Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Focus & Specificity in Winemaking

{ For readers that might be wondering how a Finger Lakes article snuck into my stream post-#WBC12, it is because I am catching up. More on the trip to Oregon will follow! }

I could write an article on the focus and specificity required in winemaking, but I suspect that wouldn’t be as useful as one about winemakers whose wine is readily available for purchase. If what you read here inspires you to find out more at least I know you will be able to do so free and clear of the restrictions levied on my non-commercial wines. If you want to hear more about my own projects firsthand come over for a drink sometime!

In June when I returned to the Finger Lakes I arranged to visit two winemakers and spend time with them at their wineries to learn more about what drives them. The first was Tom Higgins at Heart & Hands Wine Company, someone I knew a little about but had not yet met. I’m already a big fan of the wine from Heart & Hands so this was part investigatory and part pilgrimage. The second winemaker was Nancy Irelan at Red Tail Ridge Winery with whom I was not yet acquainted, but had heard very positive words about. (Thanks Lenn!)

On the Sunday morning immediately following the WineMaker Magazine conference Ed, Jim, Margot and I piled in the car and headed up the East side of Cayuga Lake from Ithaca to Heart & Hands in Union Springs, NY. Arriving a few minutes early we took a bit to observe the fledgling estate vineyard and the crushpad overflowing with pallets of bottles patiently waiting their contents. Great image right? Too bad I realized I didn’t actually take a picture of it.
Tom & Susan Higgins invited us to visit the winery before they opened on what would likely be a busy weekend, the season was just starting and the most recent club shipment was ready for pickup. With visitors soon to arrive we got right to it with a visit to the barrel room, samples and lots of specifics on the wines that we would ultimately taste.

( Tom Higgins explaining their wine-making practices and whole cluster experiments. )

Whole versus partial cluster pressing and fermentation was one of the topics. The basic idea is that grapes are harvested when ripe and the worthy bunches go into the press and then a fermentation vessel without the removal of the stems.  To non-wine geeks I know this sounds riveting, but I can state clearly that you will taste distinctions in the wines so even if you don’t care too much about how, you can appreciate the outcome.

( A wine press full of whole clusters of Pinot. This image was used from Wikimedia Commons. Refer to the attribution page and full details. )

Whole cluster pressing is not required in winemaking and the application of it for Pinot and several other grapes varies regionally and by winemaker. The goal is to enhance the aromatic and structural (via tannins) profile, especially in grapes that may come in low in these respects otherwise. A key consideration in the application of the method is that getting the grapes from the vineyard, through the sorting process and into the fermenter is quicker without crushing and de-stemming them with an additional step. Given the delicacy the Pinot grape is known for, a motivation to do this is not surprising.

( Hobbit Hollow Pinot aging in a barrel at Heart & Hands. )

Using both organoleptic and chemical measures it is clear that the differences in wines with varying levels of whole clusters in the ferment can be identified. Exploiting these differences with what the harvest provides is yet another tool in the tool chest of a winemaker.

And Tom Higgins is certainly wielding this tool to explore the potential of the grapes from throughout the Finger Lakes region. The motivation for these experiments is pretty simple. Each vineyard source offers different fruit and working with each individually diversifies and maximizes the potential results. By the end of our and tasting we had sampled seven different barrel samples or bottling. These tastes represented several vintages, several distinct sources and the amount of whole clusters in the ferment. This also included the first experimental batch (2011) that had been 100% de-stemmed before pressing.

I’ll start with the 2011 100% de-stemmed sample as a baseline. I found this wine to be smooth and gentle with just a little tannic bite. The fruit flavors (cherries) dominated but I felt that everything fell off early in the finish, which was clean and short.

Next up was the 2011 from the Hobbit Hollow vineyard which included 50% whole clusters in the fermentation. The color on this wine was very light, with beautiful pink edges. The nose on this wine was noticeably assertive and a bit spicy. In the mouth the wine was expressive of tart cherries, spicy and the tannins were like fine dust on the roof of my mouth.

The Hobbit Hollow 2011 whole cluster came next. The immediate difference between this and the previous wine is the amount of tannins. They are still really fine, but there are just more of them. The wine is also more tart (cherries again) and earthier.

From there we moved on to samples of both 2010 and 2011 wines made from the Patrician Verona source, both of which had been 100% whole cluster fermented. The only thing I wrote down about the 2011 was, round. I must have been listening to something that was drawing my attention away from my glass and notebook. Not a bad thing I guess, I was living in what the moment offered. The 2010 got more consideration however. I detected a full nose with lots of spice, influenced by both the whole clusters and the additional year in oak. The tannins were hard to pick up tactilely, I suspect that was the natural mellowing of the bulk aging. The finish on this wine is long and full flavored. This wine was tasting incredibly well, and so it would makes sense that it will be used in the 2010 barrel reserve bottling.

( You'll meet winery and vineyard dogs almost everywhere. They do keep an eye on you though! )

We moved from the barrel room to the tasting bar to finish our trip through the available wines.

The 2010 Pinot blend (3 sources, 50% HC) is the version from Heart & Hands to which I am most familiar, having tasted and/or enjoyed three consecutive vintages now. The 2010 doesn’t disappoint against the two prior years, expressing cherry, red currant and spice in both the aromatics and flavors. The nose is full, the mouth is moderately complex and the finish sticks around long enough to bring it all full circle.

The 2010 Hobbit Hollow single vineyard bottling came next. Fermented with 100% whole clusters I expected more spice and tannins, but the extra year of aging has worked wonders in mellowing all the components into a nicely balanced light and hugely drinkable Pinot. I detected hints of crushed sage in this tasting, something (the green or herbal character) I hadn’t readily picked up in the earlier samples.

We finished with the 2008 Barrel Reserve Pinot. This is still my favorite of all the finished & bottled wines from Heart & Hands. I purchased some in 2011 and haven’t been able to bring myself to open a second bottle just yet. The nose is big and the fruit in the mouth is more assertive than one might expect from cool-climate Pinot. With hints of black pepper and a long, warm finish, this wine most certainly makes you stop and pay attention.

( Tom and with wine lover's smiles. Thank you to Tom & Susan Higgins for hosting us and taking time out of their busy schedules to share their passion. )

A couple days later Margot and I, our friends have ventured home already, visited Red Tail Ridge Winery on the West side of Seneca Lake. As I mentioned earlier I was not previously familiar with the wines or people of Red Tail Ridge, so with that in mind I was very excited to spend time getting the story and experience the wines. Arriving right at opening time, Nancy Irelan, co-owner and the winemaker, ventured over from the winery to the tasting room to meet us. A quick conversation and the game plan to visit the winery first and return to the tasting room after that was formed. Margot opted to find a spot to read so our two groups parted company and headed off in different directions.

( Red Tail Ridge vineyards at the back of the property. )

Standing on the crush pad I gathered some background on the history and current configuration of Red Tail Ridge. Mike Schnelle and Nancy Irelan started Red Tail Ridge in 2004 after having been drawn to the area for its natural beauty and agricultural base. With a total of 34 acres and 20 under vine, there is plenty of vineyard work to be done here. The tasting room has only been open for five years, before that the wines were poured and sold from tasting rooms of partner wineries in the area. The winery building and operations are LEED Gold certified, the only one in New York State and on a short list nationwide, which makes a bold environmental and sustainability statement for the industry. And that is just part of the commitment to specifically fitting what they do with the land and being good stewards of the location that supports them. More about their environment commitments can be found at the winery web site.

I then asked Irelan to explain her path to where she currently was. Not a native of New York, I figured there was a journey and a story or two to be had. During and immediately after college her focus was on bio-chemistry, microbiology, physiology and then plant health, improving crop yields, but not specifically grapes or winemaking. The force drawing her towards grapes and winemaking came soon enough and she parlayed her skills into a job improving viticulture practices and working with experimental grape varieties for a large California winery (Gallo).  That tenure and those experiences clearly sharpened Irelan’s focus; she is clear that not all grapes are right for a given location, it takes upwards of ten years of experimentation to prove such fitness, and the whole system of the land and how it is managed must be taken in concert in order to be successful. This is another specific focus at Red Tail Ridge, finding and planting grapes that do well on their site. As they continue to get to know their site, the soils, biological diversity and weather, other areas of the world that offer similar profiles will be the inspiration for experimental plantings in search of vines that find Red Tail Ridge a worthy home.

( I could work here, how about you? )

( A large, open space with lots of stainless and very clean. I love wineries! )

The winery is impressive, especially considering it was designed with strict guidelines and no certainty that LEED certification would follow, with glass for the whole East-facing wall. The view from the second floor staircase through this window, over the vines and down to the lake is the stuff dreams are made of. It was cloudy during our visit, but I still found it captivating. I can’t possibly cover all the details of the winery design and it’s greenness nearly as well as others have already done. More information can be found at the winery web site link above and the Red Tail Ridge press & news page.
The first part of the tasting was direct from the tanks. At low temperatures, both the wines and the winery, saying anything meaningful about the wines would be premature. We sampled three styles of Riesling from 2011 and Blaufrankisch & Teroldago from 2010. All of the wines tasted clean and fit the style guidelines for them. I look forward to tasting all of them in finished form!

From there we moved to the office and talked Pinot. We tasted the Winemaker’s Select and classic Estate Grown Pinot Noir’s, both from 2010. I am finding as I experience more and more Pinot that the differences between multiple bottlings from the same producer and/or source can often be subtle and require quite a considerable focus to fix and consider. This is not without exception however. These two wines, both cuvees, are produced from the same grape sources and undergo the same process. The difference is that the select bottling was blended from a small group of barrels that whispered something different. The wines are both similar and different, and there are equal amounts of subtlety and coarseness in the differences. Both wines projected strawberry and raspberry notes to me. The winemaker’s select also brought in rose petals where I found cherry in the classic version. Both showed me brown spices, but the strength of those spices was more pronounced in the select bottling. Both wines shared their fine tannins, which stick with you through the finish, but here again the select bottling had more nuance in the finish from a bit more oak and spice. Both wines are earthy with the select trending to wet biomass earthiness where the classic goes off to more dry soil and leaves. The earthy component took the most focus for me to detect the difference, but once I did it was charming to say the least.

( Teroldago, a new variety to me and an experiment with promise at Red Tail Ridge. )

The conversation over Pinot samples had to do with how much experimentation is possible with a small staff and future expectations for interesting projects. I met Dan, a recent addition to the team, who was still getting his bearings at Red Tail Ridge. With additional production-focused staff, the time spent on the crushpad and amongst the tanks and barrels can be optimized. More eyes on the balls in the air, more monitoring and fresh ideas are expected. New projects, either smaller lots and/or more focus on the experimental varietals, can be green-lighted and have a person’s attention for their entire timeline. I suspect return visits will see examples of these projects in action!

I finished my experience in the tasting room. I was particularly interested in the wines made from Dornfelder and Teroldago, two of the experimental varieties currently available. The non-vintage Dornfelder (from ‘09 and ‘10 lots) put up black raspberries and black currants with a touch of mint. The tannins are moderate to low and fine enough in texture to play nice. The dose of acidity in the finish brings everything together. I have no other experience with this grape so I can only say that I enjoyed this tasting and look forward to the bottle I put away after the trip.

The 2009 Teroldago had a bigger nose than the tank version, as expected, but it was really big. Plums, dark berries and baking spices were found in both the nose and mouth. The finish has hints of licorice in it. This is definitely a wine I will want to get more experience with.

Thank you to Nancy Irelan and the team at Red Tail Ridge for taking the time to meet with me. I can't wait to get back to the Finger Lakes and see what is new from this dynamic group!

( A bottle of yet-to-be-released Dry Rose. I found the prior vintage of this wine to be a nice balance of strawberries and lemons with plenty of tartness and acidity typical to Rose wines. )

How’s that for focus and specificity? From both visits my head was buzzing trying to fit all the information and ideas together. Winemaking isn’t my day job so I can’t spend nearly the amount of time pondering all the angles that full-time winemakers can. The job is tough despite that, and I bet the full timers would say they never have enough time either, but it is truly incredible to see what comes of that time when you get a chance to peek inside a winemaker’s brain.



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