Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The freedom to say "I don't know"

I was just reading a "manifesto" from a winery (which in itself may be a bit narcissistic, but hey, they're winemakers). In it, they discuss how they harvest their grapes earlier than most, with resulting alc% around 13%. Unlike many consumers, I have a fair amount of exposure to these sorts of wines. One of my very favorites to evangelize is Nalle out of Dry Creek. Nalle has a similar approach, and their wines are amazing. Their pinots are burgundy. I don't mean because of the color, or because of the acidity, many wineries acheive this, but because of the prominence of the creaminess on the palate. So I know what they are talking about, and I'm into it. But this goes against conventional California wisdom. We usually rave about hang time, and letting acids set. Those acids go hand in hand with alcohol, which we all rail against. Then's there the whole lignification argument.

Further confusing this is the impassioned exposure I've had to many producers that make nearly 16% Syrahs that are amazing. Not Shiraz-like, but rather tertiary with olives, and bacon, and coffee, and campfire,and menthol,and all of the secondary flavors and aromas that don't come from sweet over extracted wines. Oh, and did I mention that you can't tell the alcohol is knee melting? So how can both realities exist? How can wines and grapes be maximized by 2 completely divergent harvesting philosophies? The answer is "I just don't know". I am a winemaking geek, but I've never made wine, nor do I ever intend to make wine. I think the different approaches are fascinating, and both approaches, along with dozens of others, fascinate me. I don't pretend to believe one over the other. If there was enough of a groundswell of agreement about the correct way, we'd all be drinking the same wines. Doug Nalle makes wines he likes, as should every winemaker.

I often talk about how we are naturally inclined to try to find rules and easy understanding of complex systems. This is human nature. I've abandoned hope for figuring out the right way to do things (winemaking), I like them both, and many in between. So at this point, I still believe in Chupacabra, The Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot. You know what? That's ok, because I'm not a Cryptozoologist either.


  1. Hi Steve, Thanks for reading. I'll just say I read about them in the SF chronicle this week...

  2. Heck, it's confusing even to us. I just bottled two 2010 wines, and both surprised me with their ABVs. I picked them when they tasted really good, and all components were in beautiful balance. The 100% sauvignon blanc, picked at 23.6 brix resulted in 14.6% alcohol. Why? No idea. The Syrah Rose, picked at 23.0 is a 12% beauty. I guess that's one of those things that keeps us winemakers on our toes. And on pins and needles.

  3. Residual sugar or preprocessing the grape juice before it is fermented results in different alcohol varieties. I am curious though as how it is possible to create a 16% wine when as far i know fermentation yeast dies at a milieu of around 15% alcohol. Very Curious about that one.

  4. Anonymous-2 previous comments on this thread were by actual winemakers, so they may weigh in more accurately. But my understanding is that there are now many strains of commercial yeasts that survive well above 16% and many in the the 17%+ range. I've heard they are derived from Zinfandel (which makes some sense). I also understand that through evolution, you can breed yeast to become more efficient at certain aspects of the process.

    Thanks for reading!