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Wine Essences

by David on July 7, 2009

Supplemental audio discussion is available through Napa Valley Wine Radio or click here for the related .mp3 episode.

When you read the wine column in your local newspaper, no doubt you’ve noticed the countless adjectives and that the wine is described as being like almost any kind of fruit except grapes. Why do we describe a wine as being like pear or raspberry when it’s made out of grapes? We certainly can’t add these things to the wine unless we indicate it on the label.

Biologists have explained to us that all things that grow-trees, bushes, herbs– share certain components. They’re telling us that there’s something of a grape in a peach, and there’s something of a peach in some grapes. These compounds can be isolated. For instance, when you try our Viognier you can smell the peaches, apricots and orange blossom. Viognier, peaches, flowers and other fruits share a compound called linalool that contributes to this character. It’s a major player in Riesling, Muscat and Gewurztraminer too. Linalool is so fragrant it’s often used in making perfumes and soaps. Much of what you smell and taste is native to the variety.

These inherent characteristics are influenced a great deal by the environment and man. Some of these traits can be accentuated or de-emphasized by where the grapes are grown and the decisions the grower or winemaker makes along the way. For instance, cool climates often produce grapes that are on the low end of the ripeness scale, and tend to show more earthy and green, herbal character and a relatively high acidity. Warm climates produce riper grapes, which brings out the fruitiness and softens the acid.

Sauvignon Blanc is a great example. A substance called pyrazine is prevalent in bell peppers, asparagus, beets and Sauvignon Blanc among other varieties. When the Sauvignon Blanc is harvested on the low end of the ripeness scale, the pyrazine is quite noticeable. If the grapes are allowed to ripen further, the pyrazine begins to take a back seat to flavor compounds that heighten citrus and melon. This means that you can safely assume that if you smell lots of herbs and bell pepper in your Sauvignon Blanc, it probably came from a cool climate, or was picked early on. Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is a delicious example. Our Goosecross Sauvignon Blanc is loaded with melon and grapefruit and has just a slight hint of grassiness. It’s because of our sunny climate, and also because Geoff Gorsuch, our Winemaker, prefers to let the grapes ripen beyond the herbal stage to bring out the fruit. Grapes harvested at the very high end of the ripeness scale can even yield tropical character.

Alongside grape fragrances, there are production aromas such as oak or butter among many others. Those don’t come from the vineyard, but rather are caused by man. Of course, the oak flavor comes from relatively new barrels. Vanilla and toasty character usually come from the barrel too. Buttery or butterscotch aromas are usually caused by a secondary fermentation called malo-lactic fermentation, which also softens acidity. These, and many other variables, are in the control of the winemaker, along with some other variables that we don’t pretend to understand or control. They please and mystify us at the same time.

Our Chardonnay is a good illustration of how nature and these other variables work together to create a certain style. When Geoff makes our Chardonnay, he harvests grapes we grow in the Carneros Region of Napa Valley. It is the coolest, foggiest region in the valley, yet it’s warm enough to move the Chardonnay beyond the green stage into fruity. If Geoff picks when the grapes are technically ripe, we get fresh apple and pear. However, he prefers to wait until he tastes a bit of pineapple and guava. If he chose to pick the grapes sooner we would miss out on that.

He goes easy on the oak, but leaves the wine in the barrel long enough to give the fruity Chardonnay some complexity, lending it subtle flavors of vanilla, smoke and toasty, nutty essences. He avoids the malo-lactic fermentation so the fruit isn’t masked by butter and so that the acid is crisp and fresh on your palate. This is our signature style, but you can see that there are many different forks in the road stylistically, and each winemaker will make his own choices.

Again, this isn’t meant to imply that we completely understand the delicate mix of mysterious elements that come together to influence aroma and flavor. The things we know are just puzzle pieces. Part of wine’s charm is its ability to confound.

Becoming familiar with some of the puzzle pieces and building your wine vocabulary becomes useful when it’s time to make a selection at a restaurant or the wine shop. If you tell your retailer that you want a bottle of Chardonnay, he’s at a loss because he’s got dozens of brands. You can direct him by saying you want a crisp Chardonnay that’s not too big, buttery or oaky. Or vice versa. Now he’s got information to work with and can help you choose a wine that’s far more likely to make you happy. And what is wine for, but to make us happy?

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