Tag Archives: Winemaker

Hidden in Plain Sight

My wife and I spent years visiting Napa Valley thinking that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was THE Napa Stags Leap… Not that I put research, or thought into it, but I had no idea there were TWO. Many years ago, my wife and I arranged a tasting appointment at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and were hit over the head with their rustic approach to red wine. It is always a difficult decision to buy wines that require 10 years in the cellar to enjoy. We made that calculation in those early years and never visited that Stag’s Leap again. Surprise, discovering there is another similarly named winery with a completely different approach to making wine!

Trade Tasting at Stags’ Leap Winery

This was a beautiful property. Everything you could want in a destination winery property: picturesque, historical buildings with architectural interest and a colorful history all tucked back in a forested valley, off the Silverado Trail on the East Side of Napa Valley. Although, what was truly special was the wine.

Christophe Paubert – Winemaker

This was an opportunity to tour the facility, taste the product, hear the winemaker discuss his wines, ask questions and immerse yourself in this winery’s experience. The best kind of wine country adventure! Christophe is a passionate, down-to-earth guy with a vision for his wine. An Old World artist with a New World sensibility. Here is one of those special winemakers who succeeds in leaving his signature behind with every wine produced. Each red wine had a special character to the tannins… all very structured, with age-ability. Even young, the tannins were so fine, as to make the wine approachable on release. After 20+ years of collecting and tasting premium wine, you learn to recognize a deft hand. Grainy, rustic tannins in red wine become a bludgeon, beating you over the head. This heavy-handed, unpleasant approach to red wine magnifies a seeming lack of experience (interest?) in a refined approach to collectible wine production. On the other hand, this winemaker understands the importance of nuance in his approach. Think muscular, with a gentle side and a focus on aromas that draw you in. I have always had a soft spot for winemakers that pay attention to the nose when building their wine profile.

The Wines

2016 Viognier – Alsatian white wine feel with citrus and tropical fruits, minerality and a touch of spice. Huge acid backbone for a Viognier. Interesting and complex with a profile that could pair well with foods, or be drunk on its own.

2016 Napa Valley Chardonnay – Mix of new/neutral oak and stainless. No malolactic ferment. Tropical fruit and citrus on the nose. This is an Old World style Chardonnay that does not use a malo ferment to tame the acidity and add butter flavors (yay!) Contact with the lees has been used to add texture. This is a crisp, aromatic, high acid Chardonnay. Perfect pairing for seafood and white cream sauces, but fruity and interesting enough to drink on its own.

2014 Block 20 Estate Merlot – A lighter, more structured style than your typical Napa Merlot. A Right Bank Bordeaux feel, but with such fine, approachable tannins, it takes you down the path to Margaux. Plummy fruit forward nose and palate, with a rich brown butter flavor adding interest. The brown butter often comes from a combination of aging on the lees and just the right toast on the barrels. Christophe asserted this was just the character of this vintage’s fruit. Either way, a special Merlot that highlights the best of both Old and New World wines.

2014 Twelve Falls Estate Red – I just wanted to bathe in this stuff! Unusual blend of Cab Sauv, Petite Sirah and Merlot. The PS was handled in such a way that it complimented the other varietals, instead of overwhelming them. Plum, blackberry, blueberry, spice and everything nice! High acidity and high tannins. Superb red blend!

2014 The Leap Estate Cabernet Sauvignon –  Needed time to open and unwind. Steadily blooming flavors and complexity over time. This is a highly structured Cab Sauv with very high acidity and high tannins. Fruit forward blackberry and currant out front, with earth and leather to the mid-palate. I found myself wishing for a bit longer finish, but the silky mouth-feel filled the gap. Beautiful approachable young Napa Cab Sauv.

2014 Ne Cede Malis Estate Field Blend Red – Odd field blend of Bordeaux and Rhone varietals both red and white. Areas of this block in the estate vineyards were planted back to 1920. High acidity and high tannins, busy flavors and silky mouthfeel. Quite nice on the nose and on the palate. I think I am a touch too traditional… the wine had me thinking too much about identifying varietals and associated flavors. I know complex red blends are becoming more popular, taking us back to a hundred years ago when field blends were much more common, but recognizing wine styles brings a certain amount of comfort. This wine could easily grow on me, but would take time.

Stags’ Leap Wine Style

Consistently fine tannins and an aromatic nose were indicative of these wines. All highly structured, age-able and food friendly, these wines were also soft, pretty and approachable when young. Characteristic of a talented winemaker working with high quality fruit. Tasting appointments are required. Call ahead and take the time to find this hidden gem. It will be well worth your while.

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes, Wine Travel, Winemaker Interview

2012 Saviah Cellars Girl & the Goat

2012 Saviah Cellars Girl & the Goat

Walla Walla AVA, WA

Wine Tasting Note:

Rich, fruity blackberry, plum and spice on the nose. Fruit forward blackberry, plum and black currant on the palate, moving to a mid-palate and finish of copious amounts of dark chocolate. Spicy white pepper and cinnamon undertones. Medium-high acidity and medium tannin structure. Nice silky mouth-feel with an extra long finish. Super well-balanced wine. Drinking great right now… best window: 2016-2019. I wish this was more widely available than just in the restaurant in Chicago. I was gifted this bottle by Richard Funk the winemaker/owner at Saviah Cellars who took on the challenge of making this wine for Stephanie Izard – owner of Girl & the Goat. This wine is produced from his near perfect estate Petit Verdot vintage in Walla Walla during 2012. This is a superlative wine for drinking by itself and with food. I drank this with a coffee rubbed NY strip and it was a great match. 50% Petit Verdot, 25% Cab Sauv, 25% Cab Franc.

I don’t know whether the vision for this wine was the chef’s, or the winemaker’s, but this turned out to be a wonderful wine. Richard Funk is a great guy. I really enjoyed spending time with him during our last trip to  Walla Walla. He really hit a home run with this wine and I hope that Petit Verdot vineyard of his produces more great vintages in the future!

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, U.S. Wines by Region, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Watching a California AVA Change its Identity

lodi_native_logo_288

There is a small group of pioneering winemakers taking the leap of faith (with some encouragement) to embrace a different approach to Lodi winemaking. They offer limited production premium wines and are fashioning a new identity for the region.

The brilliance of the vision is in the marketing. Wine collectors and enthusiasts follow winemakers and vineyards… it is the dirty secret most wineries would rather not acknowledge. Strong distribution, labels, shelf-talkers, shelf space and displays draw the average consumer. So, when you talk premium wine, what describes successful marketing? …Rock Star winemakers and masterfully managed vineyards. Examples on the vineyard side: I am always looking for single vineyard designate wines from Beckstoffer, Bien Nacido and Stolpman vineyard sites at below market prices. Same applies to winemakers like: Foley, Hobbs, Grahm, Lindquist, Smith, Ramey, Petroski, etc. (too many favorites to list). I am always looking…

The Lodi Native Project

This project was the original brain-child of Randy Caparoso (see bio here: Randy Caparoso), but it’s success depended on the execution of a group of winemakers who embraced the challenge. At its core, the project represents a winemaking philosophy, but the goal is much broader and ambitious. It includes a group of winemakers (Layne Montgomery-M2, Stuart Spencer-St. Amant, Ryan Sherman-Fields Family, Mike McCay-McCay Cellars, Tim Holdener-Macchia and Chad Joseph-Maley Brothers) that individually agreed to release 100-250 cases per vintage of Lodi AVA vineyard designate wines under a set of rules that require non-interventionist winemaking. The parameters include: all natural wild yeast (no inoculation), no additives (i.e. acidification), no filtering, all neutral oak in aging, etc. The heritage vineyard sites (see historic vineyards here: Heritage Vineyard Society) include: Marian’s Vineyard, Schmiedt Ranch Vineyard, Soucie Vineyard, Stampede Vineyard, TruLux Vineyard and Wegat Vineyard. These are all “Old Vine” vineyard sites (see Lodi Native vineyard info here: Lodi Native About).

Why is this Special?

This project represents the re-making of an AVA. There will always be bulk fruit and wine produced out of Lodi AVA, but this effort is showcasing why/how Lodi can be different and have at least a small footprint on the premium wine scene. What does Lodi Native bring to the wine world we do not already have? These are quality, terroir-driven, food friendly Zinfandel based wines at reasonable prices. I have not tasted other Zins quite like these. The previously recognized quality Zin producers, like Seghesio and Ridge are very different. Go Lodi Native! Your team has added diversity to the world of wine…

The Impact

Lodi has a large number of Heritage designate Old Vine Vineyard sites. Many were planted with their own root system (not spliced onto alternative root stock). Lodi is fortunate to have sandy-loam soils at some sites where phyloxera cannot survive. The native root systems on these 90-120 year old vines do seem to have an effect on the character of the wine. Many of these vineyards yield only 2-3 tons of fruit per acre, without intervention. These self-regulating vines seem to have “learned” how to contribute to yield management on their own.

These sites represent a valuable asset to the local wine community, having as much to do with quality winemaking, as the historical significance they hold. The importance of these vineyards was not recognized until roughly ten years ago, but it was Randy’s vision that made them commercially viable, and it was the winemakers’ commitment to showcasing the uniqueness that brought the project together.

Lodi Native has given a voice to the different nature of this AVA. Maybe Randy guessed at what could happen if the winemakers pulled it off, but I don’t think any of them understood what it would mean to building a local wine identity… beyond bulk wine grape production. These wines are very good in a serious classic sense and are terroir driven. They offer structure and balance, something missing from much of the rest of the AVA and they definitely belong in the category of premium wines. They offer a delicate finesse, focusing on soft mouth-feel, floral nose/palate and age-ability.

Value

If you are a wine enthusiast, you owe it to yourself to seek out these wines. They are the beginning of the emergence of the classic Lodi AVA and the value is solid.

More on Lodi Native Wines to come…

 

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Filed under Lodi, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Winemaker Interview

Getting into a Winemaker’s Head, After One Tasting?

In YOur HEAD cartoon

I am about to embark on a dangerous journey… trying to understand a winemaker’s thinking after one tasting session. Probably presumptuous, but I think a fun exercise for the imagination.

California, Livermore Valley AVA

This last week I stopped into a highly regarded producer from this wine growing area. My first time visiting the Livermore area. The only wine I had previously tasted from this AVA was a sub $20 Cab Sauv from Concannon and it was not pleasant. Well, adventure feeds the soul, right?

Steven Kent Winery

An ineresting stop, because it was clear that the winemaker had a vision for the wine he was producing. So here are my impressions of the winemaking strategy and why:

Work with What You Got

Guess #1 – This area seems to have a cooler climate than Napa Valley and the soil is more fertile. You can taste it in the wine: less alcohol, less phenolic development, a little vegetal in flavor, more red (than black) fruit and thinner viscosity. So, the first decision: what style of wine do you make from this fruit? These wines were all trying to be “Old World” with a new world twist: very fruit forward, attempting balance (albeit without much structure), little to no new oak, no American Oak, and keep the alcohol low (no chaptalizing). This winemaker fully embraced this approach and it appeared to be a clear decision in all the wines I tasted.

Consumers Want Less Expensive Wine to be Easy Drinking

Guess #2: This isn’t my opinion, but it is clearly this winemaker’s view. Every general release wine I tasted was very fruit forward, had little to no tannins and medium (or less) acidity. This winemaker clearly believes this is what sells at this price.  Personally, while I understand many consumers enjoy this style… I am sorry, I just can’t drink it. I would rather have a wine cooler. You just can not drink this stuff with food…

Silky Soft Textures Sell Wine

Guess #3: This winemaker experiments heavily with aging red wines on the lees. It is the only possible answer for how smooth these reds are… and by the way, my favorite style component from this winemaker (another common Old World technique). It really makes an impression. It actually makes the the general release wines even easier to drink (if that is possible). Every wine I tasted was trying to be soft…

Only Collectors and Educated Wine Consumers Enjoy Wine with Structure

Guess #4: So, when the tasting room manager discovered I am a trained Somm, they broke out the wine club selections: reserves and single vineyard wines. These wines had structure: with high acidity and medium (or higher) tannins. Honestly, I was a little offended when I realized what was going on. I guess educated wine buyers are all rich… just because you are allowing more contact with the skins and including some stems in the maceration and ferment, doesn’t mean the process is more expensive. These red wines spent 18-24 months aging in the barrel, just like most good reds.

Conclusions

As it turned out, I enjoyed the tasting! It is fun imagining you can get into the winemakers head. You don’t normally find such clearly defined characteristics in a winery’s breadth of a single vintage. The club wines were good, but they weren’t big on value… These wines were fruit forward, complex, structured and very silky. One word of caution, before deciding to seek out this producer, you must settle on a preference for red fruit flavors in your wine. There wasn’t much in the way of blackberry, plum, or black currant flavors to be found.

Wine Tasting Notes

NV La Ventana Barbera, Livermore Valley – Retail $36

Nice nose of red cherry and cinammon. All bright, fresh red cherry on the palate. The mouthfeel was a touch creamy. The tannins were low and the acidity was medium. A nice fruity table wine that is meant to drink before dinner. It had no over-whelming characteristics, therefore a balanced feel, but virtually no structure. There was a touch of dark chocolate on a short finish.

2010 Pinot Noir, El Coro Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – Retail $48

The nose was of red hard candy. The palate was cough syrup and spice. This wine did not taste like a cool climate Pinot (Sonoma Coast). It is so fruity, I would have guessed Carneros, if tasting blind. Low tannins and medium acidity. ** UPDATE** 3/6/16 – Upon researching this vineyard, I found it is actually in Carneros! BAM! Fun to nail it! C’mon they need to train their people…

2012 Lot 29 Red Blend, Livermore Valley (Bordeaux Blend) – Retail $36

Fresh cherry on the nose. Palate is of brown butter, then red cherry following. There are medium tannins and high acidity. Too much oak… and it is strange to taste such strong cherry flavors in a Bordeaux blend.

2013 Cabernet Franc, Livermore Valley – Retail $48

Nose of red cherry, herbal mint and cinnamon. The palate has red and black cherry and allspice flavors. Medium-high elegant tannins and high acidity. The wine has a silky mouth-feel and a long spicy finish. My favorite wine of the tasting. Based on the other wines tasted in Livermore Valley, this might be a good location for cool-climate Cab Franc…

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Lencioni Vineyard, Livermore Valley – Retail $65

The winemaker had some guts here… this wine had a slightly vegetal nose. I can appreciate the courage there. I have tasted many Cabs that were a touch vegetal and amazing! The palate was of black cherry and blackberry with cinammon and a touch of butter on the finish. The wine had high tannins and high acidity. The mouth-feel was nice and silky.

2014 Cabernet Port (fortified with brandy)

I was told this was a tawny style port… ooops! Not even close. A heavy medicinal nose. Tasted exactly like red cherry cough syrup with herbs and mint added. the fruit was too fresh to be a traditional tawny port. Definitely complex, but not really enjoyable.

 

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Winemaker Interview – Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards

Please follow my winemaker interview series! You can find this and other interviews at the following link:

 

Winemaker Interview Series – Billo Naravane

 

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Walla Walla Valley, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Winemaker Interview

Is a Trained Palate Necessary to Produce Fine Wine?

old-new world

Old World Wine Styles

I have been doing interviews and visiting with several Washington State wineries this week and the discussion struck a chord, providing an interesting personal realization… not all Owners, Winemakers and Growers have developed a broad understanding of world wine styles. Over the last several years writing about wine along the West Coast, I had assumed I was speaking with professionals that had all spent time developing  a palate and tasting styles from around the world. I now understand, this is not a formal requirement for a degree in Enology and the Somm training I received is really quite a different area of study. This week brought the issue to light for me and helped me to understand why being familiar with world wine styles can be an important element in producing quality premium wines.

There are very specific reasons why different Old World regions in France, Germany, Italy, Spain (etc.) have developed these famous regional styles. The obvious one is to produce wines that pair properly with local foods, but I wanted to explore one other in particular more carefully:

  • The 100’s of years of trial and error with local varietals, learning to accommodate local growing conditions and make the best wine possible.

This is the reason why the world views the best expression of Syrah to come from the Rhone, or the best expression of Nebbiolo from Barolo / Barbaresco, Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, Riesling from the Mosel, etc. These varietals have been produced in these regions for generations and for the wine enthusiasts out there who have not taken the time to explore them, start now! Your imagination will be awakened and you will discover whole new horizons you never realized existed. (back on topic though) Take a minute to think about how this issue should impact domestic wine production… you can present the argument that New World wineries are pioneers, working in new regions and developing their own unique styles, but since when is this done in a vacuum?

The best analogy is fine cuisine. Chefs travel all over the world to taste different styles and then return to the U.S. to introduce what the industry calls “fusion” cuisine. These chefs forge entirely new dishes by taking classic styles from around the world and “fusing” them to create new, unique dishes all their own. Understanding the “classic” wine styles of the world is equally as important… to compare and contrast how our New World terroir can be the same, or different, and to blend the best of both worlds to achieve the best expression from each of our domestic wine regions.

the-different-types-of-wine-by-style-and-taste

Is Wine Style Important?

Having interviewed quite a few winemakers over the last couple of years, I have come to understand how important wine style really is. Having a working understanding of tasting fruit in the field and selecting a style of wine that best complements that vintage is critical to producing a quality product. I tasted a Mosel style Riesling on this Washington trip from a winemaker who obviously understood how that should taste and how to achieve it. Has he traveled to the Mosel and studied with winemakers in the region? No. Does this winemaker have a large cellar, a trained palate and have regular exposure to taste aged wines from around the world? Yes.

Terroir Influence

The new Rocks AVA here was made famous by Christophe Baron and his Cayuse label. He persevered through the jeers and disbelief of local winemakers when he planted these vineyards, because he recognized enough similarities between this appellation and the Northern Rhone region to fuel his certainty that this area would produce world class wine. The local industry has come around to his thinking slowly, but the results have been hard to ignore. Tasting other local wines from this AVA, it strikes me as amazing that some of these wineries are not producing wines that express the interesting terroir of this place. Why else make wine here? I wonder, have they not taken the time to train their palates to recognize the Northern Rhone profile this area can produce? Or, is it they haven’t taken the time to research the winemaking techniques that can help to achieve it? Or, will it require the generations of wine experience (like in Europe) to realize it fully? On the other hand, maybe it is a simple lack of belief that this style of wine can sell out every year… Most of these Rocks AVA Syrah’s have a funky, meaty background that enhances the rich fruit-forward character of the wine. I realize this is not for everyone, but I would venture to say, a small AVA like this could never produce enough of this style of wine to exceed the world-wide demand for it.

Conclusion

I am thoroughly convinced, having a winemaker with a BS in Enology is not enough alone to make premium wines. All the involved parties (Owners, Growers, Winemakers) should be able to taste the impact of regional vineyard management and winemaking techniques in the wine. Tasting that impact is a start. It can help to hone a palate. The next critical step is the commitment to study and compare similar wines produced in their classic region of origin. Each and every vintage (warm, cold, or moderate year) has to start in the vineyard tasting the fruit and fine-tuning the vision for the style of wine that will be made. The revelation here is:

  • To make premium wine, it requires more than just enthusiastic commitment to its production. You must have a passion for its consumption!

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Making #Wines to Drink Now, or Cellar?

The sun barely illuminates the land under a thick fog of red smoke as seen from Highway 97 just south of Okanogan Friday August 21, 2015.

What a crazy week to have scheduled a wine tasting adventure in Washington State! Forest fires everywhere! The entire state is one big campfire… Flying into Spokane, we descended through a wall of billowing smoke. Driving down to Walla Walla the smoke cleared somewhat.

Later this week, my wife and I will be joining trade tastings and interviewing winemakers, but today we wanted to relax and stop at a couple of wineries of interest – as wine tourists. We stopped in first at K Vintners and then Five Star Cellars today and two interesting questions came to light: (tasting notes coming in future posts)

  1. Should winemakers be producing wine to drink now, versus wines to bottle age?
  2. Does making wine specifically to be drunk with food play well in the broader U.S. market?

I will tackle the first question now and the second in a follow-up piece.

Drink Now?

I was floored today. These were two respected Walla Walla producers recognized by critics and neither was focusing on structured wines more capable of aging in your cellar.

K Vintners

After one tasting experience, I am quite sure I could recognize any of their wines blind. This is not meant to suggest I did not enjoy a few of these wines, but more to emphasize their singular dimension. All of the wines are quite clearly made in a single style, utilizing similar techniques: noticeable French oak, high to very high acidity, very light and a minimum of mouth-feel, minimal finish, low to medium tannins and fruit forward.

Five Star Cellars

We tasted two vintages of their flagship wine, a Bordeaux blend called “Stellar”. The 2008 was good, showing high acidity, medium tannins and a palate of plum, blackberry, apple pie spice, graphite and touch of earthy minerality… but the 2009 was so much better, similar to the 2008 – but adding higher tannins and a fuller mouth-feel. The owner David Huse actually apologized for the additional structure. After a few minutes of conversation, it was obvious he believed their goal was to make easy drinking wines and that 2009 just didn’t fit into that focus.

Price Point, Wine Quality and Structure

I get it. Wineries have to sell their wine and in case you haven’t seen the numbers, somewhere between (depending on the study) 80 to 95% of all wines purchased in the U.S. are drunk within a week of purchase. Since we are throwing out statistics, how about this:  90% of all bottles purchased in the U.S. cost less than $12 USD. The wines we were tasting today all retailed for $40-$70/btl. Where am I going with this? Are these wineries correct in thinking that the majority of wine drinkers spending over $12/btl. want drink now, easy drinking wines? I have spent the last 20 years listening to feedback from wine enthusiasts and while very few are looking for the other end of the spectrum – rustic, cheap Chianti style wines, MOST do prefer red wines with good structure. How else could Napa Valley be able to sell so much Cabernet Sauvignon at an average price of $64.77/btl (2014 Wines & Vines) direct-to-consumer? It is certainly not because these wines are easy drinkers!

Winemaker’s View?

So how does the winemaker feel about this issue? I ask this question during interviews all the time. The answer too often is: “business sometimes dictates we make a wine for broad appeal”. At some wineries, this discussion is a non-issue. The winemaker makes a wine profile focused on quality in the classic sense and they find their market. Others I have interviewed, spend time with their customers and really understand the product their clientele wants… and then there are those that “think” they know what the average consumer wants. The perceived pressure to produce easy drinking wines in the U.S. is huge. For large volume wineries over 50,000 cases of production this discussion is irrelevant, but for the 60% of wineries in the U.S. that produce less than 5,000 cases, it is THE discussion to have. There is a place for all styles of wine in the market. My surprise came from visiting recognized, critically acclaimed wineries with this kind of thinking.

Wolf howling

Howling at the Moon!

If there is one thing I can definitively take exception to in the industry, it is this idea that wine enthusiasts (spending more than $12/btl) want flavor in red wines and don’t care about structure. Okay, I agree there are not many folks like me in the U.S. who will maintain a large enough cellar to buy young structured red wines and regularly drink 5-10 year old vintages. At the risk of boring readers by saying this again: STRUCTURE is what differentiates good wine! Red wine can taste like black, red, or blue fruit, have earthy minerality, or even exotic flavors like tobacco and tar, but these matter little without the primary structural components: Acidity, Alcohol, Tannins, Phenolic Development, Mouth-Feel (texture) and Balance. When wines are missing any of these elements, they can be unpleasant to drink, or more commonly – just boring.

Tasting note for the Five Star Cellars 2009 Stellar (Bordeaux Blend) that was supposedly not as “good” as the 2008:

The nose hints at the level of extraction with blackberry, plum and currant fruits, a touch of alcohol, fresh tobacco and earth. The palate follows with a dense fruit-forward attack that is very lively in the mouth, with high acidity and high tannins.  The vanilla comes through from the oak, but doesn’t overpower. The tannins have a plush, granular texture producing a big mouth-filling wine with a very long finish. This wine is fast approaching its optimal drinking window of 2016-2018. It is only missing a defined mid-palate… a 91 score without. This would have earned a 94-95 score with more complexity.

A grand effort by a small Washington State winery. I sincerely hope they change their focus to making more wines like this…

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Cellar, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Why Do #Wines Taste Different? Part 2d – Vineyard Management

Vineyard Management

'We only produced 50 cases this year. Most of our competitors spill more than that.'

The effects of Vineyard Management are critically important, but not always easy to recognize. They usually impact wine structure: Acidity, Tannins, Alcohol, Complexity, Phenolic Development and Mouth-Feel. Choosing one practice, over another… often has little to do with science. A limited amount of empirical scientific data is available on this topic and terroir differences often demand widely different approaches. It is difficult to settle on universal best practices. These are the reasons wineries often depend on individuals with extensive experience in the local region. Does implementing these ideas have a direct observable connection to quality? Perhaps yes… at the very least, these ideas can impact the character of wine from individual vineyards. Here is a very recognizable example:

Pergola_Vineyard     (Pergola Trained)

Guyot trained 1     (Guyot Trained)

Italian producers have been converting old pergola style trellising (photos above) to head-trained systems (i.e guyot). This has been a major factor in the on-going improvement in consistent quality across Italian vintages. Head-trained vines make it much easier to employ pruning strategies throughout the growing season. A major factor in accommodating annual climate variation.

Harvest Yield Management

Vineyard managers typically have experience with enough harvest variation to get a feel for the tonnage of quality fruit their vineyards can produce. Too big a yield, and the vines don’t seem to focus on producing concentrated flavors and complexity. Too small a yield and the vineyard is not financially viable to farm. In some locations, the government dictates the yield, if the winery wants to put the appellation name on the label. Yield is a reasonable indicator of basic quality. Anything over 4 tons per acre will be approaching bulk wine territory. Most premium wineries drop anywhere from a quarter to half the berries in the field every year.

Soil Supplementation

Fertilization and soil prep is a scary idea in a vineyard. Grape vines are highly efficient at growing successfully in very poor conditions, so any small change tends to have a big impact. The idea here is NOT for the vines to grow more vigorously. The optimum conditions desired for increasing harvest yield is the exact opposite of what is desired. Although, soil prep before planting vines is very common and usually deals with soil pH and plant metabolism. For example, in many wine growing areas in Arizona, it is critical that calcium carbonate and/or magnesium carbonate be mixed into the soil. So called “liming” of the soil is a vineyard tradition that has been practiced for hundreds of years. Higher pH soils tend to add acidity to the fruit, a critical component in quality wines.

vine-rows

Pruning Strategies and Row Orientation

This approach is more recent. Canopy management as a criteria for producing quality fruit is a strategy that requires a significant amount of pruning labor (high cost) and therefore is mostly employed in the premium and ultra-premium wine categories. A few years ago, I interviewed Jim Duane, winemaker and vineyard manager at Seavey Vineyards in Napa Valley. With a BS in Biology and a focus on botany, he spoke passionately about meticulously pruning the vines and modifying the canopy to match each vintage’s growing conditions. The row direction decision is now made based on optimizing drainage and improving direct sun availability. Vineyards planted on relatively flat acreage in the last 20 years are almost always planted with North-South facing rows to maximize consistent sun exposure. The vineyard in the photo above is planted down the rise and is unusual in recent times. Rows today are usually planted across the rise to facilitate optimal drainage. These ideas have become common practice in the U.S., although not as pervasive in Europe.

Harvest Strategies

Single pass harvesting is the standard in the industry, but in the premium and ultra-premium category that is changing. Paloma Vineyard is an estate winery in Napa Valley that takes this idea to the extreme. Harvesting over extended periods of time, tracking rows and blocks for ripeness, or desired character. They have planted different clones of Merlot and vary the harvest timing as necessary for each. In addition, they bring in blocks early to improve structure and others later to enhance flavors. This is very labor intensive and must be a challenge to manage every year… but the results  are hard to argue with… Paloma achieved a Wine Spectator #1 wine in the world rating in 2003 and regularly earns 95-100 scores every vintage. By the way, if you are lucky enough to catch a visit with the owner Barbara, you will get an in-depth peak into the life of a winemaker as farmer and the lifestyle that comes along with it!

Gobelet vineyard

Trellising

This is an Old World versus New World discussion. Many vineyards are still planted and grown the old traditional ways in Europe, i.e. Pergola (Italy), Gobelet (Spain), etc. I have seen 75 – 100 year old Zinfandel vines in Sonoma County trained in the Gobelet method. See a photo of a Gobelet trained vineyard in Spain above. These Old World style methods make no sense to me for fine wine. Head training (Guyot method & similar) clearly provides better opportunity to employ detailed pruning strategies. Oh well, I am sure THAT will start an argument with a winery in Europe somewhere…

Spring Mtn Vineyard

Terra-Forming, Terracing and Vine Spacing

I love the photo from Pride Mountain Vineyards above… Let me describe why this vineyard is so different:

This is a terra-formed terraced vineyard with a double row planting across the rise and a tight vine spacing layout. The vines in the front of the row produce riper fruit. Those in the back struggle and the fruit is more austere and structured. Everything in a Bordeaux varietal vineyard you could ever want, all in one place. This vineyard produces amazing wine. I doubt many vineyard owners would go to the expense of preparing a vineyard site this way.

Irrigation and Dry Farming

This is another one that will get me in trouble… This is one idea where I agree with the Old World thinking. In my experience, having tasted thousands of wines… There is a noticeable difference in wines from dry-farmed fruit versus irrigated. Why is there a difference? Is there verifiable science behind it? Not likely, but if I were to guess… dry-farmed vines struggle more, the roots drive deeper into the earth and build additional complexity in the wine?

The End

I have had quite enough of what has turned into a very lengthy discussion. There were literally too many contributing factors affecting wine flavors and structure to even scratch the surface in these few pieces. I hope the examples provided and the recommendations offered made the information a little less dry and I apologize to the Old World Wineries in advance for representing their growing regions poorly. I just haven’t interviewed enough European winemakers to understand their local wine growing practices in this kind of detail. It is my hope to rectify that someday 🙂 Anyone interested in subsidizing an old Sommelier to make a trip (or two) over to wineries in Europe? Strictly in the interest of discovery and wine research to educate a U.S. wine industry thirsting for knowledge…

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Why Do Wines Taste So Different? Part 1: Winemaking Strategies

INTRODUCTION

“Hey, it’s all made from grapes, right?”

funny-man-tasting-wine-glass

Early in my wine drinking years, this was my mantra and justification for buying cheap wine. As you drink more wine and increase your wine budget, you start to realize that every vineyard, winemaker and label can taste radically different. How is this? It doesn’t seem to make sense. Well, I will try to put some of that Sommelier training to good use and explain why and how individual wines can taste so different. We will start with Winemaker Techniques in Part One and then move on to Vineyard Management in Part Two. I will focus on red wine in this piece, because it has the most diverse flavor potential.

You may ask, why should anyone care? Good question. Many people feel, “If it tastes good, I drink it.” For those who feel that way, I get it… but for those that are looking to understand why they enjoy a certain wine and not another… read on.

PART ONE

How Do Winemakers Affect Wine Flavors and Aromas?

Grape Varietal Selection?

Many inexperienced wine drinkers do not realize that specific grape varietals have very distinct flavor profiles. There are literally 100’s of grape varieties, but under ten (number varies based on opinion) noble varieties most commonly grown and made into wine across the world. Here are just two examples to provide a point of reference:

Pinot Noir – Fruit flavors of cherry, cranberry, raspberry, etc. Herbal and mineral notes of mint, earth, limestone rock, etc., depending on terroir. This wine is mostly less acidic and has very limited tannins. It can have a silky mouthfeel, but never a voluptuous mouth-coating texture. Not commonly made to bottle age, with the exception of wines from Burgundy, France.
Cabernet Sauvignon – Fruit flavors of blackberry, black currant, black plum, etc. Herbal and mineral notes of tobacco, graphite, earth, etc., depending on terroir. This wine can be very acidic and have very high tannins. It can be watery, silky, or very rich in texture. Very commonly bottle aged and often improves substantially over time.

Inoculating the Juice with Commercial Yeasts, or Allow Natural Yeasts to Ferment?

This is a controversial topic in the industry. Some winemakers swear natural yeasts add complexity and interest to the wine. Commercial yeasts may add to a “cleaner” flavor profile, but offer a taste that appears to be more manipulated. Wild yeasts may contribute to a more natural, complex character.

Use Extended Cold Soak, Before Fermentation?

This can contribute to a more “extracted” wine. The idea is to take the time and extract as much flavor as possible from the skins, pips and flesh of the grapes. Wines that are cold soaked tend to have rich, deep colors. They may also be fruitier, but I have not noticed this consistently. The challenge is preventing natural fermentation during the process. The tanks must be kept in refrigerated areas during cold soak. This option ties up tank space and potentially limits production, adding cost to the vinification process.

Pump Over, or Punch Down the Cap During Fermentation?

You wouldn’t think this would make a difference, but I have consistently noticed wines fermented with a pump-over process tend be more refined and elegant as a whole.

Ferment in Stainless Steel Tanks, Plastic Containers, or Oak Barrels?

There are those that claim stainless steel can add to minerality, but I have not seen this consistently. Plastic is basically neutral, but when the juice is fermented in oak barrels and then the wine is aged in oak too… you often end-up with very oaky tasting wines. For example,  these Northern California producers tend to have this flavor profile: Silver Oak and Caymus. Although, they may, or may not make their wine this way.

Block Harvest Vines by Area, Vinify and Blend?

Estate wineries that use this method produce better wines – period. Micro-terroir is a concept that is very real. Numerous factors can cause block variation in the fruit. These differences influence variable fruit characteristics: more acidity, riper, additional minerality, etc. The real talent is the winemaker’s palate and experience that can determine the appropriate blend to build a fine wine profile.

Age on the Lees?

This produces softer wines, but adds yeast, or butter flavors. I enjoy this character, even more in white wine. I think this is more of a personal preference consideration.

Ferment with the Full Grape Clusters?

This is often confused with Carbonic Maceration, a process used on inexpensive wines to add enhanced fruit, or “candy” (bubblegum) flavors. Full cluster fermentation is a much less intrusive process. This technique can add a deeper fruit character to the wine. I enjoy wines utilizing this process.

Include the Stems During Fermentation?

In the hands of a master winemaker, this can add a significant amount of interest to the wine – improving tannic structure and adding briarwood flavors. When not handled well, it can truly make wines undrinkable. For a winemaker, experimenting with this is like playing with fire.

Include Pressed Juice, or Only Free-Run Juice?

This decision can add a significant amount of cost to winemaking. Only a third to half the extracted fruit juice is typically free-run. After that is collected, the pressed juice steadily becomes thinner, less complex and more rustic, as more pressure is applied. For example, one ultra-premium winery I know, uses only free-run juice and sells their pressed juice to other wineries.

Filter, or Fine the Wine?

Historically, this was always  done. Today, with more modern wine producing technology, it has become a decision. Previously, this was required to remove impurities from the wine and improve clarity. Today, when omitted, it can offer a more highly textured character to the resulting wine.

Extend the Maceration?

Maceration is the process that uses the fruit’s own weight to break the skins and extract the free-run juice. Extending this process works well with the Cold Soak option discussed above. When done together, there are notable differences in the wine. These wines tend to be softer and more extracted. Very interesting wines can be produced by blending this with traditionally produced wine. In colder vintage years, this can help to offset the more rustic character of the wine.

Allow Residual Sugar to Remain and/or Add Fruit Juice After Fermentation?

These are more common options in the U.S. today. The Predator is an example of such a wine. Many of these are sold in big volume across the U.S. Personally, I do not like these wines. They give me a headache and are lousy paired with food.

Age in Stainless Steel Tanks, New American/French/Hungarian Oak, or Neutral Oak Barrels?

There is more experimentation with this idea today than in the past. Previously, you would never have seen red wines aged in Stainless. Today, I run into these more and more. Regarding the choice to use new, or neutral oak barrels… personally, I am not a fan of oaky wines. For me, the only advantage of new oak is to deliver the toasted flavors that will be discussed below. I think wines often taste better when aged in a less manipulated neutral oak style.

Use Light, Medium, or Heavy Toasted Oak Barrels for Aging?

Toasting the oak barrels in which wine is aged can add surprisingly pleasing flavors. My favorite flavors from this option are baking spice and cinnamon, but it can also impart other characteristics such as a smokey aftertaste.

Conclusion

Now that all this information is at your fingertips, what can you do with it? Of course, you can always impress your friends with your wine knowledge at dinner parties… or you could put it to good use investigating new wines you might enjoy. My personal favorite is discussing pros and cons of these techniques with winemakers when my wife and I are vacationing in wine country. However you put it to use, the understanding of how wine is made can truly add interest to your enjoyment of wine!

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Winemaker Interview – Sally Johnson-Blum of Pride Mountain Vineyards

Please follow my winemaker interview series! You can find this and other interviews at the following link:

http://winemakerinterviewseries.net/2015/03/01/winemaker-interview-sally-johnson-blum-of-pride-mountain-vineyards/

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