How I Make Wine These Days part 2
When I first began making wine thirty some years ago, I was taught that you picked white grapes at around 22.5 brix and red grapes a bit riper, say 23.5 brix. This was intended to give you alcohol levels in the 13.5% range when all was said and done. The reason red grapes could be picked riper is, in part, because red fermentations are warm and whites are cooler, so red fermentations "blow off" more alcohol than whites, and reds were generally expected to be a bit richer. Whites were supposed to be fresher, with a bit more acidity, and perhaps slightly less alcohol, according to conventional wisdom. And there are other reasons as well. Assuming the acidity was at the proper levels, using these guidelines would give balanced wine, at least with respect to chemistry. I was only dimly aware of the greater world of phenolic and flavor ripeness; while some winemakers would talk about this, there were not many analytical methods available to assess such things and it simply wasn’t much on my radar screen.
It didn't take long before I started paying attention to skins pulp and seeds, the flavor of the juice, and a whole host of other things. I discovered that picking a little riper than normal often gave wines with noticeably more richness and impact. It seemed to me at the time that if conditions were perfect in the vineyard and with the weather that we would not need to pick late. If yields were always exactly where we wanted them and the vines were perfectly balanced we could “pick by the numbers” and everything would turn out just fine. But as we all know, things are seldom perfect. Even when conditions were good, the riper wines were undeniably seductive especially in their youth. I sometimes worried that some of the aromatic interest and charm was sacrificed to the altar of richness. Yes, the alcohol was a little higher, and in some cases, a bit too high, but to my youthful palate this seemed like a small price to pay for these showy wines. Critics and consumers took note of these wines right away.
This was all happening in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During this time, a lot of really smart folks were working to improve viticulture. New clones, rootstocks, trellising, better ideas about how and when to irrigate, greater insight into soils and how they impacted the plants led to great strides in how we grow grapes. I would say, in fact, that more advances have been made in viticulture in the last 30 years than winemaking. And it was not that we planted “frankenvines” and went all high-tech in the vineyard. To the contrary, vineyards took lessons from the old world—closer planting, more “natural” farming methods, more careful selection of plant material, better rootstock and site matches, etc. etc. etc.—and many of the best vineyards began to look, well, more “traditional.” While there has been plenty of “high tech” progress in the field of viticulture, it’s largely been related to measuring the things that impact grapevines, and how the vines respond. It took a few years for this new knowledge to be applied in commercial vineyards but I’d say by the early 2000s much of it had “taken root,” so to speak.
For many years now I’ve been trying to make wines with more freshness and energy, particularly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. My original misgivings about the shift in wine styles from “pretty” to “powerful” in my own cellar became a bit of an obsession. Simply put, I found I no longer wanted to drink the kinds of wines I, and most of my peers, were making. This really came to a head a few years after I started my own brand. Quickly I realized that it was not a matter of simply picking early; I had lived through the “food wine” phase in early 1980’s California and it was clear to me that low alcohol, high acid, underripe wines were not the answer. Figuring that with my own wine I could take a few more chances than I could with my clients’ wines, I began changing how I handled the wines, in an attempt to shift the balance back in the direction of “pretty.” This took many forms which I have discussed elsewhere, but included finding different vineyard sites and fine tuning how the grapes are grown. An example of seemingly small things making a big difference: at The Shop, the vine rows are oriented so that the vines see roughly equal amounts of sunlight on either side of the vine. It’s often foggy in Carneros in the morning during the growing season, and it burns off around 10 am. People thought about having the sun hit both sides of the vine a long time ago, which is why so many vineyards have rows that run north/south. Having the sun obscured for the first three or four hours of the day meant that with north/south rows, the morning side of the vine got about 2 hours of full sun, while the afternoon side would get 5 or 6 hours, hardly fair if you’re a leaf on the morning side of the plant. Of course, it’s not like the morning side is in the dark once the sun passes overhead, but you get the picture. Tilting the rows a little towards northeast/southwest, so that the sun passes over the vine row at, say, 2pm instead of noon gives the leaves on both sides of the plant more or less equal time in the sun. And tightening up the rows allows each adjoining row to shade the fruit zone of its neighbor, protecting the fruit from getting too hot and from sunburn, which keeps the fruit fresher tasting. Because the temperature of the fruit is also impacted by how much sun it sees, it turns out that the fruit ripens more evenly when the sunlight is “equalized” in this way. The net result is that you have less heat damage—which leads to overripe flavors—but also less green fruit that is lagging behind because it gets less sun and warmth. And because heat directly on the fruit tends to cause the berries to dehydrate, I found that protecting the clusters from direct sun kept sugars in check too.
The last few years, I've noticed that if you looked just at the chemistry, my picking decisions were looking more and more like they did thirty years ago. This was not because I wanted to go retro, but because the grapes were ready sooner. Or perhaps they were less compromised by heat than in the past; this is probably a big part of it at the warmer sites I work with. So in a sense, I’ve come full circle, but to a place that is notably different than it was back then. Does climate change have something to do with it? Probably. The vines are older too, which is important but hard to quantify. A lot of it is that we’ve learned a few things in the last 30 years.