Tag Archives: Pinot Noir

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.

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!

 

 

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).
IMG_1344.JPG

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.

IMG_1345.JPG

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.