Tag Archives: Winemaking

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. 

Winemaker 2 Winemaker: Aaron Pott

AP headshot

I have had the pleasure of meeting Aaron Pott several times over the past few years out and about in Napa.  Each time his natural charisma and passion for life has impressed me and after a chance meeting in San Francisco in January, he agreed to be interviewed for this post.  Aaron has worked in many areas of the world after his education in Bordeaux, including Italy and Chile in addition to Napa.  He credits his mentor, Michel Rolland, with helping him the most along his career.  Among the esteemed wineries for which he is working are Blackbird, Fisher Vineyards, Jericho Canyon, Perliss (The Ravens), Greer, V22, Martin Estate, Adler Deutsch, Quixote, Como No?, Seven Stones and St. Helena Estate.  He and his wife, Claire, have started their own brand called Pott Wines and have their own small estate on Mount Veeder in Napa.

NC: How did you learn that you were a winemaker?

AP: My parents took me for the first time to Paris when I was nine year’s old. The first night in an old bistro I ordered a glass of milk. In halting English the waiter replied, “milk is for babies” and promptly brought me a glass of wine. This was the inception of the idea that wine was the thing that made one an adult and if I wanted to get there I would need this beverage. This lead me to study oenology at U.C. Davis and later to a master’s degree at the Univeristé de Bourgogne.

NC: Your website says that Michel Rolland was one of your greatest mentors. What was the greatest learning from him that has shaped your winemaking?

AP: Michel taught me many things. Most importantly, what ripeness is. It seems simple but it is really a complex construct. This he did by tasting many grapes with me.

NC: You have worked with some of the most famous names in Napa. How do you decide which clients to work with for your projects?

AP: I choose clients for two reasons, either I like them or they have great vineyards.

NC: For young winemakers starting out, what is the best piece of advice you were given along your career?

AP: Young winemakers need to realize how much work it takes to become a good winemaker. It is not something that happens quickly and requires a great deal of work and discipline.

NC: Please describe your winemaking philosophy in Haiku.

AP: The nectar of gods

Demands great grapes and terroir

Soar beyond the stars

NC: We work in an industry that is steeped in tradition and history. Some could say this makes our industry stuffy and boring. What is the most exciting aspect of the wine industry today, in your opinion?

AP:  I think what makes it interesting IS the history and the tradition. I would like to think that my wines would appeal to ancient Greeks as well as to people of today. People are always trying to make wine less stuffy but lets face it, it is the most amazing beverage that exists to it should be revered and worshipped!

NC: I completely agree with your philosophy to “Work Slowly, Taste Often and Travel Frequently” which you expressed to Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague back in 2012. How do you feel this has helped you improve as a winemaker?

AP: Working slowly makes great wine. Thinking about every detail and each step and how you move. I love the tantric nature of wine work.

“Wine is meant to be shared and enjoyed and I like to do both.”

NC: You have received numerous high scores, applause, and accolades and you are one of the most sought after winemakers in Napa yet despite it all you remain extremely approachable. How do you stay grounded amidst the laudations?

AP: I ask my youngest daughter what she thinks about me and I always find the truth there. Wine is meant to be shared and enjoyed and I like to do both.

NC: You and your wife work very closely together on your own project, Pott Wines. How do you balance the demands of being a flying winemaker and a business owner with the demands of being a family man?

AP: Luckily, I only work with clients in the Napa Valley so I am not far from my family. I think that family is an important part of the wine experience and I like to have even my little daughters help out during crush.

NC: Do you have any upcoming projects or dreams of projects that are new and exciting that you’d like to share?

AP: I have developed a vineyard for Danica Patrick, the racecar driver, and it is an excellent spot. I am looking forward to the release of this wine!

NC: That is so exciting! We look forward to it as well.  Thanks so much for answering my questions today!

To find more of Aaron’s wines check out his website here.