Since my last post the wines have come through primary (alcoholic) fermentation very nicely. We’ve since moved the wine into barrels for malolactic fermentation (MLF) and aging.
Malolactic what? It’s really a conversion - it converts the tart malic acid (think tart, green apples) to the softer lactic acid (the milk acid). For white wine, putting the wine through MLF is a stylistic choice: When your Chardonnay has a buttery nose and/or flavor and a rich, almost oily texture, it’s most likely due to MLF. For Riesling, most would say MLF is a disaster!
For reds, it’s standard operating procedure for the sake of stability – we shudder to think of you opening a bottle of Dyer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon that’s hazy and spritzy due to spontaneous MLF in the bottle! And, it also has a rounding effect that’s very attractive. We like to do the MLF in barrels rather than in the fermentation tank because it has a nice way of integrating the oak flavors with the fruit.
We prefer the subtle flavor contribution of French oak barrels, about 33-50% of them new. You might think of them as tea bags - they give up their flavor with use. We’re not looking for a lot of oak flavor – we want the fruit to shine through and have found that the mix of new and once-used barrels strikes the right balance for us. In the right measure the wood can support the wine, kind of like the frame on a picture. It shouldn’t distract you from the art but it’s important that it be there.
Believe it or not, within the world of French oak and French coopers (barrel builders) we have still more variables to work with. One of the key factors in selecting the wood is the width of the grain because wood with a tight grain, our preference, imparts its flavor and tannins more slowly than loose-grained wood. With the firm tannins that are characteristic to Diamond Mountain we select barrels that will allow the wine to evolve and will contribute a bit of oak flavor without imparting extra tannin.
Another factor to consider is the level of toasting – how dark the barrels are inside. They’re bent into shape around a fire pot and then spend a little extra time there to be toasted. As they get progressively darker, a “heavy toast” barrel being quite dark and smoky, it influences the flavor imparted by the barrel ranging from fresh coconut to espresso! We prefer barrels with a light to medium toast – a subtle approach that supports the middle palate without drawing too much attention to the wood.
And, while it may look like one cooper does much the same thing as another, a delightful fact of life is that the flavors imparted are unique to each cooper. Even though we are a tiny customer for these coopers we enjoy the added layers of complexity we gain by aging the wine in three different barrels and blending the different lots together later.
And, so our 2011 vintage is put to bed, so to speak, although it won’t be sleeping. MLF should be complete very soon. Over the coming months the color will mature from grape-juice purple to the familiar ruby shade you expect. The primary, grapey flavors will evolve into something much more elegant and wine-like as they slowly knit themselves together and the texture will gradually round out and soften. It’s an amazing process - stay tuned…
I’m not sure exactly how a vineyard can look sleepy, but somehow these soft yellows and golds seem to say "time to rest." I took this picture just after Thanksgiving and the yellow leaves are a sure sign that the vines have done their work for the year and are taking their annual vacation until some time in March.
Just after harvest and before dormancy the vines go through what is called “root flush” which is important to their performance in 2012. Their inner clock tells them that, before they can rest, they need to transfer the remaining nutrients from the leaves to the roots, where they’ll be stored all winter, and get them off to a good start come springtime. Kind of like having a protein milkshake for breakfast.
Driving up and down Highway 29 and Silverado Trail this time of year is truly spectacular. You’ll see shades of yellow, peach, red and burgundy – this year some are so dark that they almost look black!
Our vineyard wasn't as spectacularly colored as some, but that’s just fine with us because it tells us that the vines are healthy. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that those beautiful reds in the vineyard indicate virus which shrinks the yield and makes it harder for the grapes to ripen.
Shortly after I took this picture we had a series of very windy days and our vines and trees are completely bare now. Before we can take a vacation it’s important for us to get our cover crop going so we don’t have erosion problems during the rainy season. You might be surprised to know that winter is normally a very soggy season here. Our annual rainfall, virtually all of which comes in the winter, is well over 30 inches! When you visit in the summertime, and things look so dry, it’s hard to imagine.
Other than that, there’s not much to do in the vineyard until we prune the vines in February or early March.
In the cellar, the wines are bubbling their way through “secondary” fermentation in barrels. More on that in my next post.
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