Ningxia Winemaker Challenge: Part 1 – Harvest 2015

 Every now and then I like to push myself out of my comfort zone just to keep myself from being too comfortable in any single situation.  This trip was so far out of my comfort zone, I wasn’t even in the same ballpark with it anymore.  I did not know what to expect and since the details of what would happen when I arrived were quite fuzzy, I was going on pure blind faith that everything would be taken care of.  I shouldn’t have worried at all.   This was an experience like none that I have ever been a part of.  The first few days were spent in the company of my fellow Challenge winemakers, 48 of us in all.  As a group, we represent almost every major winemaking country, with varying experiences, languages, and careers.  Everyone was super friendly and, as is usually the case with winemaking types, extremely passionate about wine and grapes.  I had great conversations during these first days where we toured the Ningxia Provence by bus, visiting several wineries as well as our vineyard that we would be working with.

 The selection ceremony came and each winemaker was paired with a partner winery and selected a vineyard block.  This was done by random selection.  I was extremely lucky with my pick.  I am paired with a winery called Lansai.  The winery itself is small by local standards but elegantly designed and stays true to the spirit of China with very traditional architecture, statues and reliefs of mythological and symbolic Chinese figures cranes, lions, birds, and of course the dragon, which is the most prominent of the symbols and was chosen to bring power to the winery. Even though the winery is not finished it has a powerful feel to it, as though the building stands in comfortable harmony with the land even though it makes such a strong statement on the landscape.

I decided to pick on Friday, September 25th, earlier than most of my contemporaries but there was 3 days of rain coming the next week and I had no time to waste given that I was flying home on October 3rd.  If there is one thing I know from my years of winemaking, it is that 3 days of rain does not improve anything in wine quality that close to harvest.  I was able to sort quite strictly at both the cluster and berry level. Ten percent of the fruit did not make the cut.  The resulting juice was easy to work with and extracted quite nicely without the use of enzymes which so many people seem to rely on for fermentations.  I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find the winemaking supplies that I normally use in the US, but it turns out that the suppliers have great representation in the region and I was able to find everything that I needed.  The winery is very well equipped with both heating and cooling capabilities on all the tanks, a luxury which I have not had previously.  The analysis was good from the sorted fruit and I am very happy with how the wine turned out.  I was able to press off one tank at dryness before I left and am very pleased with the texture of the tannin.  The seeds were quite green still so I wanted to minimize any harsh extraction while still providing great structure for the wine.
 I had other great adventures while making the wine.  I tried a Durnian fruit for the first time, and probably the last because the smell was almost too much for me to take.  I celebrated the Chinese holiday, Middle Moon, with my Chinese host family who have welcomed me in with open arms and have supported my efforts for making the best quality wine with amazing enthusiasm.  I have sampled much of the local food, minus anything spicy, and can report that it is delicious.  In particular, I am in love with the egg based Chinese crepe that is served for breakfast here.  I have already found a recipe and if it is successfully similar I will share it.

I returned from China yesterday and although I am a bit jet lagged still, I am happy that I have been able to participate in this incredible journey.  I have left the wine in the capable hands of the Lansai winemaker, a young man named Mr. Wu, with detailed instructions on what to expect in the next few months before I head back to Lansai in February.  All I can do is hope for the best and continue to make the most out of this incredible experience.

Confessions of a Wine Yeast Wrangler

I have a confession to make publicly.  I am a Yeast Wrangler. In every fermentation, every harvest, I try to get inside the minds of these tiny fungi and discern what they want to eat, how they would like to be treated, and what temperature they would like their environment to be. They make the wine and winemakers try to keep them happy. They are like the ultimate prima donna who refuses to work unless everything in their environment is to their liking. If something is out of place, they immediately let you know by sending off Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S), which smells like rotten eggs, to voice their displeasure. If their needs are still not met they will shut down and die off resulting in a stuck fermentation. If one considers that winemaking is the physical act of converting sugar into alcohol and Carbon Dioxide (CO2), then I am a yeast wrangler and they are the winemakers.

In light of this, the selection of the strain of yeast or yeasts that will be conducting the fermentation is critical. Next to the date of harvest, it is one of the most impactful decisions a winemaker will make over the course of a wine’s life. Yeast can control alcohol levels, fruit emphasis, and style. They can also influence mouthfeel, acid levels, and Malolactic (ML) bacteria growth. Much of the later part of the life of a wine can be enhanced or hindered by the choice of yeast at the beginning. To that end, there are nearly endless choices available to a winemaker to choose for fermentation including “native”, selected or cultured strains, and a few options in between.

Going “Native”

Using the indigenous yeasts found in the vineyard and winery can be a double edged sword. On the positive side, they can add serious complexity and mouthfeel to a wine. They already exist in the winery therefore they don’t have to be purchased, which is helpful since the cultured strains can be pretty expensive. The downsides are they can be very difficult if the native strain is not a strong one, if the fruit is not perfect, if the nutrients they need are not carefully doled out, if the potential alcohol is too high, and if there are other yeast or bacteria strains in the fermentation which the dominant native strain does not get along with. These risks can be mitigated if one knows the reactions of their native strains well and knows their vineyards well also. There are now many examples on the market of excellent native fermentations including the Franciscan Cuvée Sauvage Napa Valley Chardonnay and all the selections of the delicious Bedrock Wine Company in Sonoma, CA. It should be pointed out here however that most “native” strains are the strain of yeast a winemaker may have purchased in a previous year that has still been hanging out in the winery or which dropped in from a cultured yeast fermentation from a neighboring tank.

Seeking Some Culture

Cultured yeasts are extremely widely used and many strains which we would consider cultured now were isolated as native strains from different places around the world. One of my personal favorite cultured Pinot Noir yeasts is RC212 which was isolated in Burgundy and named for the famed Romanée-Conti vineyard. Cultured yeasts offer some insurance against stuck fermentations due to high alcohol and have known characteristics such as nutrient needs, foaming potential, or H2S production so a winemaker is better able to keep them happy from the start of the fermentation to the finish. Beyond that, some cultured yeasts are bred for specific characteristics such as high Thiol production (think guava and grapefruit flavors of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc), alcohol tolerance of 16% or higher, or high polysaccharide production which adds to mouthfeel and tannin perception. If you have enjoyed a glass of wine from a larger producer chances are good that it was produced using some strain of cultured yeast.

Best of Both Worlds

Of course, in winemaking as in life, things are not always black and white. Sometimes a winemaker wants the complexity and character of a native fermentation but the predictability of a cultured strain. This can be achieved through two main ways. The first option is to allow “native” yeasts to start the fermentation and then part way through add a smaller dose of a cultured strain to ensure that the fermentation will finish. The second option is to purchase a mixed strain such as Viniflora’s Melody which is a 60:20:20 blend of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Kluyveromyces thermotolerans, and Torulaspora delbrueckii. These mixes theoretically mimic what would be found in a native fermentation except the strains are chosen that will complement each other. This ensures the different strains will not end up in the yeast version of Gladiator, with no single strain winning the fight to the death.

Regardless of the yeast option chosen it is critical that those strains remain happy and healthy throughout the fermentation and that is where the yeast wrangling part of a winemaker’s job comes into play. They have similar needs and, while some require more coaxing than others, both can adequately do the job if all those needs are met. It is harvest time now in the Northern hemisphere so for the next two months anyway you can find me roping fermentations into line and figuring out what each tank of yeast wants.

Originally Written for and Published on on 9/17/2015

Winemaker 2 Winemaker: Ed Killian of Souverain and Killian Wines

Ed Killian 2Few people have influenced my career and winemaking philosophy as greatly as Ed Killian.  He is one of the unsung heros of California winemaking with an unassuming style and relaxed fun loving nature who year after year manages to craft amazingly beautiful and concentrated wines without ego or guile that can be so frequent in our industry.  I had the privilege of working with Ed for three and a half years of my time in California.  I say working with because even though I reported to him, he never made me feel that I was anything less than an equal partner in our winemaking for Souverain.  He remains to this day, one of my favorite people and I am delighted that he agreed to be interviewed for this story.  If you haven’t tried his wines then you should definitely seek them out.  We recently caught up and opened one of our wines, the Souverain Winemaker’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 which was spectacular!

NC: I remember from working with you that you had originally intended to be a vet. What made you decide to move into winemaking instead of deciding to go to veterinary school?

EK: At the time, I though winemaking was an avocation and vet medicine was a real profession. Coincidentally, both were taught at UC Davis, so I applied to both schools the same year. I got into the Food Science dept., but not the vet school (which was much more competitive) and rest is history.

NC: Did you have a person or people in your career you felt were instrumental in inspiring your personal winemaking style?

EK: Since I jumped into a small winery as winemaker after only 3 years of lab work, I didn’t really have a close mentor. But we did have a fairly close-knit group of winemakers in the area that met and tasted quite frequently and shared ideas, so I guess that’s where I formulated most of the ideas and techniques I like today. I was also quite experimental by nature, so always had various trials going every year to sort out different ideas.

NC: You have become known for making fantastic Chardonnay in your career. Why did you focus on this variety and what do you feel sets your style apart from other Chardonnays on the market?

EK: I’ve always liked the variety’s ability to morph and react to both growing conditions and winemaking inputs. It’s sort of a “winemaker’s wine”. I loved white Burgundies and their combination of rich, honeyed fruit often complexed by notes of oatmeal and smoke. So most of my experimental efforts centered on yeast strains, ML inoculation techniques, skin contact and solids manipulation. Today I promote slower, slightly stressed barrel ferments with moderate lees retention that generated a more richly endowed spectrum of tropical fruit, integrated toast, creamy mouth but with low diacetyl impact from co-inoculation with ML bacteria.

NC: You are now building your own brand, Killian, in addition to your work on Souverain which was recently acquired by Gallo. How difficult is it for you to balance your time between the two?

EK: Fortunately right now the Killian Chardonnay is quite small at around 300 cases, and is made at a local winery which takes care of all the work based on my protocols. But the big help is the day to day business aspects are being watched over by my wife Jean so I can focus on the day job. So it’s working so far. There will come a time when some tough choices will have to be made.

NC: What are your biggest challenges as a small brand? Do you feel that you have an easier time or a harder time since you have been the face of Souverain for so many years?

EK: Actually, having been in the industry for over 30 years has made it easier because of the many relationships I have in the market, and having been a national brand winemaker for 24 years lends some credibility so when I approach a market, I’m not just the next hobbyist that wanted to go pro.

NC: I know you have Grenache planted in your yard. Do you see yourself expanding into Rhone varieties for the Killian label?

EK: I would love that! But right now I only have 103 vines that are more than enough when it comes to personally pruning and picking them. We just harvested the 2015 vintage of what we fondly call “Black Dog Red” after our late Kelpie. It makes one barrel of wine, so to go commercial, somebody other than me is going to have to plant the rest of the hill behind my house!

Ed Killian 1

NC: Is there a vintage in your career that you would like to experience again and why?

EK: That’s a hard question, but perhaps my first vintage making wine at Lambert Bridge Winery. The harvest was early and fine, but the memorable part was how much fun it was to actually be making commercial wine with just me and two other guys. We were so passionate about it and into every aspect. It was almost like making backyard wine with friends – we just had a fantastic time!

NC: What was one of the most memorable winemaking mistakes you ever made that you still think about to this day?

EK: Probably deciding that a 24-48 hr. skin contact on Chardonnay was a good idea. Made for pretty heavy handed wines up front that died quickly over time. Most of the many other mistakes were things that resulted in difficulties for me (like being covered in grape must) rather than having an impact on wine quality.

NC: Can you describe your philosophy on winemaking in haiku?

EK: That’s a question I think only you would ask! I respect the primacy of the grape quality, because as we say “great grapes make great wine”, then the reason why we do it –hence:

Autumn grapes hang ripe

Expect the best wine from them

Sipping is reward

NC: If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable piece of knowledge or experience that you pass on?

EK: Pay most of your attention to the big drivers of quality before you bury yourself in the weeds of minutia.   Then be decisive.

NC: If you had to pick a favorite wine region (outside of the one you are in of course) where in the world would it be?

EK: Most likely somewhere in the south of France. I love the flavorful blends of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, etc., etc.

NC: Where can my readers find your Killian’s Chardonnay?

EK: National distribution is small and largely centered in Colorado and So Cal. The best location is to tap the website at