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.
Well, this is a little blue and bright, thanks to the florescent lights, but you can see that the color is in the skins – the juice runs clear. You probably know that all of the color and most of the flavor, texture and tannin - everything we love about red wine - comes from the skins.
So, we want to get as much color and flavor as the skins have to give but also want to keep the tannins in check. It’s a real balancing act. One tool in our toolbox is to kind of blanket the grapes with dry ice when they’re being destemmed. This brings the temperature down enough to delay the onset of fermentation for a few days and also prevents the fresh juice from oxidation.
Time, temperature and alcohol are key factors in coaxing the goodies out of the skins. By doing a “cold soak”, or deferring the fermentation a bit, we get a head start on color and flavor extraction and, since there's no alcohol in the mix, we've pulled out the supple skin tannins only - virtually nothing from the seeds. Some years we allow as much as five days of cold soak. This year, we were really pleased with the bright fruity flavors and anthocyanin (color) extraction we got in the first few days and we kept it relatively brief.
Then, we warmed the juice up to 75 degrees and inoculated with yeast for primary fermentation. It takes the yeast a day or so to get acclimated and begin to reproduce and then we’re off to the races!
The warm fermentation enhances color and flavor extraction and the alcohol is almost like a solvent in that regard. The warmth really gets the yeast going, too. It's like letting your bread dough rise on a sunny windowsill and fermentation doesn't often take much more than a week.
As the wine ferments, the skins keep rising to the top of the tank to form a thick layer called the "cap" (le chapeau, if you're French!). In order to get good extraction it’s important to keep the cap mixed in with the fermenting juice - it's called cap management. There are a few different ways to accomplish it and with the low yields this year we decided to go with open top fermenters so we could manage the cap by hand.
We go in with what looks like a giant, stainless-steel potato masher and break up the cap (it takes a surprising amount of effort - it puts up pretty good resistance!) and then do a thorough job of pushing the skins down into the wine. It's called a "punch down" and this is a very gentle way of getting the job done - no pumping. We do this a few times a day - how often depends upon how active the fermentation is.
Now, you see that we’ve leached most of the color from the skins, which also means most of the flavor. We’ll drain the wine and press out the skins in a few days. Stay tuned!
It’s been a long, trying growing season and now is the payoff! All of the work we do throughout the year - pruning, protecting the vines from frost, shoot thinning, leaf pulling, cluster thinning, praying – comes to fruition, literally, now as we harvest.
You see Bill, there, in the vineyard – the happy winemaker inspecting the fruit just before we went in. The flavors, color and phenolic (tannin) development are all there, right where we want to see them.
After such a challenging season it’s comforting and gratifying to see those pretty little grapes on the sorting table.
If you’ve been following our posts you know that the crop size is down, considerably. The 4-5 tons we’d hoped for, from our 2.5 acres, dissolved into 2.3 tons – a remarkably low yield. But, the fruit looks really good thanks to meticulous sorting first in the vineyard and then at the winery.
We started on Wednesday bringing in the ripest of the Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. As I mentioned in my previous post, we realized that some of the fruit from the shaded parts of the vineyard might not make it to the winery. However, it’s found a happy home with a local home winemaker rather than being left for the birds.
It’s been a little tense in the valley since the rains early this month and we even noticed it from the men who help us with our harvest. Usually, we hear a lot of singing as they cut the clusters off of the vines but they were so intent on their work that it was a quiet morning. These men have been with us from pruning the vines early last March, shoot positioning in May and thinning in September and they take the final steps as seriously as we do. The same guys follow the tractor to the winery and man the sorting table with us as the berries go into the fermenter.
So, I’ve washed the juice out of my hair and now we anticipate the conversion of grape juice to wine. More on that soon!
We think of ourselves as growers who make wine. This year we’re going to have to really earn our chops as winemakers, too. A few days ago I was feeling a bit at sea about this whole thing – we’re so accustomed to cooperative weather and this is such a challenging year.
In short, we seem to have swapped with Bordeaux. They got our sunny, warm weather this year and we got their cool, rainy conditions. In my last post, you saw what can happen when it rains. What you can’t see in that picture is that the cool, wet conditions are keeping the sugars a bit lower than we’re used to here in sunny Napa Valley. Interestingly, though, other maturity markers like skin conditions, seeds, pH and flavors are all showing more advanced maturity than the sugars might indicate.
So, why was I set back a pace? We’re getting to the end of October and, as you can see, the afternoon shadows are becoming an issue for us on Diamond Mountain. We're on the west side of the valley and that makes us the first to go into shadow late in the day. As I said way back in September, the major players when it comes to maturation are heat and light. The shadows are working against us.
They say the best cure for a worrisome situation is to face it head on, right? We know we can’t do things the way we do in “normal” years – not and get the kind of results we want. So, yesterday, Bill and I got out into the vineyard together, walked each row and tagged the vines where flavors and sugars were lagging. The beginnings of a game plan!
And, the plan, as it stands right now, is to pick at least twice. Normally, we manage the vineyard so that the Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon ripen at the same time. We treat it as a field blend and pick it all together.
The flavors and overall balance of the fruit from the vines that we plan to pick first are really quite good, just where we want them in fact, so we plan to pick them in the next few days, and thus our harvest finally begins! We won’t pick the rest until it’s ready. If it makes it, it makes it. If not, on a year when the crop size is already pretty small, we make a little less than we planned. We’ll have some photos for you from our first day of crush!
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