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How We Make Our Estate Meritage

by David on June 20, 2009

In 2002, we had to re-plant our home vineyard here at the winery because the Chardonnay we planted in 1978 was diseased. The phrase “crisis as opportunity” comes to mind.

After almost 25 years, we had a chance to take a fresh look at our property and re-evaluate what belongs here. It’s a process! We hired three different consultants to take soil samples and check the meso-climate1 throughout the site. Much to our comfort and delight, the three consultants came back with almost identical recommendations: Plant red Bordeaux varieties2.

What Is Meritage Wine?

With that decision made, Geoff Gorsuch, our Winemaker, immediately thought about making a Meritage wine. A Meritage (pronounced like “heritage”) is a blend of Bordeaux varieties and so the wines are usually Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot- based (there are white Meritage wines, too, but they’re less common). Since varietal wines had been the standard of excellence here in America, the Meritage Association was created to distinguish hand-crafted, high-quality blends from simple red or white table wines or generic, so-called “jug” wines. Geoff wanted the freedom to blend the varieties together in the way he most prefers, regardless of varietal percentage. He takes the best our property has to give, and blends it into a beautiful expression of our vineyard site to make a single- vineyard, estate grown, Meritage blend.

Planting The Vineyard

We hand-planted lots of Cabernet Sauvignon, some Merlot, and small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Our consultants helped us select the various clones3 and rootstock hybrids4 to match the variability of the soil throughout the 9.5 acres. The vine spacing also varies, depending on the anticipated vine vigor, or lack of it, in different parts of the property. Before planting we re-graded, installed drain-tile and brought down the acidity of the soil a bit.

The vineyard is on the valley floor between the old Rector Creek and the Napa River-Conn Creek junction. Small as it is, the vineyard has been divided into 11 different sections according to variety, clone, rootstock, spacing and other variables. These sections are monitored separately regarding water, nutrients, canopy management5, and of course, harvest date. It’s a lot for Geoff to juggle, but it’s the only way to get the kind of results we’re looking for.

From planting the rootstock or benchgrafts6, 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

Winter

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.

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 vine 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 nights several times during these months to protect the vines from frost using wind machines7 and smudge pots8. 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,” 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, suckering9 and thinning. The suckering is done by hand, and is like a post-pruning. We 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 vines usually flower and set the crop 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 damage (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”10. 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 expect 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 like Cabernet Sauvignon begin to soften and change color (we call this veraison).

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.

Young vines have shallow roots and require more irrigation than they will when they’re mature. Geoff just keeps checking the vineyard for water stress, which varies by section. He prefers to keep the irrigation to the minimum. Too much irrigation at an early age will “spoil” the young vines and prevent them from reaching down into the soil in search of water. He has the same attitude toward fertilization. Too much pampering, and the grapes and wine may lack character and lose flavor intensity.

Late Summer and Harvest

Veraison 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 each section of the vineyard will be ready for harvest. The final decision to harvest a given section is made by tasting. Geoff tastes, looking for flavors that are fully developed. He bites 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 to soon.

Harvest at GoosecrossOnce 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, and so each year we hire the same well-trained men who are paid above the industry standard to be selective. 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 so we get them to the winery as quickly as possible once they’re picked.

The Crush

Cabernet grapes being crushedYou’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).

Each section of the vineyard is monitored separately, and may well ripen on different days or weeks. He’ll keep the varieties separate and even different sections of the same variety separate, depending on when they ripen, and grape flavors. The goal is to make as many batches as possible to see what each one will contribute to the eventual blend.

When the grapes arrive, they’re fed 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! After being crushed and de-stemmed, the “must” as we call it (crushed grapes), goes right into a temperature controlled stainless steel tank, skins seeds and all. The skins contribute all of the color, most of the tannin and much of the flavor to a red wine.

Fermentation

Geoff prefers to use wide tanks to ferment the Bordeaux varieties because when the skins rise during fermentation, it maximizes the skin to juice ratio and gives us a lot of flavor! He may choose to add the yeast immediately or let the juice and skins soak for a few days first, depending on the flavor impressions. Once the yeast is added, the fermentation kicks in soon after. 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. He ferments the reds at relatively high temperatures (mid-70s F), because the warmth heat draws color and flavor out of the skins. The heat also encourages the yeast to work quickly, and it’s common to have a complete conversion of juice to wine within a week or 10 days. When all of the sugar is used up, we say the wine is dry, and the fermentation is over.

Because the wine ferments so quickly, Geoff must taste and analyze it at least every day. The term “cap management” comes from the fact that the skins keep rising to the top of the tank, forming a thick layer we call the cap, and it can’t be allowed to stay there. He must keep it all mixed up, or he won’t get much flavor from the skins. The mixing also helps dissipate excess heat that builds in the cap and can threaten the yeast. Several times a day, he either circulates wine from the bottom over the top (pumping over) or manually pushes the skins back down into the tank with a stainless steel instrument that looks like a big potato masher (punching down).

Once the fermentation is complete and he’s satisfied that he’s gotten what he wants from the skins, he drains the wine out of the tank. This leaves a big pile of skins and seeds holding lots of delicious wine at the bottom of that tank. Geoff and Rosario flip to see which lucky guy gets to crawl into there and shovel out the skins and seeds. It’s all glamor!

The skins and seeds (pomace) 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 skins are loaded into the press, gentle pressure is applied, and the wine runs off, leaving the skins and seeds behind, trapped by a screen. The wine that was pressed is kept separate from the wine that was drained from the tank until Geoff has time to taste and evaluate how much, if any, press wine to blend back into the “free run” (the drained wine).

Aging

Wine Aging In BarrelNext, he transfers the new wine to 60 gallon (300 bottles) French oak aging barrels. Barrel aging does two things:

  1. It allows the wine to evaporate slowly, causing an evolution of color, flavor and aroma.
  2. If the barrel is relatively new, it will contribute oak flavor (which, besides oak, can come across as vanilla, spice, or toasty and nutty aromas) to the wine.

Geoff selects barrels from a number of different producers, and oak from different forests in order to match the wine to the barrel stylistically. He may take one variety, such as the Merlot, and put it into a few different barrel types for a certain effect. Eventually, he will blend the different varieties together as one wine, and put that wine back into barrels for further maturation.

Blending To Make A Meritage Wine

The four varieties we grow on our estate are managed similarly in reference to the general procedures described above, but the individual batches of wine will vary in regard to Geoff’s choice of yeast, cap management, cold soak11 or extended maceration12. These are decisions he has to make by tasting each individual lot and calling upon his experience and judgment to make the call.

When he has a sense of what each batch has to offer, he makes up a number of trial blends. He will continue to taste and modify the trial blends until he finally has just the right balance and character. This is done over a period of months, beginning in the winter following harvest. Eventually, he makes a final blend, and puts it back into barrels, giving it some time to knit itself together in oak before bottling.

Finishing The Wine

During the course of aging, Geoff lets gravity pull the solids to the bottom of the barrel and moves the clear wine off of them periodically. This is called racking, and will be repeated several times over the approximately 18 months the wine spends in the barrel. Racking alone, rarely clarifies the wine adequately, and eventually, the wine is filtered and bottled.

Wine 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.

With great pride, we released this first Estate Meritage in March of 2007 as the 2007 ÆROS Meritage. The ultimate reward of our hard work is knowing that it will be enjoyed by you, and your family and friends over the years to come.

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 solely to Mother Nature.
  2. Red Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. We were advised against planting Malbec, a lesser known variety that is used mainly for color in Bordeaux.
  3. Clone: 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
  4. 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.
  5. Canopy management: Controlling the amount and placement of green growth relative to the clusters, primarily through trellising, and leaf and shoot thinning. Most often, the goal is to improve quality and suppress disease by increasing light and air exposure to the leaf surface and clusters.
  6. 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.
  7. Wind machines: Wind machines are powerful fans placed in the vineyard for frost control. They mix warmer air above, with the colder air settling on the vineyard to prevent damage.
  8. 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.
  9. Suckering: Removing unwanted young shoots to keep the vine and crop in balance.
  10. 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.
  11. Cold soak: Allowing the juice and skins a few days of soaking before adding yeast to start the fermentation. The benefit is to extract relatively gentle skin tannin, without extracting harsher seed tannin. Once alcohol is present, it acts as a solvent and extracts tannin from the seeds.
  12. Extended maceration: Allowing the wine and skins to soak together after fermentation is complete to extract additional flavor and texture.

Process Diagram of Meritage Production

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