Mother Nature Speaks — From Vintage to Vintage

The beauty of wine is that it is dynamic. It is ever-changing with nuances from season to season. While vineyards themselves will have distinct soil composition that typifies them and offers certain characteristics to the wine, different varietals have flavors that typify them when crushed and aged. Winemakers themselves have particular styles that they bring to their process, which, in the end, will have an impact on the wine’s flavors, body, and balance.

The Role of Mother Nature

But there is another player in the mix who has a voice in the final product, and that is Mother Nature. She has a big impact in the year long process. She can be a friend or present many challenges to the vineyard manager and winemaker in the final expression of the wine.

What do I mean? Well, let’s start with the fact that grapes are a crop and subject to the variabilities of weather. The amount of sunlight and heat that they receive throughout the growing season can and does affect the maturation and evolution of flavors. A vineyard manager does his or her best to line up the rows of vines with just the right angle to achieve even and maximum ripening. They ensure the rows allow for just the right air flow to cool off the grapes at night and allow for the proper hang time. The number of leaves on the canopy that shield or let in the sun and heat all play a part in how long the grapes can hang on the vine to attain the best development of phenolic flavors. That is just the beginning of the process.

Mother Nature requires that the vineyard manager and winemaker adjust to the challenges she puts in their path. Remember, it has been said that 60-80% of what you taste in the glass is accomplished in the vineyard. So, as you can imagine, temperature and, of course, sunlight play major roles in how the flavors evolve in the grapes. The grapes need heat – but not too much – and sunlight to put their best foot forward. And a great vineyard manager and winemaker will deal with what they are dealt and make adjustments throughout the growing season.

The 2011 Vintage: Challenges and Opportunities

In California, 2011 was a cool summer. The cool weather affected the entire state, and all wine growing areas were impacted. It has been called one of the most problematic years in recent memory for winemaking. It was not only unusually cool, but often wet. Late season rains came and did damage to the grapes. This was a challenging year to say the least, and what you will have is different wines.

Do not pass over this vintage. Therein lies the opportunity. This vintage is one to discover what is in the glass. We always want to have a balanced wine – one where acid, alcohol and tannins are in harmony. While more of a challenge this year than others, a good winemaker will be able to bring that about; and there are many of those throughout the state.

What 2011 presents is a journey or exploration in the glass. With less heat, more than likely what will be more prevalent are the secondary flavors such as those represented by the earthiness. They could be more herbal in nature. Yet not all of them. Many 2011 wines will be drinkable earlier and will be softer in acid than most years. And again, there are some areas in the Napa valley that managed very well in this year, such as Howell Mountain.

The real message here is to look at the opportunity to explore the wines, taste them and see what appeals to you. Discover new flavors and aromas to add to your repertoire. That is the real pleasure of drinking wine from year to year – there will be differences, and it is fun to discover them. This is not a vintage to miss with the differences that it offers in tastes.


Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga, CA: Visit and Enjoy!

When one thinks of Napa Valley and wine tasting, one often pictures a bucolic setting, sipping, and relaxing.  The experience at Larkmead Vineyards is a great example of just that.  This winery is located in Calistoga, which is in the north end of the valley.  The setting is beautiful, situated on the valley floor and surrounded by vineyards.

The facility itself is an artistic expression of architecture.  This is a Howard Backen project, one of the many wineries and restaurants he has designed in the valley.  Tastings are done on the porch or on the patio and lend themselves to really relaxing and enjoying the wine and the scenery.  Speaking of the scenery, the drought-tolerant landscaping, which incorporates many native plants, is also beautiful.

One of my favorite aspects of the visit is the exploration of the winery’s history, from its beginnings to the present day, with the aid of a talented host.  (This is a winery that has been in existence for 137 years.)  As for the historical guide, herein is one of the gems of Larkmead.  Sonny has been our host on numerous visits.  He is engaging, genuine and knowledgeable.  He easily weaves the story of the winery with the wine and allows you to gain a real appreciation for both.

But what about the wine, you ask?  While the setting is attractive, without excellent drinking wine, it would not really be worth it.  These are well-crafted, well-structured wines that are worth the money.  The portfolio includes Sauvignon Blanc, red blends, and deep, rich cabernets.  Their estate cabernet is $70, which is very drinkable young but will age gracefully.  Larkmead operates by appointment only.  So next time you plan a visit to the Napa Valley, include Larkmead.


The Hills Are Alive!

Sacramentans have great choices today as the Foothill wineries east of Sacramento continue to evolve. The federal government has designated four distinct AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in the Foothills: Sierra Foothills AVA, El Dorado AVA, Fair Play AVA, and Shenandoah AVA. Growth is abundant in these areas. For example, Amador County, which is found in the Sierra Foothills AVA, has over 40 wineries. There is much to choose from and much to explore. The journey here has only just begun.

Wines from these areas are making great strides in being recognized for the value and quality that they offer for everyday drinking pleasure. Let me share with you some recent examples of wines that have garnered ratings from Wine Spectator of 90 points and above:

Andis Zinfandel, Amador County 2010, 90 points, $28
Easton Zinfandel, Amador County 2011, 90 points, $18
Domaine de la Terra Rouge Vin Gris d’Amador, Sierra Foothills 2011, 92 points, $16
Skinner Mourvedre, El Dorado Estate 2010, 94 points, $32
Skinner Eighteen Sixty-One, El Dorado County 2010, 93 points, $30
Pruett Lucky Lauren Red, Sierra Foothills 2011, 92 points, $29
Pruett Syrah, Sierra Foothills CSP 2011, 92 points, $36
Miraflores Zinfandel, El Dorado 2010, 91 points, $27
Miraflores Viognier, El Dorado 2012, 90 points, $20

The scores are indicative of the quality that is taking shape in the wines and the recognition of what is possible out of the Sierra Foothills. Great soils with lots of sun and cool nights can all contribute to quality grapes.

Obviously, the vineyard needs a great deal of attention and care to produce great harvests.  As mentioned in an earlier blog, there is one vineyard, in particular, that has garnered great respect. That is Shake Ridge in Amador. Ann Kraemer is the vineyard “master” whose grapes are sought after by some of the best winemakers in Napa. Shake Ridge provides grapes to Andy Erickson and Anne Favia for their wine labeled Favia, to Rosemary Cakebread who makes a Rhone Blend under her label of Gallica called Suzuri, and to Helen Keplinger who makes Lithic and Sumo, which both carry her name. There is much demand for these grapes grown on Shake Ridge under the intent and watchful eye of Ann.

One of the most remarkable facts about Shake Ridge is that it was only planted in 2003. These are all young vines. It takes at least two years of growth for a grape vine to produce clusters. In Europe, if the winemaker wants the wine to receive the French certification called AOC, which stands for “appellation d’origine contrôlée,” he or she can’t even use grapes from vines less than four years old. So what does this mean? The Shake Ridge vineyard is just starting to mature, and the grapes will only develop more intense flavors with the coming years. The best is yet to come, and that is why there is such demand.

What is happening at Shake Ridge is taking place throughout the Foothills, as you can see from the scores. This is an area where the intensity of vineyard management and winemaking practices are improving the results. The outcome is enjoyable wine at great prices for all. Come, visit, and taste.


All That and a Bag of Chips?

It has been a practice for several hundred years to age wine in oak barrels.  Oak plays an important role in the process of wine making. It enriches the wine with new compounds that impart flavors.  It serves as a barrier in the storage and therefore allows for specific physical reactions to take place.

What about those flavors?  First and foremost, there are primarily two places that the oak most used in winemaking comes from. That’s France and America — mostly Missouri.  Yes, I said Missouri.  You will hear these oaks referred to as French Oak and American Oak.  They deliver different nuances themselves.  (There is a winery in Napa Valley where you can taste the difference during a tour.  This winery does barrel tastings and will give you samples from wine that is aging in either American and French oak and that is the only difference.  This is a worthwhile experience and a very fun visit, yet that is for a later blog.)  Oak exerts its influence on wine through chemical processes that support the evolution of flavors and structure. The geographical origins of the oak, the forest, and type of grain will influence what the wood contributes.

The most interesting aspects of oak are the aromatic compounds and vanillin that will contribute to the structure and taste of the wine. Here are examples of the flavors oak can contribute: almond and smoke, coconut, cloves and spices, caramel and toffee, vanilla.  That is quite a list; and many winemakers have their favorite forests to pull the wood from, a particular process to have the wood seasoned, and then the right person to toast the wood to their specifications and build their barrels. (Barrel makers are called “coopers,” and the facility where this is done is called a “cooperage.”)  You can imagine how many options are available for a winemaker to develop flavors and nuances based on oak and to marry up what is best for developing the best possible wine.

Barrels can be quite expensive, ranging from $1500 to $1800 each when new.  When you read about wines, you will often see information about how much time the wine spent in barrels and what percent of new oak was used.

There are other means of imparting the flavors and nuances of oak to wine. Oak inserts can be added into wine tanks to achieve a similar outcome.  Sometimes winemakers use oak chips in bags, which are immersed into the wine.  While it is clear that this path is less expensive, there are some winemakers that contend that this can be a way to better control the oak influence on the wine.  That would be something for you to vote on as you choose the wines you enjoy.

As you can see, I have only scratched the surface of how integral oak is to the winemaking process.  Truly the science here is fascinating and much more complex than I have described.  Yet you now have new distinctions to engage in as you explore:  What are those nuances that I smell and taste?  Is it from the oak?  How long was this wine aged in barrels, was it 100% new oak or what percentage of new?  Interesting things to ponder as you explore what is in your glass.


Keever Vineyards: A Nice Visit and a Great Wine in Yountville

I have heard that the single best way to distinguish a well-crafted wine is that it beckons you back for another sip. Therein lies the “problem” with discovering that caliber of wine – you want to drink it! And darn it, there goes that desire to accomplish productive tasks right out the window!

This past weekend, I enjoyed one of those wines at Keever Vineyards located in Yountville, CA in the Napa Valley. Keever is a family-owned winery that produces cabernet from six acres of vineyards right there at the estate. This is a small production winery that takes pride and care in each step of the process. The winemaker is Celia Welch who is one of my favorite winemakers in Napa Valley. She delivers quality with all that she touches.

This property is visited by appointment only, so call ahead to set your date and time for a tour and tasting. Our visit was hosted by Liz, who was welcoming and quite knowledgeable about the property as well as the wine making process at the vineyard.  She works many jobs at the winery including harvest and sorting. This provides her with a clear picture of the journey of the grapes from vine to bottle.

The tour included a walk through the winery and the cave. Along the way, we tasted four different wines — a Sauvignon Blanc, a Syrah, a red blend, and finished with the flagship cabernet. All wines were well crafted and left me wanting more. This is always my buying signal — and I did just that. I left with the Inspirado red blend and, of course, the Cabernet.

Keever Vineyards is set on the hill overlooking Yountville. It is a gorgeous setting with lovely views of the valley below, and this idyllic setting provides a wonderful sense of peace and calm. I recommend a visit. It is a beautiful setting, with a gracious host and well-crafted wine.