Revisiting Saperavi

At the beginning of the growing season, we went on a tour and tasting at Standing Stone, where we first became aware (clearly a case of not paying attention) that they produce a varietal Saperavi, which is also part of the Black Russian blend at McGregor. Two months ago we received an invitation to attend a vertical tasting of this grape, and this was a terrific opportunity for more education and enjoyment.

Standing Stone tasting room.

Standing Stone tasting room.

The tasting was conducted by co-owner Marti Macinski, who began by tracing the history of the site and the winery (which started in 1991) back to the days of Great Western and the Taylor Wine Company. As part of the process of seeing what would work for Finger Lakes red, Standing Stone connected with the nursery at Dr. Konstantin Frank, and decided to try Saperavi. This was one of the Georgian grapes introduced by Dr. Frank, and it seems to have been used mostly in blends or as a teinturier, meaning a grape used to lend color to a wine.

The 2014 from the tank.

The 2014 from the tank, with deep purple clinging to the glass.

In fact, Standing Stone’s first use of Saperavi was to darken Pinot Noir (the picture above will give you an idea of the effect), which people were thinking would do well in the Finger Lakes due to the cooler climate. The problem was that Finger Lakes Pinot was and is light in color, and this caused a customer acceptance problem for those expecting a more violet color in the glass. While the introduction of Saperavi solved the color problem, it unfortunately added a flavor that even in small amounts that did not at all play well with Pinot Noir. Experiment #2 was blending the Saperavi in with Cabernet Franc, and this didn’t work well either. In the meantime, Standing Stone continued to experiment and finally hit upon using Saperavi as a varietal.

As Standing Stone achieved success with the wine, their next challenge was to be able to sell it commercially, and this required petitioning the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to get Saperavi accepted as a label. As a former attorney, Micki took this on as a personal challenge, and TTB approval was granted on December 31, 2013.

During the tasting, Marti presented two flights, the first of which consisted of 2005, 2007, a 2010 labeled “The Dark Red” (before TTB approval), and 2012. While the 2010 and 2012 were quite purple, the two older wines had lightened up to a beautiful violet. Both exhibited great bouquet, with the 2005 more subtle and the 2007 more intense. I preferred the 2005 nose, but although it tasted and finished well, its age may have been starting to show. The 2007, on the other hand, was a powerhouse and was actually quite reminiscent of the 2007 McGregor Black Russian we tasted at the vertical there. If McGregor and Standing Stone were able to arrange it, and side-by-side comparison would be fascinating, in part to compare the varietal to the more or less 50-50 Saperavi and Sereksiya blend.

Older, newer, and really new bottles.

Older, newer, and really new bottles.

The 2010 and 2012 were more fruity and less polished, but another variable had been introduced. Whereas the old wines were from the original vines, the newer wines were largely from young vines that Standing Stone added to increase capacity. Of the two, the 2012 seemed to have more potential, and time, of course, will tell.

The second flight consisted of two 2013 wines and a 2014 tank sample. Of the 2013s, one was from the new vines, while the other was from the old vines and will probably be released as a reserve wine or limited release of some other fanciful name. The 2014 was completely fermented and was racked, but it had not yet undergone malolactic fermentation. That, along with oak aging, was where it was headed next. However, it was quite luscious and did not exhibit any of the rough edges one might have expected. Tasting the 2013s side by side was a great way to see the difference vine age makes, the the new vines producing a wine that was more fruit forward and less complex.

Aside from experimenting with new and old vines, Standing Stone is also trying different oak treatments and generally doing everything they can to make this a signature grape. From the results they have achieved thus far, they are definitely onto something, and customers will be benefiting from their work for many vintages to come.

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At End of Harvest

We have been holding off commenting on this pending Cornell’s final Veriason to Harvest issue, where they present an excellent summary of harvest across the state. But in the interests of sharing something, we will offer our own observations and see what is confirmed or refuted.

If anything, the 2014 growing season was an emotional roller coaster. Low temperatures in the minus teens or even lower had not been seen in over a decade, and each of the several low spikes we had increased a sense of gloom and doom. Concerns about bud damage and trunk damage were on everyone’s mind, and the announcement that wineries would be able to purchase out of state grapes was an emotional kick in the gut.

A vineyard after harvest, with just a few stray grapes hanging.

A vineyard after harvest, with just a few stray grapes hanging.

With that as prologue, September and October saw a pendulum swing from worst weather that could have been imagined to best weather ever experienced, as we saw welcome and unexpected stretches of dry and warm  that brought accumulated growing degree days (Cornell Orchards, May 1 through October 31) to 2,373. Most varietals quickly caught up to where they should have been (Riesling may have bit a bit stubborn), and growers were happy to let the grapes hang even after the leaves turned to develop some additional flavors. Some varietals were challenged to recover from winter, such as Gewürtztraminer and Merlot, and some such as Sangiovese appear to have been wiped out. Some growers have probably already decided not to replant or to remove some varietals in favor of others.

What happens now is totally up to the winemakers, as they deal with the hands they are dealt. We may have the opportunity to visit with some winemaking friends in the next few weeks, and an upcoming barrel tasting at Keuka Spring will provide some insight into where the vintage is headed.

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American Wine Society: Best Wine Conference Anywhere

This may seem on the surface to be a rather extreme statement. After all, there are conferences all over the world featuring celebrities as well as wines in the hundreds of dollars per bottle price range. But nothing captures the sense of belonging as well as the annual American Wine Society conference, which was held last week in Concord, North Carolina.

As is our bent, we traveled down early to volunteer at the Society’s Amateur and Commercial wine competitions where, respectively, 392 and 625 wines were judged. Though it is the smaller of the two, the amateur competition is particularly important, given the history of the Society and the large number of home winemakers who gather to share their passion. The amateur entries also play an educational role, as they form the basis of an evening event called the “Amateur Wine Experience.” There, each table is provided a flight of wines ranging from no medal through gold or double gold and attendees get to compare their evaluations with those of the wine judges. The open bottles of amateur and commercial wines are also available during the conference in the Hospitality Room for those in need of additional hydration during the evening.

The back room during a competition day.

The back room during a competition day.

Celebrating the end of a competition day with sparkling spoils.

Celebrating the end of a competition day with sparkling spoils.

The conference itself consists of a welcome reception (this year featuring North Carolina barbecue), two days of multi-track 75 minute seminars, meals, and the grand banquet. The seminars feature topics such as wine regions, food and wine pairing, and technical aspects of winemaking (color extraction, oxidation, etc). Last year, we learned the hard way that the price of not signing up for seminars early is that most of what you would have liked to attend is already full. This time, we were on our game at 7:01 PM the evening registration opened, and we able to attend:

  • Lodi – Around the World in one AVA
  • Lisbon, One of the Wine Capitals of Europe
  • Mendoza Masters
  • An Exploration of Alexander Valley Terroirs
  • Côtes de Columbia, World Class Grenache from Washington
  • The Pursuit of Excellence in Brunello and Beyond
  • New Exciting Grapes & Wines for the East % Midwest
Seminar on wines from the Lodi, California AVA.

Seminar on wines from the Lodi, California AVA.

Discussion on Sangiovese clones used in Brunello.

Discussion on Sangiovese clones used in Brunello.

Coincidentally, presenters representing the Alexander Valley, Mendoza, and Brunello adopted a common approach of presenting various unfinished wines to illustrate differences in altitude, soil types, or clones, and then presenting finished blended wines that were sold commercially. All three of these seminars made for great education, and we were able to taste some fantastic wines. Lodi, Lisbon, and Côtes de Columbia were more standard horizontal tastings, with Lodi being particularly intriguing. Supporting his “Around the World” premise, the presenter offered Lodi wines made from Vermentino, Verdelho, Kerner, Bacchus, and Pinotage from Europe and South Africa along with the Petite Syrah and Zinfandel most would recognize from the AVA.

The seminar on New and Exciting Grapes took the prize for most delightful surprise. The presenter was Richard Leahy, whom we had gotten to know back in 2008 or so when we first volunteered to work at his International Eastern Wine Competition. We lost touch after the competition moved out to the west coast (while curiously retaining its name). Richard is now based in Charlottesville, where he consults and writes, most recently having published Beyond Jefferson’s Vines. His presentation consisted of assorted wonderful oddities, including a white Pinot Noir and Marquette-Corot Noir blend from Virginia, and a stunning New Jersey Reserve Chambourcin. All of his wines were delicious and commanded price points under $20. The surprise of surprises, though, was a Virginia Petit Manseng that had 2.6% residual sugar, acidity off the scale, and went through malolactic fermentation. Talk about weird science experiments!

The Grand Banquet. We clean up.

The Grand Banquet. We clean up.

The conference wrapped up with the grand banquet, which is a nice dress-up affair, and it was announced that next year’s conference will be in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. November 5-7. Although this was only our second conference, we have made friends both years, and this is one of the most warm and inviting events one could hope to attend.

 

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M’Rosé

We recently had an opportunity to circle a pair of wagons, the first of which appeared during a visit to local Shalestone Vineyards, where we tasted a wine labeled “Beyond Rosé.” The wine was a blend of 50% Lemberger and 50% Zweigelt and was distinctly dark. Co-owner Kate Thomas said it had two days of skin contact (double or more of most Rosé wines) with some red wine blended back in. We simply loved it, and Kate appreciated the positive feedback given some pushback from wine critics who thought that it just “wasn’t right.”

Fast forward a few months to a visit to the Paso Robles area, where we encountered Rosé Amphora (Amphora being a clay fermentation vessel from Italy) at AmByth Estate. This wine was made from Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Counoise, and according to the tasting notes:

The Grenache and Mourvèdre saw approximately 48 hours of skin contact, the Counoise about 2 weeks of skin contact.  Pressed Viognier skins were added to the Grenache during fermentation. There was some co-fermentation in the amphora and separate single fermentation in bins. All pressed when dry and combined to age in an 800 liter amphora in October. Natural malolactic fermentation took place. Aged for 15 months in amphora, bottled December 2013.

While raving about this one at the winery, co-owner Mary Morwood Hart noted that it was considered a M’Rosé which, in response to our “say what?” she explained meant”Man’s Rosé.” This is to say a wine that resembles Rosé but also has a depth and complexity approaching a red wine. In California this is already a trend, while in the Finger Lakes, it has not made it beyond weird, although it should. Of course, it’s also true that one cannot form a circle with only two wagons, but that discussion for another day.

Two unusual Rosé wines.

Two unusual Rosé wines.

Last weekend, we had the opportunity to taste both of these wines in ideal conditions. For the AmByth, this meant not only the right temperature (just a bit cool), but also having had the opportunity to settle, since it is unfiltered. Clearly there are vast differences in climate and very different grapes involved, but nonetheless there was a delightful commonality of fruitiness, texture, finish, and all around lusciousness.

We find more and more winemakers being willing to experiment and take risks – whether it involves orange wine, unconventional Rosé, barrel fermented Gewürztraminer, or whatever. Not all of these science experiments work out, but kudos to the winemakers for allowing us on the voyage. We invite critics that have problems to be more open minded.

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A Community Harvest

Keuka Lake Vineyards is one of those small operations that epitomizes the notion of a farm winery.  Mel Goldman came to being a winery owner from years of grape growing, and is committed to deciding about what he wants to do well, and doing just that. Much of what works here is Riesling, and KLV may have been the first winery in the area to produce single vineyard wines. Those from the Falling Man and Evergreen Lek vineyards, in particular have been very well received and are among our favorites. He also does a terrific job with the red hybrid Léon Millot, and if you want to see how good a dry Vignoles can be, KLV is the place to go. New to the lineup this year is a Vignoles orange wine labeled as “Dry Amber.”

Mel Goldman leading the picking crew to one of the Falling Man Riesling rows.

Mel Goldman leading the picking crew to one of the Falling Man Riesling rows.

On Saturday, KLV held a community harvest party, where about 25 of us picked Riesling from the Falling Man vineyard and shared lunch and dinner at the farm house. Unlike the Chardonnay we picked earlier in the harvest, this later season Riesling had developed a fair amount of botrytis – a fungus also known as “noble rot.” Most grapes are susceptible to botrytis, but Riesling actually benefits from it up to a point. It removes water, transforming the grape into more of a raisin, and it also adds flavor.

The challenge in picking is to sort out clusters or partial clusters that are clean, infected in a good way, and infected in a bad way. This is done by observing, tasting, and getting a sense of what will make good wine from just looking at the bunch. Eight hours didn’t make us professionals, but did teach us quite a bit. The right side picture below is an example of a more heavily infected but still useable bunch.

Riesling Bunch CleanRiesling Bunch Botrytis

At 5:00 on a cool, showery day after finishing Falling Man, we drag ourselves up the hill to the winery, where Mel leads us through a tasting of KLV wines. A special treat was a newly released port labeled as “Hammondsport,” which happens to be the name of the nearby village. After the tasting, it is back outside to see the grapes we picked go through the crusher/destemer and into the press. The volunteer crew goes up to the farmhouse for a delicious dinner, but it will be yet another long evening for the workers on the crush pad.

Today's pick going into the crusher/destemer.

Today’s pick going into the crusher/destemer.

Much of the fun today was working with volunteers from a local college, who were using the experience as part of their coursework. Some were business majors, one a biology major, and there were probably some others we didn’t catch. They were energetic, cheerful, and a delight to be around.

A pall over this wonderful sharing and learning activity has been the shutting down of a California winery that was fined about $100,000 when using volunteers was deemed a violation of labor laws. You can read more here. Reaction from the wine world has been uniformly you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me, but in the meaning there has been communication to wineries suggesting they stop doing this until it gets sorted out. We hope it is sorted and quickly so. Certainly, abuses in agriculture are a reason why labor laws were developed in the first play. However, that this type of activity would be deemed abusive is patently silly and makes one want to drink.

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Crush

Keuka Spring Vineyards August Deimel kindly invited me to hang out with him and his winemaking team for a few days of crush. In exchange for a heck of a lot of learning, I brought some baked goods from my oven (crush is a carb intensive activity), but I was well short of covering what the tuition should have been. The processing involved Riesling and Gewürztraminer, but previously crushed fruit was in various stages of becoming wine and also had to be attended to. Crush turns out to be an exercise in seeing how many different balls you can keep in the air, and the juggling and choreography is amazing to watch.

The mechanical stars of the show are the crusher/destemer and the press. The supporting cast includes an array of pumps, compressors, fork lifts, scales, clamps, nuts and bolts, and you name it. With everything working properly, a day on the crush pad is tiring. Add to it the inevitable complications and breakdowns, and tiring easily turns into exhausting. Crush days often go into the early morning hours. Between powerful machines and bins weighing in at over a ton, worker safety is a real concern, and you can never let your guard down.

The grapes start their journey at the crusher/destemer, which separates out most of the MOG (material other than grapes). A one ton bin is hoisted up on a fork lift and gingerly rotated, allowing the grapes to fall into a bin. Grapes, leaves, and stems make contact with a pair of rollers, and the grapes are pushed through as the rest is discarded. The Riesling came from Mark Wagner’s vineyards at Lamoreaux Landing, and was fairly close to stemless thanks to his state-of-the-art mechanical picker (more about that from an earlier post). The Gewürztraminer was more typical of fruit delivered to the crush pad, and the pile of leaves and stems showed what the machine was capable of doing.

The crusher/destemer.

The crusher/destemer.

Rollers underneath the crusher/destemer.

Rollers underneath the crusher/destemer.

What happens next depends. In the case of Keuka Spring Riesling, the grapes go from the crusher/destemer directly to the press and then to a tank where, after a few days of settling, the juice is inoculated with yeast and begins fermentation. More forklift artistry is required to move the bin contained de-MOGged grapes over to the press, hoist, and dump. As the grapes enter the press, free run juice immediately pours into the collection bin, and pressed juice follows over the course of an hour or two, as the grapes are exposed to higher and higher pressures of up to 5 bars (5 times normal atmospheric pressure). The press is rated at 5 tons, but will accommodate more or less depending on the physical characteristics of the grapes.

Riesling being loaded into the press.

Riesling being loaded into the press.

Raining Riesling.

Raining Riesling.

In the case of Gewürztraminer, the grapes and skins go from the crusher/destemer to a tank for a few days of cold soak, which coaxes out additional flavor components. Cold soak means that the juice is maintained at a temperature below which fermentation can (in theory) start. Keuka Spring mixes the grapes in the tank with dry ice, and this is intended to chill as well as help break down the skins. After cold soak, the grapes go into the press, and then into a tank for fermentation.

Gewürztraminer being pumped from the crusher/destemer to a tank for cold soak.

Gewürztraminer being pumped from the crusher/destemer to a tank for cold soak.

Dry ice added to cold soak tank.

Dry ice added to cold soak tank.

The time spent on the crush pad was (and this is probably typical) about 80 percent crush and 20 percent troubleshooting. Both the crusher/destemer and press had some intermittent issues, and the pumps struggled at times to move the solid-laden Gewürztraminer through the tubes to the cold-soak tank. August and the team attacked the problems as they arose and pressed on, knowing that shutting down the line and waiting a few days for repair is not an option. Fortunately, he had the foresight and excellent judgment to hire Meg Tipton as his assistant last year, and many of the issues were solved by handing her a wrench and standing out of the way.

Before the day’s crush begins, the winemakers are also busy with juice already in the pipeline. August tastes juice (or wine, depending on where it is in the process) from various tanks to make sure things are progressing as he expects and that nothing bad is happening (in particular, development of off notes). One tank of Gewürztraminer is progressing slowly, and between chemistry and taste August is trying to discern what is going on. At some point intervention may be needed (high temperature or an additional inoculation), but like most winemakers he would prefer letting the grapes arrive where they need to be naturally. The risk of intervention is creating a problem where none exists. In medical terms, this would be “do no harm.”

Another regular morning job where grapes are fermenting with skins (maceration) is “punch-down.” This activity is necessary because the CO2 produced by fermentation forces the skins to the top of the bin where they form a “cap.” Left exposed to air, this will create nasty flavors. Punch-down remoistens the skins and also mixes them with the juice.

Last year, August decided to improve his process by introducing a technique known as délestage. This means that instead of forcing circulation by punch-down, he and his assistants pump the juice out of the bin and pour it over the skins. Research has concluded that while more labor intensive, this approach provides better color and flavor extraction and improves flavor and mouthfeel. In the picture below, the last bit of juice is being pumped out of the bottom of a bin of DeChaunac into a nearby plastic flextank. Flipping a switch on the pump reverses the process, with the hose thoroughly dousing the skins.

Délestage.

Délestage.

Around 3:00, I need to return home to feed the dog, but work on the crush pad will continue. A whiteboard inside the cellar shows that 26% of the harvest is complete, and this will bump up at the end of the day. Our warm pattern will be continuing for a while, and there is still more ripening possible on the reds. Until then, exhilaration and exhaustion continue apace.

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Fruit Maturity

As reported in Cornell University’s Veraison to Harvest newsletter, September did in fact turn out to be lovely – perhaps even historically lovely in terms of reasonably warm, reasonably sunny, and dry. The result has been good ripening, a bit of drought stress (a good thing), and low disease pressure. We paged back through the last four issues and assembled some data points into a picture.

Ripeness of four varietals from Cornell University Veraison to Harvest.

Ripeness of four varietals from Cornell University Veraison to Harvest.

As shown above, the base (blue) bar is the degrees Brix sample from September 12. The three bars stacked above are the increments of ripening for the 19th, 26th, and October 3. Pinot Noir only has three stacks instead of four, its harvest was completed last week. Based on a review of previous years, the sugars are on track with normals years, with Riesling running a bit behind, and acids are a bit higher.

With the passage of a cold front, we won’t make it out of the 50s for the next few days, and the the rest of the week looks showery with highs in the 60s. Winemakers will spend the next few weeks playing the waiting game and seeing what additional maturity can be coaxed out of the later ripening varietals. The major risks this time of year are a hard freeze or soaking rain, sometimes related to hurricanes. Fortunately, freeze is not in the forecast, the tropics are quiet, and life in the Finger Lakes is good.

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