Here we go again. The seasonality of producing wine is one of its most attractive elements. As a former Donelan intern once said “it’s a grape’s world and we’re just living in it.” Buds have broken, shoots and leaves are extending (at great speed with this heat!), and another vintage is on its way. Here we go.
At bud break vines use stored energy in the roots and trunks to support new leaf and shoot growth. One interesting note about vine buds is that the buds bursting this spring were actually formed last year. And in those buds there exists already 5-7 leaves and – generally speaking – two cluster primoridia, the structure that will become flowers, fruit, and then the whole cluster. This is why pruning is so critical, it sets the stage for the coming year’s yield since the buds already contain leaves and clusters.
There is much to learn from bud break. It sets the stage for the timing the whole season. It is also a time to learn about temperature nuances in our vineyards. Cold air in the spring drains to low points and we often see a difference in the emergence of leaves and shoots across our hilly vineyards. The different timing can impact the evenness of ripening at the end of the season. As a result we will create segments in the vineyards based on the variation in bud break. Another way to capture variance and make sure that each vineyard section is ripened to a point of ultimate quality.
As this season begins it sets the industry into its season long fret about quality. The north coast of California has received trace amounts of rain from January through April. All this means that soils are relatively dry and that water stress is likely to be higher earlier this year than it has been since 2007. Earlier water stress tends to improve overall wine quality.
The warm temperatures this Spring have led to a slightly earlier than average bud break and I expect (if things continue as they have) an earlier flowering. This will mean harvests coming starting in early September (instead of mid-Sept) if not late August (!) and all of harvest wrapping up (all fruit off the vine) before mid Oct. Of course we’ll have to wait for flowering to occur to say definitively. This favorable weather tends to support good fruit set and cluster number appears to be average to high. All this means we could be looking at average to above average yields with high quality growing conditions.
Now, if it were to get cold and rain in early May all bets are off. Thus far though, knowing our vineyards and knowing vines, we are stepping out with our best foot forward toward another high quality vintage.
In this continuing series of harvest images, here are a couple sights in the cellar from pressing red fermenations of Syrah and Pinot Noir. The process is fairly straightforward, use a pump to drain any wine that comes freely from the tank.Then, to unlock the rest of the wine still soaked in the skins, we must get inside the fermenters and dig out the fermented grapes, place them into our press, and gently squeeze the remaining wine.
All of this takes several hours per tank (thanks to all the necessary cleaning!) and generally one yields about 2.5 barrels per ton of grapes fermented. We are starting to fill up the cellar now!
During fermentation, the massive production of carbon dioxide sends the skins and stems we leave in red wine ferments floating to the top (pictured left). All those elements have goodness that we want to extract from them and as a result we need to work to submerge and mix them with the warm Syrah, or Pinot, or whatever it is. One could use a pump to pull from the bottom of a tank and spray the wine over the skins, or one could “punch down” the stems with a long plunger. We do both.
Standing above the fermentation you simply work to puncture the “cap” floating on top and submerge all those great skins. During the peak of the fermentation this is much more difficult than toward the end when the carbon dioxide production as slowed considerably. We have also posted a video here of this process.
Winemakers, what a life we live and what a job we have. As harvest approaches we hope to continue to use this platform to help you understand exactly what it means to “make” wine. Do we really just take Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, or Syrah, or whatever, crush it and let it go? Well, kind of; but like anything there is so much more that goes into it.
Would you believe that tasting verticals, the same wine over several vintages, helps you make better wine? At Donelan we believe “the best wines are not made but discovered and we take pride in the privilege of distilling for your pleasure the greatest qualities and natural variations in a vineyard and a variety.” Huh? Basically, we believe you need great fruit and you need to work to understand that fruit. We work with 14 different vineyards, make 4 single vineyard Syrahs (and maybe a Pinot soon!), and it is imperative to understand those vineyards.
So how do we do this? Many ways of course, but one way is to occasionally revisit the wine’s history. Enter tasting verticals which help a winemaker think about the “big picture” of a terroir prior to harvest. Then applying that taste information to the vintage standing on our doorstep: 2012.
Below is the Cote-Rotie-inspired Kobler Family Vineyard Syrah, 2003 through 2010. Continue reading
I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a winemaker and while our profession contains many responsibilities that are obvious, some nuances are not very clear. Basically we are responsible for cultivating Syrah and shepherding yeast and bacteria into transforming that fruit into a wine that gives people pleasure. That sounds simple enough, but along this path there are so many variables that can influence the way a wine tastes, and the way a wine tastes is a key part of what delivers – or not – pleasure! Therefore I believe an integral part of “winemaker” is an abiding passion for understanding new nuggets of info that either corroborate current thinking, compel changes to current thinking, or engenders new thinking so that we are always working to understand the key variables in a wine’s distinction. Put another way: put aside you ego and stay on top of your game!
One way we do this is to spend time every few months “geeking out:” flipping through peer reviewed journals. One less obvious job of the winemaker is to identify the most important variables of the transcendent process of winegrowing, explore the ones that can shift the way a wines tastes the most, and pay a lot of attention understanding those decisions. A greater understanding of what causes differences helps us to identify vineyard and cellar components that are more likely to produce different wine, even in the same vineyard. Then we can work both to capture and control variance in quality which empowers us to only select the best of the best.
For example, shallow soils in one section of a vineyard that hold less water will have a Continue reading
“What exactly are you doing in the cellar this time of year” is a frequent question received from fans. It is true that once our Syrah or Grenache or Pinot or Chardonnay head to barrel we trust all that is left to do is wait and blend. Blending surely is something we spend a lot of time doing when we are not visiting our loyal customers during the off-season! And while vineyard visits have begun in earnest for 2012, cellar duties are largely limited to the realm of quality control.
Our Assistant Winemaker extraordinaire Joe Nielsen has a regular program of barrel and lot sampling set up to eye the progress of our wines. There are several easy measurements we can make that act as proxies to potential problems we would want to know about. The principle of these is a rise in Volatile Acidity (VA). VA is collection of different aromatic compounds, the primary being acetic acid, or in lay terms: vinegar. Most spoilage organisms…wait, let me explain Continue reading
I have worked with Syrah most of my career, and one of the remaining unanswered questions: what is the origin of people adding Viognier to Syrah. Most responses correctly explain that adding Viognier to Syrah has its roots in Cote Rotie of the Northern Rhone where they are allowed to add up to 20% Viognier to Syrah (cofermented). Rarely though, do you find an explanation as to why they ever started the practice in Cote Rotie in the first place! That is what I am after for those of us in Sonoma County.
“But Tyler,” you say, “they do it because it adds a floral note to the wine and rounds out the mouthfeel, increasing the complexity and hedonism of the wine.” Of course, but how on earth did they ever discover that? Why would someone add a white variety to a red? Wouldn’t it dilute the color quality?
As it turns out, adding Viognier can actually help the color. This is because most red wine has greater color intensity than it ought to given the concentration of color compounds found in the wine. We know now that colorless compounds called cofactors bind and stack in between colorful compounds called anthocyanins to increase the intensity of the color that meets your eye. And while white grapes are missing anthocyanins, they have plenty of cofactors in their skins which – one could argue – will enhance the color intensity. Pretty cool.
But of course they didn’t know this back when the practice of adding Viognier to Syrah
began. In fact I cannot find solid evidence of when the practice even started but suffice it Continue reading
I once heard it said that if you want your heartbroken make Pinot Noir. I think the wine’s delicacy is a thin veil over vineyard quality and skilled management. Winemakers repeatedly give people the impression that Pinot Noir is one of the hardest grapes to grow and produce. How true is this? Is Pinot hard to make? I don’t think so, with caveats.
As a plant physiologist turned winemaker, I tend to strip understanding of a thing down its core then build up from there. Pinot Noir is still a grapevine like any other grapevine and there are certain vineyard aspects that we know contribute to higher quality wine: cool-ish climates (cool relative to normal ripening temperatures for a variety – cool for Syrah is warmer than cool for Pinot Noir), free draining soils, avoiding climatic extremes, etc. These all apply to Pinot Noir and if you find yourself in a vineyard with these broad characteristics you are more likely than not to produce quality fruit. And with Pinot the basic axiom for all quality wine is true: great fruit can be ushered into great wine.
Beyond these basics, it has been my experience that Pinot is quite easy to work. Flavors arrive in the grape early and taste great, it tastes great when fermenting, tastes great when
aging, isn’t as prone to stinky/savory notes like Syrah that need time in barrel to resolve, doesn’t tend to go through “dumb” periods in barrel or bottle, and generally requires little intervention. Making Pinot doesn’t require frequent handling and intervention; it really is a watch and wait wine.
But if we believe in democracy, don’t we believe that the majority is correct at least some of the time? And if so, then why do so many people think Pinot is hard to make unless it is actually difficult to make? As noted above, I think the answer is that Pinot’s delicacy is a thin veil over site quality and deft management. You can be exposed – and thus heartbroken – very easily by Pinot Noir. This is for a couple of reasons. First, true believers in Pinot tend to hold the wine in such high regard because when it is great it is ethereal. All of the best wines of my lifetime have been either red or white Continue reading
“Those who utilize sensory science make better wine.” I recently recalled this matter of fact phrase once made by my sensory science professor during a lecture.
What did she mean by that, and why did she phrase it in that “this is truth” manner? Was she suggesting that if you wear lab coats, conduct consumer preference studies, and accumulate descriptive analysis to help understand wines, then we will make better wine? I don’t think so. Besides, that methodology helps you make a type of wine, not necessarily better wine. If the statement is true in that sense, it would only apply to wineries of such a size as could afford to conduct sensory science studies, and I don’t think that was the implication.
I think the statement cuts to the heart of this question: What is sensory science? What are the principles of sensory science and how can we apply these principles to our small, Continue reading
Quality to Donelan means we try to do everything well, including our conservation.
It is frost season and in the morning you can see overhead sprinklers running all over the valley to protect swollen buds from damage. Water use in California is a hot button topic and the wine industry will play a critical role. Local growers within the Russian River watershed of Mendocino and Sonoma counties filed a lawsuit against the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) last October because of an unprecedented regulation targeting winegrape growers’ use of water for frost protection purposes.
Water use has engendered tension for ages and according to an American Intelligence Community report problems with water could destabilize several regions across the globe in the next decade. One thing is for sure, with growing populations and ever growing needs for water, improved efficiency in water use is a must. I’ll leave the frost protection debate for lawyers, but there are steps we can take – and indeed that we have been taking – to improve the quality of our stewardship each year. And in our minds, quality stewardship is a part of producing quality wines.
We are always open to exploring new ways to improve the stewardship of our resources. We work with growers to move toward organic farming, and limiting water use. Since Continue reading