Category Archives: Winemaking

Anything having to do with wine production

Challenging Personalities: Exploring the Tough to Grow Varieties*

Over the years, multiple varieties have made the news for one reason or another.  Some, like Gewurztraminer, suffer from difficult to pronounce names.  Others suffer from identity challenges. Chardonnay anyone?  Still more are actually difficult to get to a bottle in once piece without the high involvement of the dedicated growers to make quality wine.  Here are a few of those challenging personalities and how much work needs to be done behind the scenes to create our favorite wines.

Zinfandel – The Indecisive One

Zinfandel has a tough issue.  Is it a rose or is it a serious red?  Is it going to be high alcohol or more moderate? Consumers are often not sure because, inherently, this variety is naturally indecisive. It tends to ripen extremely unevenly so you can have huge spans of ripeness within the same cluster.  This makes picking calls very tough since the Brix can vary so much from cluster to cluster.  Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Company says he has seen clusters with 21 Brix berries and 28 Brix berries. “Part of the trick of growing Zinfandel is that you have to be comfortable with lack of some uniformity.”

Zinfandel also has very tight clusters and thin skins which makes it prone to rot. Twain-Peterson sees issues with this as well.  “The biggest year to year issue I see is the potential for botrytis where the wing lies on top of the main cluster. It ripens a little behind and can be heavy, […] weighing down on the rest of the cluster.” This pressure on the thin skins can cause the berries to burst and introduce botrytis into the clusters. “We battle this by almost always dropping wings on vineyards with higher historical botrytis pressure.”

Pinot Noir – The Drama Queen                                                                         

Pinot Noir has always had a reputation for being tough to grow.  You can look at it wrong and it will rot.  It is prone to diseases, sunburn, berry splitting, and nutrient issues.  Making high quality Pinot Noir is a labor of love but those growers who have taken it on have found ways to make it work for them.  In upstate NY, with high humidity and cool growing conditions Pinot Noir can be especially challenging. Thirsty Owl Wine Company winemaker and vineyard manager, Shawn Kime states “Intense canopy management and a prudent spray program are needed throughout the season long to allow grapes to reach their full potential. Vine balance is also extremely important. This doesn’t just mean not over cropping, but also not under cropping. Under cropped vines have too much vegetative growth and can be more susceptible to berry splitting and late season rot.”

Carneros Grower, Jennifer Thomson of Thomson Vineyards states “genetically many Pinot Noir clones display thin skins, tight clusters and compact berry formation which is a haven for pests and makes Integrated Pest Management essential for growing high quality Pinot Noir.” Grape berry moth, Mealy bug, and a host of other pests love Pinot Noir for its nooks and crannies in which to hide.  She tries to achieve “a balance between location, clone and seasonal characteristics” in order to grow great Pinot Noir.

Petit Verdot – The Goth

Envision walking into a vineyard that is otherwise happy and healthy except for one block which looks yellow, stressed, and spindly. Chances are that block is Petit Verdot.  It has a high propensity for over-cropping and generally doesn’t make very high quality wine unless it looks stressed.  Robert Mondavi Winery Vineyard Manager, Matt Ashby, points to extreme crop thinning to maintain quality.  “It will regularly grow 4 clusters per shoot, and it is a low vigor variety [with] very light pruning weights, so it will be out of balance for high quality wine if it is not thinned aggressively.  For Mondavi this means 1 cluster per shoot.” Another grower who chose to remain anonymous says “It’s a grey variety.  It always looks a little depressed when you are growing it properly.”

Rhone Whites – The Clique

This group of varieties tend to run in packs, meaning they are grown in similar locations, and they all have their own quirks. Viognier is an irregular setting variety which tends to only develop flavors towards the high end of the Brix scale and dump acid like last week’s leftovers anywhere outside of the Northern Rhone.  When asked about the challenges of Viognier, Stuart Bewley of Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino, CA, replied “The variety is prone to get mildew so you have to be on top of your spray or dust program.” Then he said he would not classify Viognier as the most difficult to grow. According to Bewley, Rousanne is far more challenging to grow.  “It shatters at set, it gets both mildew and botrytis and it is very hard to ripen.  It always comes in after Viognier or Marsanne.  Even Picpoul is easier to grow.”  Marsanne tends to set a heavy crop leading Bewley to come back and thin. “We must go through the blocks and cut off 50% to 75% of the fruit to make great wines.  The great thing is that these varieties make wonderful wines if cropped at a low yield.”

There are so many varieties in the world, it would be impossible to name all the difficult ones at one time. Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, and the Rhone Whites tend to have the greatest reputation for being finicky but there will always be growers out there willing to deal with their challenging personalities.

* This article was originally written by me and published on Snooth.com however I also really wanted to share it with my readers that may not have had the chance to see it there. This version is the un-edited original sent to Snooth.com and does not contain any omissions or editing from their version.

My Top Five Winemaking Nightmares

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I recently read this post from wine searcher entitled “Every Winemaker’s Nightmare comes true.”  The “Nightmare” mentioned was that someone slipped into the winery at night and opened the taps on 4 tanks which emptied them down the drain.  Honestly, this is pretty far down on my “nightmare” list.  So that got me thinking, what IS on a winemaker’s nightmare list?

Someone getting hurt

This is my top one.  As a winemaker you rely on your vineyard and cellar team everyday.  While we try to keep everyone as safe as possible there are significant risks in our industry.  My biggest fear is CO2.  We generate a ton of it during fermentations.  It is invisible, heavy, and you don’t see it coming until it hits you.  Anyone who has had the breath knocked out of them from CO2 has a healthy respect for it.  Every time I see a picture somewhere of some person standing over an open top fermentor on a board punching down I cringe.  I cringe just thinking about it.  It’s so stupid and dangerous! Likewise for vineyard and winery equipment.  Tractors and forklifts, occasionally mixed with dimly lit vineyards and parking lots during harvest when everyone is working all the time do not make for ideal conditions.  High Vis colors and vests are a must!  Seriously, this is top of mind for me at all times.  You have to keep your crew safe!

Microbes and Fruit Flies

Brett, Acetobacter, and film yeasts.  Malolactic bacteria in a crisp white.  That weird ropy stuff which is totally disgusting.  The Fruit flies which carry all the nasty things I listed above around the winery.  Now I am not a germ-phobe.  These things exist and that is ok.  My fear lies in not knowing where they are.  If you have contamination (and unless you have a completely new winery that has never seen a grape, you do), knowing where it is located is the first line of defense.  My fear is that there are places of contamination that I don’t know about so each new find is a small victory.  If you know where it is, you can take action to control it.

People Who Don’t Know How to Open Sparkling Wine Bottles Safely

This loosely ties into the safety section above but when you add more than 6 atmospheres of pressure held together by glass and a potential projectile plus a cavalier attitude, things can go south quickly.  Maybe it is because in my days of sparkling winemaking, I had so many bottles blow out their corks rapidly once you loosened the cage.  Maybe it is because when you are bottling sparkling wine from a Charmat tank you occasional find a weak bottle and it explodes sending everyone into a “hit the deck” type reaction.  Magnums were particularly loud and tended to take out the bottles next to them as well leading to explosions in rapid succession.  Safety glasses are a must in that situation. Anyway, back to random people opening sparkling wine bottles.  Most of the time people assume you need to remove the cage from the bottle to open it.  Not so.  As soon as you loosen the cage, you just took the safety off and it should be treated with respect and care.  Always properly chill the wine before opening.  Gently unscrew the wire and loosen the cage with your other hand and preferably a napkin holding the top of the cage.  At that point, you begin to slowly twist the bottom of the bottle while holding the cork AND the cage together at the top.  The cork should slowly push out from the pressure behind it with a quiet “Piffffff” not a loud POP!  Please do not wave around an uncaged bottle with a cork and, for goodness sakes, do not point it at other people or breakable objects!

Cellar Mistakes

Your dream starts like this.  You’ve just completed a masterpiece blend.  You and your colleagues taste it and all agree that it is the best wine that you all have ever been involved in.  The excitement is palpable.  Maybe it’s received one of those super high pre-bottling range scores from a well known critic (95-98 anyone?).  Maybe it’s going to shoot sales into the stratosphere? Maybe it will sell out in 1 week all to your wine club?

Mabye….? Oh wait, your cellar comes to say they actually just blended a key component of your amazing, earth shattering blend, into another variety from a completely different blend, maybe even from a completely different appellation rendering both components next to useless.

Maybe you’ve gotten the blend together successfully but someone in your cellar has been storing the transfer hoses next to a cooling tower that has Bromine in it for sanitation and your entire blend gets contaminated by TBA (similar smell to TCA “cork” taint) on it’s way to the bottling line.

And you wake up and breathe a sigh of relief that it was only a nightmare.

Natural Disasters

Earthquake anyone? This is a double worry with people getting hurt and your winery falling apart all at the same time.  Losing wine? Lowest priority at that point.

Polar Vortex? If you are in New York, as I am now, the winter lows are dropping dangerously close to the bud kill point for your varieties.  This can lead to reduced crops at best and dead vines at worst some of which may not show up until the following summer due to damaged vascular systems which are no longer able to pull enough water to sustain healthy growth.

Hurricanes during harvest? Nothing is guaranteed to turn healthy grapes to mush faster than driving wind and 12 inches of rain over a 48 hour period. Trust me.

Not fun…

Vandalism

Oh yeah that. Occasionally ( and I do mean occasionally) once or twice a year the thought of vandalism crosses my mind but not until after all of the above things have been mentally chewed over multiple times.  Honestly, it’s just wine.  It can be replaced. That’s why you have insurance.  Of all of them, this is probably the easiest to deal with because it is the least likely to happen particularly if you take precautions such as proper security measures.  This is really not very high on my list at all and if I was writing this without the inspiration from the post linked above, I probably wouldn’t have even thought to include it.  Just goes to show how a great headline can grab your attention.

 

 

 

Winemaker 2 Winemaker: Grant Taylor of Valli Wines

Grant Vineyard 2
This month’s Winemaker 2 Winemaker interview goes to the Southern Hemisphere to talk to Grant Taylor of Valli Vineyards in Central Otago, New Zealand.  Having been in the industry for 40 years, he is a wealth of information and I really enjoyed gaining his perspective on Pinot Noir, Central Otago, and the industry as a whole.

NC: You have been a part of Central Otago from almost the very beginning of the region.  What did you see in those early years that helped you decide that the area was ideal for Pinot Noir?

GT:  In the very beginning it wasn’t that we necessarily saw the region as ideal for Pinot Noir. Rather it was a great place to live in, grapes could be grown, wines could made and an exciting future could  be had doing both better each year and discovering a completely new region.  At first there were many varieties planted, however each year Pinot Noir consistently performed better than other varieties, I guess that was its way of saying “I like it here”, we listened and dedicated most of our efforts and experimentation towards it.

NC: So many people in the US think of New Zealand as only Marlborough but Central Otago is quite different from Marlborough.  What are the key aspects of this region that make it unique?

GT: The key difference between Central Otago, and not just Marlborough but all other NZ regions is climate. We have New Zealand’s only semi continental climate. Low humidity, long dry cool autumns mean very little disease pressure, we generally tend to harvest when we choose rather than because of pressure from weather or disease.  We can hang Pinot out and get physiological ripeness without high sugar levels. Through summer the warm days and cool nights mean we retain acidity.

NC: There are rumors that we’ve heard in the US that there are going to be established sub-regions of Central Otago soon.  Do you see this happening and do you think it’s a good idea for the region as a whole?

GT:  Central Otago has a number of very distinct sub regions.  They were established long before man arrived it is just a matter of defining them.  In Burgundy, there are consistent recognizable differences,  some cases in a matter of metres. If you look at a map you will see how far away Wanaka is from Alexandra, Gibbston is from Bendigo it is roughly 30-40 km between most  sub regions. The soils and climate are very different so its logical  that the wines are very different. It is almost irrelevant if it is good for the region, what is important is that it is good for the consumer, over time they will come to recognize  what style of Pinot each sub region offers and can choose accordingly. Most of us making wines from a single sub region who  state the sub region  on the label do so to give the consumer (to who it matters and there are more of those every day) more information. These sub regions as yet are not “legally” defined as there are yet a couple of lines to be drawn and this needs more time for the wines to tell us where these lines are, most however are naturally geographically defined.

NC: Pinot Noir has the reputation for being a difficult grape to grow and make great wine from yet you have a reputation for earning top awards for Pinot Noir.  What do you see as the keys to keep in mind when trying to grow and make great Pinot Noir?

GT: I do not necessarily think it is harder than any other grape to grow or make great wine from, it just seems a lot fussier as to where it performs well.  It responds to care and attention more in the vineyard than any other variety I have worked with so that’s where most of our effort goes.

NC: You make a Riesling as well for Valli Wines.  What are the typical characteristics for Central Otago Riesling? Are there challenges to growing Riesling in an area that is warmer than some of the others on the South Island?

GT: Rieslings are grown in all Otago sub regions and come in a wide range of styles depending on producer,  but to generalize the flavours tend to  pretty floral lime blossom,. sometimes a little stone fruit; white peach and nectarine when riper. As mentioned earlier because of the cool nights we tend not to respire acid as much as other regions, the key, or perhaps challenge is to balance the acidy with some residual sugar.

NC: You have a career which goes far beyond Central Otago to California and Oregon as well.  What have you brought away from these other areas that have helped you as a winemaker in NZ?

GT:  Beside the normal winemaking you learn along the way, one of the earliest and most important things learnt was the importance of place to the vine and its resulting wines. I was lucky enough to be working at Pine Ridge in Napa Valley in 1980 when Gary Andrus wanted to use the term “Stags Leap” on the label. We held many tastings in an attempt to define the appellation, the arguments were not only political but also about the individual sites, did the wine from a specific site have Stag Leapness? Is that a word? The whole exercise left a very strong impression/scar on the importance of place that I think drives my winemaking 35 years later.

NC: Is there a vintage in your career that you would like to experience again, knowing what you know now?

GT:  No, I always dream of the next one.

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

GT:  Again, it is the early things that leave the biggest impression.  Within my first month I turned a shiny, new 10,000 gallon refrigerated stainless steel tank (value; about 10 times my whole net worth then) into what looked like a gigantic version of a soda can someone had stood on.  At university they never tell you what happens to a tank if while you are pumping  wine out and about when 70% done you climb to the top to have a look and close the lid while still pumping.  Actually, I still blame the winemaker for having a sealed cap where there should have been a two way pressure relief valve, but no one else saw it that way.

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?

GT:  Make sure you are loving it, if you do not like where you are, find another winery [or] another region. It is not the industry. It is the situation.  It is a bit like a relationship.  Sometimes to stay in love, you need to move on.

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

GT:   Work in the vineyard

The winery is easy

The rest is balance

NC:  In addition to Valli, do you have any other projects that you are excited about right now?

GC:  Nothing else besides Valli, but there is plenty to be excited about there. Recently we acquired another 7 ha property in Gibbston. [It is] a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris so we now making Gibbston Gris and have a slightly different site in Gibbston to compare with our home block of Pinot Noir. Also, we are working more in the Waitaki Valley , North Otago, have been making Pinot from this region since 2004. There are a lot of active limestone soils in North Otago [and] now as well as Pinot Noir we are making small amounts of Riesling and Chardonnay and having a lot of fun understanding  (for the  second time), a completely new wine growing region. We are having a little foray into the single malt world having sent a container of our used barrels to Scotland for Whiskey aging, the next overseas trip will be to Scotland to check on the venture’s  progress.  You can’t drink only just  wine.

If you are interested in tasting Valli Vineyards wined in the US go to JJ Buckley.

NC:  Thank you so much Grant!