Tag Archives: Merlot

Cold Soaks and Color Extraction: My Observations

When the blog “The Wine-o-scope” posted this post, “The value of cold soaks for red winemaking” last week I was intrigued.  Having done extensive phenolic analysis for several years with a few different red varieties, I always like to see what other people are finding.   When I say extensive, I mean extensive.  At my previous job, we would run phenolic analysis by Adams-Harbertson assay every day for EVERY high end red during fermentation.  This was mainly Cabernet Sauvignon but also included Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  We also looked at Pinot Noir just for the fun of it but we determined that the rules that govern phenolic extraction in Bordeaux varieties just don’t apply to Pinot Noir and left that sleeping dog lie.  The timing of anthocyanin and tannin extraction still applies in Pinot Noir but I’ve found through my experience that the best analysis of Pinot Noir is still tasting it frequently.

Here is the reality of things based on real world, non research based experience.  In Bordeaux varieties a cold soak absolutely increases color extraction, particularly with extensive cap management, vs tanks with little to no cold soak.  It does not increase tannin extraction because tannins don’t really start coming into the solution of the wine until a reasonable amount of alcohol has built up.

Take a look at this Cabernet Fermentation below… (My apologies upfront for not being able to figure out how to import an Excel graph into my post).

You can see that at the point fermentation has started there is already close to 400 ppm of Anthocyanins extracted in the fermentation.  This is after a 6 day cold soak with significant cap management.  You’ll also notice that it is not until day 4 of fermentation (around 15 Brix) that we are able to detect any tannin extraction.  This could be ANY Bordeaux variety fermentation.  They all follow the same pattern.  Just for fun, here is a Merlot graph from the same vintage, same vineyard, and same general area of the vineyard with fermentation starting within a day of the Cab above.


Aside from noticeably less anthocyanin and tannin content at dryness (because it is Merlot after all) the pattern of extraction is pretty much the same.  Cab Franc is the same pattern as well.

Once one looks at enough of these numbers daily one doesn’t really even need the graph anymore.  You just know what’s going on.

As far as the dangers of cold soak go, yes you do see an increase in other organisms and yes, you do occasionally get the random “wild” fermentation if you push the cold soak over 5 days.  Also, if the fruit is not clean coming in the risk increases so sorting is essential to a clean and healthy cold soak.  Dry Ice is your friend at this point and should be used liberally.

To me the true value of the cold soak is the period you are guaranteed to be extracting color without extracting tannin.  Can you extract the same amount of color without a cold soak?  Of course, but be prepared to have much higher tannin levels at dryness as well since you will be working the cap harder during the time of fermentation when both are extractable.

That’s just my opinion and again, this was not in a research but in real winery experience with no controls.  Take it for what it is worth.

Concerning Merlot…

There seems to be a bit of buzz ramping up regarding Merlot in the blogosphere this week and I wanted to add my two cents.  I was recently talking to a colleague about my concerns about Merlot disappearing from Napa.  It seems every time you turn around someone else is pulling a Merlot vineyard to replant it to Cabernet Sauvignon.  I really like Merlot.  When it is done well, it is a beautiful thing.  However, during the PS era (pre-Sideways) there was quite a bit of very bad Merlot on the market since it was the “it” grape.  The quintessential red wine of America, one could almost look up “red wine” in the dictionary and have a picture and description of Merlot as the definition.   Post-sideways, it became the least desirable, least flashy workhorse of the wine world and sales plummeted for the next few years and vineyards began to pull it.

The pulling has slowed however it is becoming harder and harder to find good Merlot.  I personally feel that Cabernet needs a little bit of Merlot.  It fills in the middle and rounds out the edges.  There is a reason these varieties are blended together most of the time because they truly do complement each other.   The Sommelier Files brought up a great point saying “Thanks to the combination of soft tannins and finesse, the distinct flavors of … high-quality Merlots are also very approachable and fantastic with winter dishes.”   It’s a great variety and one that I would hate to see reduced further in the valley.  I have a fear that we as winemakers are going to wake up one day to a monoculture of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa and have no Merlot or Cabernet Franc to enhance it.

I’m not fortunate enough to own vineyard land in Napa but if I did, I’d be looking at all my neighbors planting Cabernet Sauvignon and probably would decide to go with Merlot.  If you are planting now one has to think about the market in 3-6 years and beyond.  I think Merlot is going to be the scarcer commodity in a few year’s time and it might be quietly coming back while no one is looking.


Merlot: The Red Delicious Apple of the Wine World

As I was perusing the produce section of my local Safeway this weekend I was trying to decide which fruit to get for the week.  I love apples so I decided to go that direction.  For the first time in quite a while I did not reach for the Pink Ladies or the Galas.  I went back to my old staple.  The apple that started my love affair with apples; the Red Delicious.  I found myself being momentarily self conscious.  I know I have friends that would be appalled that I chose the old standard rather than searching out a “more flavorful” or “less mainstream” variety.  Now I usually love my Galas in CA, Empires in NY, and love of all loves the King apple that I’ve only found in Hendersonville, NC but something about that shiny, dark crimson flesh with the white spots spoke to me.  There’s nothing wrong with the Red Delicious, it’s usually the sterlingly beautiful example of what a theoretical apple should be, absent of defects but also lacking in any really distinguishing factor outside of it’s color.  It’s moderately sweet, moderately acidic, and moderately crunchy which appeals to the mass majority of apple consumers.  I was instantly struck by how similar the Red Delicious apple variety is to Merlot.

Merlot is one of those varieties that people who are really geeky about wine love to disparage.  It doesn’t have the power of Cabernet or the delicacy and finesse of Pinot Noir.  It lacks the spiciness of Syrah and the depth of Malbec.  Merlot has been turned into, in so many people’s minds, the standard red wine just like the Red Delicious is the standard red apple.  However because Merlot possesses so many qualities that are widely appealing to the wine consuming masses it has some how been deemed uncool.

Go ahead, blame the movie “Sideways”.  No one can dispute that it helped push Pinot Noir from relative obscurity to mainstream obsession but did it really hit Merlot as hard as everyone said it did?  I was working in upstate NY when the movie came out and if I had a dollar for every customer who asked me if I had seen the movie I would be a wealthy woman right now.  All these people tended to stay away from Merlot in favor of Pinot.  But what about the regular average consumer?  The people who are casual wine drinkers? The “Mr and Mrs Cul-de-sac” as one of my marketing people loves to say?  What do they think of Merlot?  Signs point to mainstream America loving Merlot.

Consider the data that started me off on this apple/grape comparison put forth so eloquently by Steve Heimoff  in a recent post.

Here’s the direct quote from his Nielson Data breakdown that really got me thinking.

“Despite rumors of a “Sideways effect,” 45 percent of participants in Nielsen’s custom survey of Merlot drinkers never saw the movie, and 93 percent of those that saw the movie say it had no effect on their opinion of Merlot”

It is very easy, as avid wine drinkers, to assume that your tastes are the tastes of the rest of country.  On the contrary, avid wine drinkers (and if you’re reading this blog that probably includes you) really only make up around 20% of the wine drinking population, which in turn, is only 30% of the population of the country as a whole.  (Sources: Constellation’s Home and Habitat study in 2008 and the economics portion of the Mastering Wine Seminar at UC Davis a few weeks ago)

Now who feels like they are in the minority?

Turns out that like the Red Delicious apple, Merlot is hugely popular.  More so, it never really lost popularity with the core group of people who were consuming it.  So instead of looking down on Merlot, maybe we should rediscover it?  If you haven’t had a Merlot in a while, try one this week!  Maybe you’ll even try an Emma Pearl Merlot (SHAMELESS PLUG FOR MY OWN WINE).  While you’re at it if you’re one of those Foodie types that thinks the Red Delicious is a dull flavorless variety that is not to be consumed by educated palates, go buy yourself one of those too!  Let’s all branch out and try something that we haven’t in a while just to see if we had the wrong notion in the first place.

Let me know what you find!