Category Archives: Winemaking

Anything having to do with wine production

Redefining Ripeness

Way back when I firstRiesling started my blog, I covered the concept of ripeness.  What is ripeness and what do different winemakers look at to determine ripeness?  That was back in 2010 and I thought it would be good to cover the topic again given the almost 7 years in between.  In recent years ripeness has become a very hot topic of discussion.  I was in a tasting very recently with one attendee focusing on alcohol primarily and considering high alcohol a fault.  I know several other people who look a less than 14% on a red wine and consider it equally negative as the person who considers that too ripe.  Personally, I like to focus on flavor ripeness but, particularly in upstate NY, one doesn’t always get to decide if your fruit is ripe when a picking decision is made.

I’ve found myself redefining what “ripe” means.  I’ve made quite lovely wines from Brix levels that wouldn’t even be considered for frequent (2-3 times per week) berry sampling in CA.  Now more than ever, I am convinced that the key indicators of grape ripeness are less to do with one or two individual components and much more to do with multi-faceted aspects of vine maturity and grape composition.  Sugar, acid, tannin, flavor, color;  there is no perfect quantity of each of these aspects.  The intersection of each component which drives a picking decision in the mind of a winemaker is purely driven by a stylistic focus.

What this means really is that terroir alone can only take fruit so far.  You hear many winemakers, including myself, saying that they focus on capturing the terroir of a site.  What I have come to understand is that, in reality, what we all mean is that we are capturing the terroir as seen through the lens of our own internal concept of quality and style.

“There is no perfect quantity of each of these aspects.  The intersection of each component which drives a picking decision in the mind of a winemaker is purely driven by a stylistic focus.” 

So what does this mean?  It means that terroir can be enhanced or crippled by the constraints placed upon it by the winemaker making the call.  If one’s key focus is sugar ripeness then, as winemakers, we may loose some of the delicacy and elegance that is found a lower Brix levels.  If low alcohol is the key driver, then the power and grace of ripe tannins may be sacrificed.  If we are waiting for ripe fruit flavors to develop in the grapes, very often we have already lost precursors which would create different complex aromas which could only be unlocked through the fermentation process.  What I’m saying is that multiple winemakers can get fruit from the exact same vineyard however the translation of the terroir will be different depending on that individual winemaker’s concept of what the terroir should give them.  Each can make equally beautiful wines from a great site but the personality of those wines may be widely different and that is okay.

“What I have come to understand is that, in reality, what we all mean is that we are capturing the terroir as seen through the lens of our own internal concept of quality and style.”

This should not be a new concept but I see and hear so many people being so hooked on a particular style of wine that they are unable to even consider, much less enjoy, a different style that may be contrary to their own visions of what wine should be.  However, that is what makes this profession amazingly diverse.  That is why winemaking is a craft and that translation of terroir is unique to each winemaker/vineyard pairing.

I believe, we, as winemakers must understand that our own interpretation of the terroir of a particular site is not the only interpretation. Although we may have been or are making beautiful wines from them, this does not mean that our definition of ripe for particular grapes is the only definition of ripe.  There is no absolute right and wrong.  There are only multiple shades of stylistic definition. That, to my mind, is the most interesting aspect of this profession.

Do you feel terroir is absolute?  Is it possible to have only one distinctive style that is the correct one for a specific site?  Join the discussion below!

 

Pressing Issues: Exploring a Small Portion of the Maze of Winemaking Decisions

To press or not to press? That is NOT the question. Rarely does anything in winemaking have an absolute however pressing is one of the few. Grapes must be pressed at some point in the process to release the juice or wine. However, even though grapes must eventually be pressed, it is the when, how and how much that are open to interpretation. What seems deceptively simple on the surface, when explored, reveals a maze of different combinations and outcomes.

White wines are generally pressed prior to fermentation. When pressing prior to fermentation several things must be considered. If the fruit is in excellent condition, hand-picked, and still intact, whole cluster pressing may be the best option. This can be accomplished quite nicely with a basket press or with a more modern bladder press. The latter has the added benefit of being able to control the amount of oxygen that comes in contact with the juice. In the case of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, this is a critical part of the style. By completely blanketing the press itself and the press pan with dry ice (CO2) the juice can be kept in a reductive state (non-oxidative). This, in turn preserves the high toned thiol compounds (think grapefruit and passion fruit aromas) that define this style post fermentation. The recent rise of orange wines with skin contact during fermentation are the obvious exception to this rule. For these wines, as well as other white wines where some skin contact is desired, it may be better to destem and lightly crush the fruit. This breaks open the berries and allows the skin and juice to mingle together, resulting in additional flavor compounds and tannins from the skins to be released into the juice prior to pressing.
Red wines are usually pressed during or post fermentation. The timing depends highly on the style of wine that one is trying to create. Earlier pressing during fermentation will minimize tannin extraction and lead to a lighter style with gentle structure while waiting until fermentation has finished will generally result in a fuller bodied, more structured wine. This is, of course, subject to the general characteristics of the grape variety and vineyard. When I was making Cabernet Sauvignon from Lake County, I found that earlier pressing helped control the rather aggressive tannins that the volcanic soils of the area seem to generate. If one can control the tannin extraction throughout the fermentation to allow the wine to go dry on skins without over extracting, the resulting wine ends up being both well-structured and generous without being hard or tough.  

 

The decision of how long to allow grapes to sit on their skins prior to pressing is another important one in the pressing process. In more neutral varieties such as Chardonnay, a small amount of skin contact can add extra palate texture and dimension. However, more aromatic varieties, especially Viognier and Gewurztraminer, tend to have higher tannins in the skins so in these cases additional skin contact could bring in bitterness which will then have to be fined out later through PVPP, Gelatin, or Isinglass treatments. For Rosé, the amount of time the juice spends on skins directly correlates to the depth and intensity of color in the wine as well as the resulting texture on the palate. Depending on the color content (anthocyanin content) of the variety, this time on skins can range from a few hours to a day or more. Red wines which have gone dry on the skins can be pressed immediately or they can be left for extended skin maceration with further integrates the tannins and middle palate texture. Each offers benefits to the final style of the wine but extended skin contact can be somewhat risky since the wine is no longer as protected from spoilage organisms, such as vinegar or lactic acid bacteria, as it was during fermentation.  

 

The pressure at which to press can influence the style of the wine as well as the total volume in terms of wine yield per ton of grapes. In Traditional Method Sparkling wine production pressing is one of the first critical steps in defining the character of the final wine. Particularly in the cases where red grapes such as Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier are being used, the time on skins prior to pressing is of the upmost importance. Grapes must be pressed quickly to avoid color or tannins from bleeding into the juice because these aspects can negatively impact the final wine quality. While bladder presses will generally only go to 2 Bars of pressure, some basket presses will climb up to 5 Bars. On red wines these high pressure press wines can be extremely interesting with oily textures and thickly structured palates. In general, high pressures such as this only represent 1% or less of the yield of a ton of fruit but it can add interesting elements to the total wine when used. 

 

Press cuts are another point of differentiation for wine styles. A press cut is a separation of juice or wine during the pressing process. For wineries with old style screw presses, the option of press cuts does not exist, however wineries with basket presses or more modern bladder or screw presses have the option to take as many cuts as they would like. Many Champagne houses only use the first gentle pressing, called free run juice, and perhaps part of the light press but usually they do not use the heavier pressing juice to minimize undesirable roughness in the juice. The defining points between free run, light press, and heavy press depend highly on the variety, the style of press used, and the desires of the winemaker. They can be based on pressure, time in the cycle, yield, pH, which climbs with increasing pressure, taste, or some combination of these.  

 

While all wines have been pressed at some point, the differentiation in style and quality comes from the creative combination of the decisions made from the options available. With so many different variables, it is understandable how two winemakers with similar fruit from the same region can make radically different wines.

Originally written for and published on Snooth.com. 

Ningxia Winemaker Challenge: Part 2 – Post ML

It’s been a week since I returned from China after flying over to check on my wine there.  This trip was much faster than my previous trip and I packed quite a bit more into the 8 days that I spent there.  My first three days were spent in Beijing, where I taught a WSET Diploma Unit 5 class for Fongyee Walker’s Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting.  One of those days I took some time for myself and toured the sights of Beijing, including a trip to the fantastic Great Wall of China at Mu Tian Yu and the Summer Palace.

  
 

The Summer Palace

 
After my first few days in Beijing, I spent 4 days in Ningxia.  My first order of business upon landing in Ningxia was to find out how my wine looked.  Remember, last time I tried it only one tank was pressed off and the second tank was pressed on the day I flew back home.  I hadn’t tried it at all since Malolactic had finished and I had no idea how it was adapting to the barrels.  I didn’t even know what shape the used barrels were in when the wine was added to them.  I had left detailed instructions on how to soak the used barrels using a Potassium Metabisulfite and Citric acid solution and could only pray that everything would be ok.  Fortunately, everything looked very good.  The wine is taking to the new barrels quite well and to my surprise this is the treatment that appears to be helping the wine the most.  My DAMY barrels are showing beautifully!  Having never used DAMY in the past I was skeptical at first but I was able to taste some Ningxia wines from 2014 which were being aged in new DAMY barrels and this profile seems to help support the Ningxia terroir quite well.  The used barrels are all French and are helping the wine as well however they are old enough that very little oxygen transmission is taking place which is leaving the wine a little tight and reductive at this point.  Nothing a quick rack wouldn’t get rid of however.  The portion that I left in tank, to hedge my bets a bit just in case the barrels were a disaster, is clearly not as mature as the wine in barrels but it has retained its fresh, fruitiness which should add a nice component to the blend.  Overall, I’m quite happy with where the wine is at the moment.  When I come back in the summer, I’ll be able to get a clear picture of what I want to blend for the final competition.

  

Mr Wu, the winemaker of Lansai Chateau, gets barrel samples for us to taste


 The rose needed some work to be prepped for bottling.  All of the Ningxia wines tend to have quite seedy tannins, even if the wines had very little seed contact including the rose.  I did a fining trial and also bumped the SO2 a bit so that the winery could bottle it shortly.  I’m interested to see how it turns out and also how it sells since the Rose trend that has caught the rest of the world has yet to catch on in mainland China.  My friend, Jose Hernandez, was also in Ningxia at the same time so we were able to tour about a bit and go see some of the other wineries in the area including Chandon Ningxia, Jiabeilan, and a quick visit to Yuan Shi both for their lab services and tasting the 2015 vintage from barrel.  The visit to Jiabeilan was quite fun since I was able to meet the legendary Ningxia winemaker, Zhang Jing.  She was very open, answered questions, and allowed us to taste all of her wines including a very interesting Chardonnay that had the acid of a cool climate but slightly tropical fruit of a warmer climate.

  

Jose and Zhang Jing of Jiabeilan


 My partner winery in Ningxia, Lansai Chateau, is almost finished.  They have done quite a bit of work since I was there in the fall and it is easy to see how much of a destination they are planning it to be.  The guest rooms are almost finished as is the separate kitchen and the Chinese gardens.  Soon there will be tasting rooms and a restaurant available to allow people to visit and enjoy the wines where they were made.  The winery has been designed to be a showplace and I’m sure it will live up to that hope with every detail put in place.

The entryway of Lansai Chateau with Helan Mountains in the background

 

The garden of Lansai Chateau under construction

 
 After leaving Ningxia, I went back to Beijing to have dinner with our Constellation representative, Berny Yang, more sightseeing including the Temple of Heaven and the Pearl Market, and teach another class for Dragon Pheonix Wine Consulting, this time on Constellation and branding of the Robert Mondavi family of wines. Jose and I also got together with Grape Wall of China writer and Canadian expat, Jim Boyce, to go on a wine sales tour of Beijing.  We visited a general supermarket, specialty supermarket, high end wine shop, and casual wine shop to get a sense of what the market looked like in Beijing, how wines were being sold and what was trending.  See last week’s post on the China wine market for more information from that tour.

All in all it was a very successful trip and I look forward to my next trip during the summer.

 

Tiles on the Temple of Heaven