Google Video Hangout with Brice Jones and Mari Cutrer-Porth Jones
Emeritus Vineyards, along with Charles Communication hosted a Google Video Hangout that brought together writers from around the country to taste and talk Emeritus wines together online. Brice Jones, president and founder of Emeritus Vineyards, and his daughter Mari Cutrer-Porth Jones, director of marketing and direct sales, led the discussion of Emeritus Vineyards farming practices and philosophy. Also participating in the video hangout were writers Luke Sykora, Dezel Quillen, James Melendez, and Steve McIntosh.
Thinking About Balance in Wine
Crediting his philosophy to time with winemaking friends in Burgundy, as well as Emeritus founding winemaker Don Blackburn, Brice discussed what he views as the three elements that combine in wine. As he describes it, soil contributes the character of a wine, climate its personality, and the people behind it its spirit or style. The trifecta earns mention on the Emeritus website as well, but through the video conversation we were able to probe deeper into the idea.
As Jones describes, soil, character, and the people behind a wine work together to create the final wine itself. Also essential to Jones’s idea is the point that, like a three-legged stool, balance is achieved through the way these elements work together. Too much or too little of any one of them and imbalance forms.
Through the course of the conversation, Jones invited me to help him explicate the role these three elements take, according to his model. Following is my response to that suggestion.
Personality as Climate
The idea of vintage differences gives insight into recognizing the notions of character versus personality or style in Jones’s concept. As Jones described, if we assume the winemaker and his or her practices have essentially stayed the same from one year to the next, wine made from a particular vineyard will retain its character from growth in the same soil, as well as its style from the winemaker’s approach. Importantly, the only things that have changed from one year to the next in this case are the climate conditions, and the age of the vines.
In this model, personality of a wine, then, would seem to show through the sorts of climate differences apparent through vintage variation. A cooler year might offer earthier flavors on pinot noir, for example, or fresher green elements on cabernet. Acidity may also be higher on a cooler year, as another example. Wine from a particular vineyard, then, may show as lean and less fruit driven on a cooler year, or broader and more fruit driven on a warmer. When the vineyard and winemaking crew chooses to pick its fruit, and how the clusters and canopy is managed, however, can also influence how these climate differences show up in the final wine. It is also understood that vine age plays an important role in the vines ability to regulate its quality and quantity during vintage variation.
Soil as Character
Importantly, the soil of the wine essentially does not change year to year. However, vineyard management choices affect the way in which soil character is able to impart itself to the wine, or not. As Jones describes, winemakers such as Aubert de Villaine, have it that irrigation changes the signature of the wine. The more reliant a vine proves to be on irrigation, the shallower its roots. Irrigation draws smaller root hairs towards the soil surface as drip irrigation clusters water within surface soil. As a result, root depth tends to remain abbreviated, and vines rely on drip irrigation for its water needs. Surface soils dry quickly between rain falls thus not offering vines water without irrigation. Part of Jones’s point is that in the case of shallower roots, vines are unable to express significant or distinctive soil character. As a result, such wines are more expressive of climate personality than of soil character.
California predominately relies on irrigation, seeing the lack of water through summer as detrimental to vine health. It is the case that vines need water to be established, demanding watering during the first two years to assist in the development of the vine. Vines that have been irrigated beyond that initial period also cannot simply be moved straight to dry farming. The shallower roots of irrigated vines need assistance over several years to grow towards seeking water at deeper levels.
The contrast between the character presence of dry-farmed versus irrigated vines defines heritage regions such as Burgundy in France, or Montalcino in Italy. For California, however, the reliance on irrigation rests partially in the climate differences from the state and pivotal areas of the Old World. Rainfall during the growing season in many Old World viticultural areas differs from its lack during that stretch in California.
Jones asserts that he was initially resistant to dry farming his vineyards. However, he credits Villaine with pushing him to reflect on the idea further. After long consideration, Jones recognized that even in California, where summer rains are scarce, vines flourished in pre-Prohibition when irrigation would not have existed. He chose then, along with his vineyard crew, to shift Emeritus’s Hallberg Ranch to dry farming over a five year period. 2011 was the site’s first fully dry farmed vintage.
Looking at 2011’s vintage profile serves as interesting example of the impact of dry farming, which then gives glimpse into the notion of soil character in wine. The 2011 vintage in California proved excessively cold, leading in some cases to sheer lack of ripening for later harvested varieties. To make matters more difficult, intense rains came near the end of the season. The effect, then, was that vineyards across the North Coast of California suffered delayed ripening, leaving fruit on the vines when severe rains (and therefore mold and mildew) hit. As a result, sites across the Northern part of the state simply had no viable crop. As Jones describes, however, with dry farming the Emeritus vines were fully ripe a week before the rains hit. All of their crop was picked before the rains, then, and the rains were not a problem.
Dry farmed vines must be self regulating in a way simply not possible with irrigation. With the luxury of irrigation, vines tend to increase crop size, and relax their pace of ripening. Without the stress of seeking water, vines signal to disperse seeds is less clear.
The choice of irrigation impacts root depth, and as a result vine regulation as well. The role of soil character, then, becomes more clear with older vines, deeper roots, and dry farmed sites. In the case of younger vines, and vines with shallower roots, soil character offers less apparent presence allowing climate to play a stronger role.
As Jones explains, dry farmed vines, with deeper roots in comparison to younger vines or vines with shallower roots, offer deeper color, fuller and more refined bouquet, and richer flavor with an ultra long finish, all with greater balance of expression to the wine as a whole. In the case of North Coast vineyards, the diurnal shift of the region’s climate gives ample acidity to the wines thus carrying the soil character of the wines through with a juicy personality.
It is clear that different soil types, and slope of vineyard (a way through which soil is presented) provide differing character to a wine. Where limestone, for example, puts incredible tension down the backbone of a wine, granite feels nervy, or Kimmeridgian offers the tension of limestone with the open palate of clay.
The Role of the Vineyard and Wine Team: People as Spirit and Style
Considering the effects of climate and soil, the role of the people involved in wine production are left to consider. As Jones describes, the people offer the spirit of the wine. Over time, he has come to understand that spirit as the winemaking style.
The people behind a wine make numerous important choices from where to establish, and then how to plant the vineyard, followed by what sorts of viticultural approach will be used, and then when to pick, and what winemaking will be employed in the cellar. The choices made along the way mitigate the effects that soil and climate can offer but also establish the style of the wine.
One of the most obvious places that people impact the expression of the wine is through variety and clonal choice in the vineyard. Matching grape type to soil profile marries the human element with the character of the vineyard site. Clonal choices too can be used to bring together climatic tendencies with the varietal flavor chosen. In the case of Pinot Noir, for example, Dijon clones are often seen as more fruit-and-flower expressive compared to some of the heritage clones, which can vary widely. Over time, as a vineyard gets older and adapts to its site, clonal differences become less apparent, just as vintage variation becomes less noticeable on older vines with deeper roots.
While the winegrowing team cannot reasonably change either soil or climate for a particular site, they can lessen their influence. Choosing to irrigate, as already discussed, changes the way in which soil expresses in the wine. Other choices like choice of root stock, or training style impact how the vine uptakes nutrients from the site, and helps to determine the vines overall vigor. To put that another way, the farming practices employed, including the way in which the vineyard is established, influence the fruit expression of the vines.
Within the cellar, winemaking choices arise from the type of wine the winemaker wishes to emulate. While any winemaker may have innumerable tools and techniques available to them, which they choose depends upon the winemaking philosophy that guides their methods. A winemaker that wishes to amplify soil and climate character, for example, might strive to lessen their own intervention in the cellar. A winemaker wishing to make a reliable expression from year to year irregardless of vintage differences may increase aspects of their cellar intervention as well as diversify their blending practices.
For Emeritus, the style of the wine arises, as Jones explains, from the approach of their founding winemaker, Don Blackburn. Blackburn’s training occurred in Burgundy. He went on to champion Pinot Noir, arguing that a proportionally higher number of the finest wines in the world originate with the grape. For Blackburn, cellar techniques learned in Burgundy were essentially to bringing subtlety to the wine.
As Jones explained, it is not that he is trying to make a Burgundian wine at Emeritus. In California we don’t have the climate, nor the soils that would allow us to do that. He has no desire to emulate wines of another region, no matter their quality. Instead, his goal is to make the best wines available from his site. With his long standing connections to Burgundy, Jones established Emeritus first with Blackburn, then bringing in Nicolas Cantacuzene (raised and trained originally in Burgundy) as assistant winemaker under Blackburn. Cantacuzene has since become head winemaker for Emeritus. In working with Blackburn, and now Cantacuzene, Jones has seen that utilizing cellar techniques cultivated in Burgundy works best for generating Emeritus’s style of Pinot Noir.
Thank you to Brice Jone, Mari Cutrer-Porth Jones, Kimberly Charles, and Alex Fondren.
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