I could not let any more time go by without wishing you a beautiful holiday season and a New Year of peace, prosperity and happiness. Now is a special time of year in the Sonoma Valley. As we gather with family and friends to exchange presents and stories about the vintage, we know that we have much for which to be thankful. The harvest has been bountiful. As we taste the new wines, we are convinced that 2019 will rate with the better vintages in the last ten years.
The harvest in Sonoma Valley began in late August. The grapes were picked in the order in which they ripen, variety by variety, over approximately a two-month span. We finished our harvest with Barbera on October 17th and Zinfandel on October 18th.
Grape maturity is a function of the balance among sugar, acid and pH. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, a hand-held refractometer is used to measure the sugar level, and a pH meter is used to identify the pH level. We get a good idea of grape maturity with these two tests, and then bring samples of the grapes to the laboratory to measure total acidity.
Our grapes are picked by hand and placed into lugs. When full, the lugs are poured into a gondola or micro-bin and rushed to the winery. Both gondolas and micro-bins are constructed so the load can be lifted, and tilted to roll the grapes into a receiving hopper that routes them to the stemmer-crusher. Speed is essential in the handling fine wine grapes.
The grapes are fed from the hopper into the stemmer-crusher, which ejects the stems from the berries, breaking the skins so juice can flow. The “must” (juice, skins and seeds) is pumped to the fermentation tank. Our enologists take a sample direct from the tank, and exact sugar content is again measured by a refractometer. This information, plus weight of the load and variety type, is entered on a permanent record. The data obtained at the crusher and in the lab is where the pedigree of each varietal wine begins.
At this point the process for white wine differs from that of red wine. White wine “must” (juice, skins and seeds) moves to a refrigerated stainless tanks for a maturation period of 8 to 24 hours. This period of skin contact imparts flavor and complexity to the wine. The “free-run” juice (clear of solids) is transferred to temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, and the skins and remaining juice go to the de-juicer which will extract any remaining juice we may want. This “low-solids” juice is sent to a decanter centrifuge for further clarification, and them to stainless steel to start fermentation.
Activated yeast is now added to the tanks to start cold fermentation (50º to 60º F.) for 10 to 14 days. If a dry wine is desired, we allow the yeast to convert all of the sugar to alcohol. For a sweeter wine, fermentation is cut short by deeply refrigerating the wine at the desired sugar level rendering the yeast inactive.
With the exception of Chardonnay, most white wines are bottled within six months of the harvest to retain all of their grape character, freshness and crispness. Our Chardonnay is aged for eight to twelve months in primarily French oak barrels (Approximately 80% French and 20% American barrels) to add body and complexity to the wine. We use oak as a chef uses a condiment, and produce our Chardonnay in a style that emphasizes varietal fruit character with well-balanced oak complexity.
Alternatively, red wine “must” moves to fermentation vats where yeast is immediately added to begin fermentation. For a period of 5 to 7 days the wine is fermented at temperatures ranging from 70º to 85º F. During this time the juice is daily pumped over the cap of skins to extract color, flavor and body. When the wine is fermented to dryness, the free-run juice is drawn off to settling tanks, and the cap is sent to a press to extract the remaining wine. This wine also goes to a settling tank where solids are separated from the wine by a process called “racking.” Solids settle to the bottom of the tank and the clear wine is drawn off to enter our split-aging program.
In split-aging, various lots of the same wine are sent to different ages of oak barrels. Through analysis tasting, we balance and remarry the separate lots of wine to produce a single wine of elegance, finesse and complexity.
Now, Mother Nature has had her say and brought an end to the hectic harvest season. Although the last of the grapes did not leave the vine until mid-November, other varieties had already started defoliation, slowly dozing off toward their winter sleep. Though one might suspect the vintner’s life gets easier after harvest and crush, another year of patient hard work is about to begin.
I hope you will raise a glass of La Chertosa in toast to a successful vintage and good wines. My family and I will be doing the same, and wishing you and all of our many friends a most happy and warm holiday season.