I have interviewed 12 winemakers from the area by phone and in-person over the past few months. Many have been from very well-known, high-profile producers. The material has provided a few new perspectives. Some of these observations may only apply to estate wineries where there is more control over wine growing strategies, while others are specific to the winemaking. I will not compare individual winemakers, or wineries. It would be an injustice to each of them. Although, I will be making an effort to tell each of their stories in separate pieces later.
Recent Winemaking Trends in Premium Wines
More Block Harvesting and Corresponding Small Lot Fermentation
I am running into this strategy at more estate wineries and if they are not already doing it, they are thinking about it. Separately fermenting smaller, individually harvested, vineyard lots is happening more in this region than ever before. Wineries are making a major investment in large numbers of smaller fermentation tanks, moving away from the full harvest approach and much larger tanks. This trend is allowing winemakers to more effectively capture the individual character of fruit grown within differing micro-terroirs in individually fermented batch lots used for later blending.
Impact on the Wine – Improved complexity and structure. Isolating individual characteristics from the fruit to bring a greater sense of unique “place” to the wine.
Winemakers Exerting Greater Influence on Viticulture
Estate Winemakers are insisting on more input into the decisions in the vineyard. They are investigating different micro-climates and soil types on a much smaller scale than ever before. This trend is increasing their influence with viticultural decisions that affect the final product such as: separate farming and harvesting of individual vineyard blocks, row orientation, irrigation and pruning strategies (or lack of), etc.
Impact on the Wine – Better planning to accommodate vintage variation. Ability to experiment with vineyard practices that can compliment the style of wine being made.
Varying the Harvest Timing with Small Block Harvesting
This is a bit controversial, but I am hearing it being discussed more. Harvest timing is one of the major decisions affecting the wine. It can effect tannins, acidity and phenolics… blending individual lots harvested at different times can change many characteristics of the final product, for example:
- Tannins – Earlier harvest can make tannins more rustic. Also, the ripeness of the pips can have a huge impact on the texture of the tannins (dusty, grainy, rounder, etc.).
- Acidity – Earlier harvest can often provide increased acidity.
- Phenolics – This is the touchy-feely area of this practice. Identifying the preferred level of phenolic development is as much art, as science, but there is no doubt ripeness affects this category too.
- Sugar – Harvest timing will effect the amount of sugars in the juice.
Impact on the Wine – Virtually all aspects of the wine’s character are potentially affected by this.
Less Interaction with the Wine During Production
This philosophy is leading to experimentation. Here are a few techniques that are being used, or discussed more frequently:
- More wineries are moving to automated pump-over closed tank fermentation, versus open container punch-down. Some industry folk say punch-down “shocks” the wine. I have been paying closer attention to this in the past year, after seeing its widespread use during a trip to Italian wine country last year.
- Lots of discussion going on regarding the need for extended cold-soak prior to ferment to extract color.
- More natural yeast fermentation, instead of inoculation.
- Lighter pressing of the fruit. One winemaker talked of just using gravity to press the first-run juice.
- Skipping removal of the lees after ferment and waiting until a later date to separate the wine.
- Controlling temperature to slow down the duration of the ferment.
- Less fining and filtering, which reduces the amount of pumping and moving of the wine.
Impact on the Wine – The intangibles seem to be most affected by this approach. These techniques may soften the attack of the wine, add elegance and affect mouth-feel.
Extended Maceration for Red Wine
This relates to extending the contact of the wine with the skins and sometimes the lees and/or stems. I actually spoke to one winemaker that talked of 60 days for ferment and maceration. The more traditional thinking is 10-15 days… This is expensive for wineries. It requires either investment in more fermentation tanks, or reducing capacity for production. Several winemakers spoke of wanting to experiment with this for whites too.
Impact on the Wine – Differing opinions on this, but for my palate, it changes the character of the tannins substantially and at the same time adds complexity. I am not sure there is more extraction, but it definitely affects the texture.
Whole Cluster Fermentation for Red Wine
This technique requires using the whole grape cluster (stems and all) for the ferment, rather than the usual de-stemmed berries. Almost all winemakers I talked to were including a percentage of their blend with wine fermented this way. Several winemakers claimed that a whole cluster ferment by definition will add natural carbonic maceration to the mix. Some of these wines do appear to be more aromatic…
Impact on the Wine – It may add more of a mid-palate to some wines. Often, these wines seem to have a fresher, fruitier character (carbonic maceration?). Bottom line, these wines ARE more complex, but better complex? Some winemakers claim it has much to do with the terroir. Apparently, some terroirs do not produce fruit that works well with this process.
Focus on Balance
Ah, the holy grail of wine! For so many years Napa producers have been known for their big, extracted, high alcohol cabs. I think the pendulum is finally starting to swing back a bit. While these producers will never move back to the true French Bordeaux style, more winemakers are talking of balance and I am starting to taste it in more Napa wines. A beautiful trend!
It is so good to see sophisticated wine palates (winemakers) changing the decisions being made in the vineyard. While vineyard management is certainly farming, having a trained palate influencing the approach for each individual block and making adjustments for each vintage… is a very, very good thing for the industry.
Many of these techniques and ideas have been around the industry a very long time, but tend to be newly adopted in areas of California. To be fair, not all winemakers are fans of this direction and produce fantastic wines anyway. A clear indication of how much there is still to learn, about growing and making wine.
Why are following these trends important?
- For Wine Enthusiasts – It may help you:
- Identify techniques that produce wines you prefer
- Build a dialogue with your favorite wineries
- Understanding a winery’s approach, may help you to understand which labels match your palate
- For Industry Professionals – Understanding how influential wine producing regions are changing their thinking is important to:
- Wine pairing decisions
- Building context for a strategy to develop a commercial wine list representative of a broad range of styles
- A glimpse into the future of where the industry is headed
P.S. – I hope folks are enjoying these kind of pieces. I don’t see much written that tries to make the technical more accessible and relevant to the public audience. HAPPY HOLIDAYS AND BEST WISHES TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILIES!