A little pretentious perhaps – but I believe necessary precursors to great wines.
The philosophical question is where does the winemaker fit into the framework which allows great wine expression? IF, as the fashion of the moment proclaims, great wine is made in the vineyard, then the winemaker can be considered incidental. Unfortunately wine happens to be made in wineries and the winemaker’s sensibilities fairly strongly controls vineyard expression.
I believe in the prime importance of a given vineyard site. Its location, climate, soil, aspect, drainage, air movement, fog, row direction, training methods and most important the vineyardist desire to create quality fruit. Close behind are its clones of Pinot Noir and their additional contribution to the quality potential from each vintage. Vintage variation expresses itself strongly between each district, each site and within clones within the site. Every vintage is different.
So what is the role of the winemaker? Simply to find the expressive core of each site’s fruit and to learn how to bring that expression into a recognizable form year after year. It takes imagination, requires considerable experience, a deft hand with technique and an openness to relearn from each vintage something known or forgotten or unknown. This complex tapestry of elements is what keeps the vocation alive for us day by day.
First, one must learn the optimum ripeness for each site to produce the starting flavors sought. This requires tasting other people’s wines from the vineyard, identifying desirable flavor potentials within those wines, relating those flavors to what you see in the fruit – or better yet, finding flavors with positive distinctiveness which we can accentuate. There are many vineyard trips to evaluate the fruit development and more importantly, to evaluate the person running the vineyard – their philosophy, experience, willingness to make necessary efforts for quality production. Finally, one must track the flavor development to define the picking window. Repeat for several years to find your own style. Always, always, always – it’s about flavor – we’re making the wine from fruit because of its flavor!
In the winery, we look to handle the grapes appropriately with minimal abuse consistent with delivered quality. I like to fully destem because of the tannin profile you obtain. I avoid SO2 at crush to retain greater fruit intensity and favor a rich diversity of wine micro-flora in the earliest stages of fermentation. Likewise the cold soak period favors other wine yeasts, allows for some non-alcoholic flavor extraction, improves color stability and moderates later fermentation rates. The use of a wide range of diverse wine yeasts allows accentuation of flavor, tannins, texture and mouthfeel in a reproducible manner. This becomes one of our main tools for re-enforcing and differentiating the typicity of expression from each site. Cooler fermentations keep more fruit in the wine and less in the winery’s atmosphere. Low stress fermentations avoid off-aromas. Low nutrient fermentations accentuate differentiation. Long maceration periods impact mouthfeel, texture and length. Here is where we create the complexity potential which is the hallmark of our wine style. All of these aspects need a level of tweaking depending upon the individual season. Herein lays the necessity for clarity of vision for each lot to reach its potential.
I particularly like the word ‘elevage’ as the essence of my job during aging. We are ‘raising’ the wine during this period. We’ve made critical barrel decisions with an eye to enhance desired flavor development – but the decisions of wood are made months before harvest and may need adjustments at the moment of barreling down. The role of oak in Pinot can hardly be attended to enough. Pinot loves oak. The flavors compliment each other wonderfully and herein is a seductive potential for imbalance. And ‘elevage’ is all about finding the wine’s balance. Finding the balance of overall fruit and oak flavors and sweetness. Finding the acid balance and creating the lingering length redolent of fruit while holding an appropriate line of oak and always finishing cleanly. The evolution of texture – losing the harshness of the grape tannins, integrating the structure and sweetness of the oak tannins while retaining the viscosity from the alcohol and yeast byproducts. This is a moving target through the passage of time and timing becomes important for the final balancing of the individual barrels into a blend expressing the looked-for typicity of the site, the richness and vivacity of the Pinot fruit / yeast combinations and the structure and length from appropriate barrel choices. Tie this in with bottling and release plans to present the wines at appropriate levels of development while retaining great aging potential and you have a vocation which does keep one involved.
Folks often chide me for not being enthusiastic enough about our wines. So let me explain. During the above period of two plus years (on average) I’ve been into the vineyards many times and made an irreversible picking decision. We receive the grapes and make irreversible handling and fermentation decisions. I’ve been into the bins during fermentation most every day and made an irreversible pressing decision. We go into what we hope will be an optimal barrel mix – and have to question the fit for many months as the wines evolve. We pick a mix of barrels to create the final lot – each barrel is an individual and each barrel tastes differently at that point and each taster reacts differently to those tastes at blending. The blends have to be evaluated not only for what they are at blending – but what they will be at release and what they may become at some ‘optimum’ age window. And all during the above period there have been points where each wine sample has been exceptional, then dull, then promising and finally – well decisions must be implemented and the final die cast and a bottle produced. If I’m successful – you are delighted in what you’re tasting – but forgive me, for I am not only tasting what is in our glass – but everything that might have been in our glass as well…