Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this post in the 15 March 2013 edition of The New York Times, Diner’s Journal, “What We’re Reading” : http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/15/what-were-reading-for-wednesday/
The Role of the Vineyard in Technique Choices
In El Dorado, Donkey & Goat source Roussanne from the Ellen Ridge Vineyard. It’s a dry site edged by trees and brush on rocky soils along the edge of the American River Canyon. The vineyard hosts 10 to 12-year old vines that have served as the source of their Stone Crusher Roussanne. It’s fruit that struggles to ferment after harvest.
Winemakers Jared and Tracey Brandt began working with the site in in 2006, committed to natural fermentation, without the addition of nutrients. Pressing the fruit after harvest, the juice took almost a year to ferment to dryness. Jared explained, “it kept going, but slowly.” The following vintage the fruit was treated similarly, and again, the wine took 8 or 9 months.
In 2008, the duo decided to experiment with skin contact techniques, moving half to three-quarters of the fruit on a macerated ferment. The wine fermented in 14 days. Jared explains that since 2008, the skin contact lots have consistently fermented as quickly. He comments too, “the more whole cluster we use, the faster it goes.” The reason, it appears, rests in the nutrients offered by the presence of skins and stems not available from this more barren site otherwise.
Donkey & Goat have continued to play with the way they interact with the grapes from Ellen Vineyard, honing their understanding of its best site expression. In 2010, the Stone Crusher received what Jared now sees as more foot tred than he’d prefer. He took that lesson forward into the following vintage and was more delicate with the grapes’ treatment in the winery. By comparison, the 2011 offers a lighter, more cohesive floral and toasted walnut shell presentation to the 2010s more cidery tang. The 2012, though not yet released, was treated similarly to the 2011.
Part of what’s interesting here, is that Donkey & Goat also work with Roussanne from the Fenati vineyard, a site about 1/4-mile from the Ellen, with more fertile soils, and less exposure along the ridge edge. Jared explains, Fenati’s a more tannic site, and the crops don’t struggle there in the way they do at Ellen. In Jared’s view, the fruit at Fenati “doesn’t like skin contact.” The tannins resulting are harsher, flavors less pretty, and the change in fermentation time and effectiveness is far less dramatic. Tasting side by side examples of straight to press fruit from each site, the flavors are also just different. The Fenati has sweet floral notes where the Ellen gives white herbs. The wines also give differing color, even from straight-to-press, the Fenati more white to the Ellen’s yellow.
In considering the idea of terroir in wine, the conversation often sticks on the side of flavor recognition with the wine itself, thinking of place in terms of what qualities it gives to the wine’s final presentation. The point is certainly relevant. But the concept of terroir carries no straight line from place to bottle, as the choices made in vineyard and with winemaking dictate the wine that can ultimately be received.
Winemakers that speak of listening to the vines sound more believable with examples like Ellen Vineyard versus Fenati. Such examples, though too, highlight the relevance of knowing the vineyard, and developing a relationship with it over time. It’s an approach harder to find in a bulk-fruit focused market such as California, compared to some grower-winemaker models of the so-called Old World.
Thinking Briefly on Terroir: the relevance of vine age
Talking with Jon Bonné, wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, on the idea of terroir, he expresses a willingness to challenge, though not dismiss the notion. His point rests in the youth of the American wine industry, and also the role of vine development over time. Both drivers arise too, from, the mechanisms of the U.S. West Coast bulk fruit market–grapes sold more often by weight, then made into wine by its vineyard owner.
As viticulturists describe, the role of site becomes more relevant to fruit quality and flavor as vines age. Younger plants regulate their chemical processes and distribution through the plant more erratically before acclimating to their site. Vineyard Manager and Winemaker, Steve Matthiasson, explains that its as if vines develop memory over time of how to respond to varying climate and soil conditions. Younger vines just don’t have that experience. As a result, the younger the vine, the more relevant the plant’s age and clone are to the fruit expression. As the vine develops, however, the clonal distinctions seems to lessen. The plant gets older, acclimating to and expressing more site character.
In considering, then, the relevance of terroir in New World wines, the idea of vine age must be addressed. The reality of vineyards in the United States, however, is that most are rather young. Younger vines also generally produce more fruit. The flavors seem to become more concentrated and complex with older vines, but the production level also diminishes. In a market run by the price of fruit by weight, vineyard owners tend to pull vines before production levels decrease.
The question, then, of whether so-called Orange wines express terroir, would seem to rest not only in the technique itself, but also in the source of the wines’ fruit. As Bonné points out, “terroir examples from New World wines, generally can be found from people working with vines over 20-years old.” As examples, we talk through some of the winemakers featured at the event In Pursuit of Balance, many of whom are able to work with older vines–Varner, Sandhi, Wind Gap, and Hanzell, to name just under a handful. In each case, the labels are producing white wines that also seem to show unique site expression from vines at least 2-decades old with a hands on approach in the vineyards. Wind Gap also produces several examples of skin contact whites.
Bonné considers the history of skin contact whites in California, and points out that it begins not simply in grabbing a technique but in a matter of emphasis and innovation. As Bonné describes it, the history arises from first making white wines a central focus. John Konsgaard with his unfiltered Chardonnays from Newton Vineyard offers one such example. His devotion to Pinot Grigio with George Vare through Luna Vineyards gives another. In both examples, just taking white wines so seriously stands as a moment of being radical with wine.
“What I love about all this,” Bonné highlights, referencing Vare and Kongsgaard, is that “these people wanted to explore what happened when white wine became the most important thing you did.” One result is that by turning the attention to whites as central, exploration of technical options became paramount. Eventually, this also led winemakers to explore older traditions resulting in the re-introduction of macerated ferments, and extended macerations, what we now call Orange wines.
Bonné also points out, that in his view, giving such attention to whites amounts to making a strong statement. Orange wines generally need time to resolve their tannin structure before release, then again more time in bottle before drinking. “In our culture where even reds are opened quickly,” Bonné tells me, “it’s a strong economic statement to make wines that are meant to be held for 5-years after release.”
Innovation of Technique
In addition to consideration of the vineyard itself, there is also the relationship of winemakers to their vineyards. Many winemakers producing Orange wines in California are not intimately connected to their vineyard sources, relying instead on the work of vineyard managers that communicate primarily about picking times. To the extent that such a relationship defines any particular label’s approach, the discussion would seem to focus not on a cultivation of relationship with terroir, but simply on an exploration of technique.
Speaking as a matter of emphasis, Bonné comments, “in the New World it is entirely a discussion of technique,” not terroir. For Bonné, what is exciting about the exploration of macerated ferments, and extended maceration on white grapes is less about the direct results in the wines themselves, and more about the explosion of the white wine category. “The best part of winemakers experimenting with the approach,” he tells me, is that “they’ve pulled out useful lessons on how to enhance texture, and enhance expression in white wines.”
Hank Beckmeyer, owner and winemaker of La Clarine Farm offers one such example. (Beckmeyer, however, works intimately with his vineyards as well.) In 2009, he decided to purposefully “do it all wrong” when working with Viognier. He wanted to see what the grape would do if fermented and treated like a red wine.
The result, at the time, he thought was very nice aromatically but rough on the palate. Still, he took a lesson from the experiment and began using short skin contact durations at the start of all his white wine ferments to bring textural interest, and those increased aromatics he liked. He also started playing with using skin contact on one grape lot going into a white blend so that “only a portion of the blend has that kooky texture” he likes but doesn’t want to dominate.
For Beckmeyer, the result has been finding that he appreciates the use of skin contact on varieties with lower tannin in the skins, and higher natural acidity. Skin contact is known to increase potassium levels in the must, leading to a decrease in overall acidity depending on contact duration. The necessity becomes, then, keeping a balance on use of the technique in relation to the overall composition of the wine. On grapes with higher natural acidity the use of skin contact can modulate what could otherwise be too much of a good thing. In Beckmeyer’s view, including some skin contact serves as a way “to bring some zing to the wine.”
This Spring, as part of my exploration of U.S. Orange wines, Beckmeyer shipped me a bottle of his 2009 Viognier he hadn’t tasted in a couple years. The roughness he’d described was no longer there. Instead, the tannins had lengthened and smoothed, offering a sensual texture. The wine also carried a mix of pleasing aromatics not always typical to the variety–passionfruit, and kumquat, alongside backnotes of oregano, lichen and bark. In the mouth it carried through also rich with fig, cocoa, and olive. That zing was definitely there, a wine full of sapidity.
Donkey & Goat also play with other small lot fermentations of skin contact, most often producing blends that have some small textural influence from macerated fermentation, rather than full Orange wines. Their 2011 release of Grenache Blanc is one such example. Their 2011 Coupe d’Or is another–a 50/50 Roussanne/Marsanne blend that utilizes 1/4 of its fruit from skin-contact Roussanne of the Ellen Vineyard.
The next installment of this series will consider the roles of tradition and technology in terroir and technique.
To read previous installments of this series:
To read last year’s series explaining Orange Wines beginning with how they’re made, then their presence in Georgia, Italy, and California, begin here: Understanding Orange Wines Part 1: A Quick and Dirty Look at How They’re Made and What Their Tannins Do To Our Saliva
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