as we can.”
As for finished wine that’s on the shelf, Rigby has found that people who enjoy dry, red wines tend to learn to expect a difference from year to year, and enjoy and appreciate those differences. He described a recent vertical tasting held for wine club members at Hauser Estate Winery. “We pulled out samples of Cab Franc going back to the first vintage in 2008, and tasted each year through 2013 so everyone could get a sense of how different they were,” he said. “For example, 2010, which was a good, sunny warm year, was more similar to 2013 but different from 2009 and 2011. It was interesting to trace the vintages.”
As a winemaker who is truly invested in what he does, Rigby believes that time spent with patrons helps to develop a relationship between the winemaker and others involved in the wine-making process. “They’re looking for more insight about what we do as well as wine in general,” he said. “Wine is a vast subject, and can be very confusing to people. There are so many wines around the world and so many different styles of the same grape. This gives us a chance to interact and get to know people, and lets them get some insight as to how what they’re tasting got into that glass — what we’ve observed, the differences from year to year. The more people know about those things, the more interesting it is to open that bottle of wine.”
Rigby believes wineries have crossed a threshold in this country. “There are so many people interested in learning about and drinking wine, and learning about the regions and styles in wines,” he said. “It’s nice to be a part of sharing that, and to help mitigate the intimidation factor of wine. Everything we do should be geared to making the finest wines we can, and if we can find that through the quality of our wines, we can be in the game with anybody.”
Visit Hauser Estate Winery online at www.hauserestate.com.