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How We Make Our Estate Chardonnay

by David on June 20, 2009

Wine making is so simple, it was discovered by accident. Fresh grape juice, unattended, will become wine sooner or later. But here’s the hard part: will the wine be any good? Science helps us bottle wine that is much more predictably sound than it was 100 years ago, but we can’t make memorable wine in a lab.

The real fun and art of winemaking lies in the endless variables that come up along the way. Where and how to plant? When to harvest? How to handle the grapes at the winery? What kind of yeast to add? What kind of fermentation vessel should we use? Which barrels to buy? It goes on and on.

We’re going to focus on the choices that Geoff Gorsuch, our Winemaker, makes along the way to produce Goosecross Chardonnay every year.

Planting A Vineyard

Geoff will tell you that the wine can only be as good as the grapes that make it. There is no way to make a wonderful wine out of mediocre grapes, no matter how skilled the producer. Geoff’s goal is to get his hands on the best possible fruit and then to conserve the beauty of the fruit through attentive, but not intrusive, winemaking.

In our case, as a small, family winery, the winemaker is also the vineyard manager. Geoff is hands-on from the planting of the vines, every step of the way, until the wine is bottled.

You’ve heard the old real estate saw: “location, location, location.” Well, it truly applies in growing grapes for wine. Getting the right variety in the right location is 90% of the battle. We grow our Estate Chardonnay in the coolest region of Napa Valley, known as the Carneros Region. This is an ideal location for Chardonnay, where the grapes ripen slowly in the persistent morning fog, and cool evening breezes. The resulting prolonged “hangtime,” literally means that the Chardonnay has enough time on the vine to develop completely mature flavors and to delight us with a little tropical character. The soil is typical of Carneros, in that there is clay, but it is interspersed with some gravel and sand, improving drainage.

Before planting a vineyard like this, we bring in experts to take soil samples from various parts of the property, and also to measure the specific mesoclimate1 throughout the vineyard. With this information, we can make good decisions about selecting the optimal clone2 and root-stock hybrid3 for the site, and also set up the best spacing and row orientation for eventual wine quality.

For this site, we selected the low-vigor, SO4 rootstock in order to keep the yields down and flavors concentrated. A vertical trellis system4 in this location, running east-west, allows for plenty of light exposure to heighten fruitiness with very little risk of sunburn.

With these choices made, we lay out the posts, stakes and wires for the trellis. We dug the holes, planted and trained the vines and attached the trellis wires by hand. A drip irrigation system completes the installation.

From planting the rootstock or benchgrafts5, it is 3-4 years to the first small crop. We think of the vineyard as mature when it is 6 or 7 years old, and hope that it will be with us for decades.

A Year In The Vineyard

Once the vineyard is established, keeping the vines healthy is a year-round project. Surprisingly, the weather experienced in winter can have an influence on the timing, quantity and quality of the harvest to follow.

Winter

Grapevines are like roses in many respects. They drop all of their leaves and go dormant in the winter. This rest is very important to vineyard health and performance in the following season. Like roses, the vines require severe winter pruning to determine how many shoots and clusters will appear in the spring. Almost all of the growth from the previous season is pruned off, so that the vines will bear a small, intensely flavored crop.

If we have a long, cold winter, the vines “sleep in”, and come out of dormancy late. If the winter is mild, they’re likely to wake up (we call it “bud break”) early. Bud break is usually in the middle of March, but we’d much rather that it be late than early. Early bud break means the increased risk of frost damage. A beautiful, clear day in the late winter/early spring can turn into a freezing, cold night. The newly exposed, tender buds will be damaged if the temperature drops below 32° F. The risk lasts through mid-May. This can lead to many nights of poor sleep for growers all over the valley. Geoff and Rosario, his assistant, may have to get up in the middle of the night several times during these months, to protect the vines from frost using wind machines6 and smudge pots7. The upside of early bud-break is that it can translate into an early harvest and reduces our risk of rain damage on the other end. It all depends on the weather that follows.

Spring

Early spring is a period we call “great growth” in the vineyard, because the new shoots grow like gang-busters. We sometimes imagine we can see them grow! This great growth creates a lot of work, including weed cultivation, suckering8 and thinning. The suckering is done by hand, and is like a post-pruning. We dormant-prune with the idea that we’ll get certain results, but inevitably, the vines do as they please, and require more of our attention. Once the shoots are a few inches long, Geoff can begin walking the vine rows to make sure they’re developing well, and also to look for signs of disease or nutrient deficiencies. This continues throughout the growing season.

The buds flower and form clusters around mid-May. We are fortunate that the flowers are self-pollinating, so we don’t have to worry about bees or wind. We only worry about the weather. Too much rain or excess heat can impair pollination and lead to crop loss (also called “shatter”). Again, we are fortunate because, normally, we don’t see rain for several months after the end of April. The weather is blessedly boring and predictable most years, and generally leads to good “fruit set.”9 Once the crop is set, we count the clusters. Of course, there’s nothing we can do about too few, but if we count more clusters than we anticipate the vines can ripen well, we drop the excess on the ground right then and there.

Summer

When the grapes first form, regardless of the variety, they look like tiny green beads. They’re not recommended for tasting at that point because they’re highly acidic. They plump and develop amazingly quickly. Usually, by mid-July, they’re full size, and the dark varieties begin to soften and change color (we call this veraison). White varieties like Chardonnay go through a much more subtle color change, going from a bright, spring green to more of a yellow-green as they soften.

During this time, Geoff continues to walk the vineyard to make sure it’s healthy, and he monitors the leaf canopy and clusters to see if we need to do further shoot, leaf or crop thinning.

Irrigation may be necessary a few times during the long, dry season, but Geoff prefers to keep it to the minimum. Too much irrigation or fertilization may take away from flavor intensity. He can test the vines in different parts of the vineyard to see if they’re becoming water-stressed and respond accordingly.

Late Summer and Harvest

Harvesting The Goosecross Estate VineyardVeraison is the signal that the grapes are beginning to get sweet, and the acid is decreasing. It means it’s time to begin “field sampling.” Geoff and Rosario take samples from all over the vineyard to monitor the sugar, acid and pH. Repeated monitoring of these numbers over the weeks gives them a ballpark idea of when the vineyard will be ready for harvest. Geoff makes the final decision to harvest by tasting. The most important thing is for the flavors to be fully developed. He bites right into the seed to make sure it’s crunchy and mature. If the seeds are still green, they can impart some very bitter tannins to the wine. He takes a good look at the vineyard. Vineyards have a certain look when they’re finished for the season. If the shoots are still growing vigorously, it’s not a good sign. The wine may have some “green” character that we don’t find attractive if the vineyard’s not ready to wind down for the year. That greenness and general lack of character and body are the risks of picking too soon.

Once the vineyard is ready, we’ve got to be quick! The sugar changes a little every day, and if the weather’s hot, it goes up frighteningly quickly. If we wait too long we risk high-alcohol wine with raisiny or pruney character.

We pick everything by hand. Our goal is to deliver grapes as perfectly ripe as nature allows, free of leaves, raisins or mold. This is a lot to ask, so each year we hire the same well-trained men who are paid above the industry standard to be selective. Again, the wine can’t be any better than the grapes that make it! The crew begins as soon as it’s light enough to see, and finishes around lunch-time, getting themselves and the grapes in, before it gets too hot.

Unfortunately, fresh grapes don’t improve with age, and it’s important to get them to the winery as quickly as possible once they’re picked. The commute from the vineyard to the winery is about 20 minutes.

The Crush

Free Run ChardonnayYou’d think that Geoff has enough to do just taking care of the vineyards, but he also has to get the winery ready before the first box of grapes arrives. He and Rosario sanitize all of the equipment, and make sure it’s in good working order. They re-sanitize long empty fermentation tanks and barrels to be sure they are immaculately clean. “Dirty wineries make funky wine!” (un-attributed quote).

When the grapes arrive, they feed them into the Crusher/Stemmer. As the name implies, the grapes are separated from their stems and broken open. The term “crushing” can be misleading, because it sounds violent. In fact, the grapes are broken open by very soft, rubber rollers. Rough handling in the beginning will be repaid with bitter flavors later! The crushed and de-stemmed grapes (called “must”), are transferred to the press. We have named our press Lucy, affectionately, for Lucille Ball. She was pressing the old fashioned way in that hilarious episode! The press is like a large strainer. After the must is placed in the press, gentle pressure is applied and the juice flows off, leaving the skins and seeds behind, trapped by a screen.

Fermentation

About half of the juice goes into temperature controlled, stainless steel tanks, and the other half into 60 gallon French oak barrels. It isn’t necessary to do this in two parts, but we find the resulting style very appealing. The juice in the stainless steel tank ferments at low temperatures, and makes Chardonnay that is highly aromatic, and intensely fruity. The juice that ferments in the barrel produces wine that’s a little richer and fuller. Later, Geoff blends the tank and barrel fermented wines together for a beautiful balance of freshness and richness in the finished wine.

After transferring the juice to the tank or barrel, Geoff adds a proprietary yeast strain. The yeast consumes the sugar in the juice, converting it to heat, CO2 and alcohol. This is a completely natural process that has been going on since the beginning of time. When all of the sugar is used up, we say the wine is dry, and the fermentation is over. This may take around 3 weeks.

Aging

Wine Aging In BarrelWhen the fermentation is complete, the wine that was fermented in tanks is transferred to aging barrels. The wine that was fermented in barrels, stays there to age “sur lie,” which means aging it on the yeast and grape solids that have settled. The sur lie aging will give the Chardonnay a greater richness and a creamy, fuller mouth feel. Geoff stirs the lees up into the aging wine in each barrel at least weekly to accentuate the effect.

Our signature style for Chardonnay here at Goosecross Cellars is always very fruit-forward, with bright acidity. To accomplish this, aside from the two fermentation techniques described above, Geoff prevents the Chardonnay from undergoing malo-lactic fermentation10, and the wine stays in the barrels for about four-to-six months. He tastes the wine as it ages in the barrel looking for maturation and integration. He wants these qualities to come through without picking up too much oak flavor along the way. The oak should complement the grape flavors and not mask the beautiful fruit character he worked so hard for out in the vineyard. Geoff always says he likes the grapes to “brag about themselves” in the bottle.

When he has decided that the Chardonnay has had the right amount of barrel time, Geoff begins blending the different barrel lots together and returns the wine to stainless steel tanks for final clarification and bottling.

Finishing The Wine

The wine self-clarifies to a degree as it ages, but it’s rarely clear enough to bottle at the end of barrel aging. In the process of removing the wine from barrels, Geoff is careful to see that the cloudy solids that have settled to the bottom of the barrel are left behind. This is called racking. He racks the wine a few more times before it’s finally filtered and bottled.

Chardonnay Being BottledBottling is a nerve racking event that takes place only a few times a year here at Goosecross. The act of moving the wine from a large container to a small bottle affords many opportunities to expose the wine to air. If the wine picks up too much oxygen during bottling, it can undo all of the hard work that’s been done, leaving us with a wine that has a short shelf-life, and perhaps less character. The bottles are filled with inert nitrogen gas before and after filling with wine, to displace the oxygen. Periodic random samples are pulled from the bottling line for analysis, to be sure that healthy wine reaches your hands.

The newly bottled wine looks very tempting, but several weeks must be allowed for it to recover from “bottle shock,” a period of dullness or even off-character that follows bottling. Geoff usually decides to allow more time for it to benefit from some additional bottle aging before we can finally release it to you.

The joy of wine making is in working with nature, and relying on our instincts and experience to create “Bottled Poetry.”11 It’s a long road, but after all of the thought, work and care that went in to taking it from the vine to the bottle, the ultimate reward is knowing that the fruit of our efforts is being enjoyed by you, with your family and friends.

Footnotes:

  1. Mesoclimate: The climate of a vineyard site, hillside or valley. The term “microclimate” is used in its place extremely often. Microclimate correctly refers to the climate immediately surrounding the individual vine canopy (or green growth) and clusters. Vineyard and canopy management will strongly influence the microclimate, but not the mesoclimate. The mesoclimate belongs to Mother Nature.
  2. Clone: A clone is a sub-variety within a grape variety, such as Chardonnay, that has been replicated because of specific attributes such as flavor, productivity and adaptability to growing conditions
  3. Rootstock hybrid: Vines of European origin, called vitis vinifera, cannot be grown on their own roots, due to lack of resistance to certain soil pests. They are grafted onto various rootstock hybrids that are resistant to the pests. Additionally, the hybrids are chosen for other beneficial traits, such as low or high vigor, drought resistance, etc.
  4. Vertical trellis system (also called vertical shoot positioning): The vines are trained in such a way that the shoots grow vertically. As they grow longer, the shoots are tucked into trellis wires above them to maintain the vertical direction, providing maximum light exposure to the leaf surface.
  5. Bench-grafts: Purchased grafts of the varietal and rootstock hybrid that are grafted by a professional nursery. The alternative is to graft in the field, called “field-budding.” Planting bench-grafts often gets a vineyard into production sooner than field-budding by hand.
  6. Wind machines: Wind machines are powerful fans placed in the vineyard for frost protection. They mix warmer air above, with the colder air settling on the vineyard to prevent damage.
  7. Smudge pots: Also called “vineyard heaters,” smudge pots look like stove pipes surrounding the vineyard and burn diesel fuel or oil to warm the vines.
  8. Suckering: Removing unwanted young shoots to keep the vine and crop in balance.
  9. Fruit set (also called cluster set): The overall formation of the grape cluster following flowering. Normal clusters will be fully formed, with very few “shot berries” (missing grapes) and uniform grape size, depending on the variety or clone.
  10. Malo-lactic fermentation: Malo-lactic fermentation converts tart malic acid to soft lactic acid, effectively lowering the total acidity of the wine. Virtually all red wines under-go this “secondary fermentation.” For Chardonnay, the diacetyl produced by the Malo-lactic fermentation, makes the wine smell buttery, and gives it a little more weight.
  11. Bottled Poetry: Robert Louis Stevenson described the wines of Napa Valley as “bottled poetry” back in the late 1800s, when he lived here briefly.

Diagram of Chardonnay Production Process

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