April 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Seeking Perfection in Pinot Noir

Six winemakers in two states share their vineyard and winery practices

 
by L.M. Archer
 
 

If the devil is in the details, then Pinot Noir makers comprise an unholy lot. Pinot Noir cuts a cruel swath through winemakers who may be inattentive, ill-informed or uninspired.
     In an effort to analyze domestic Pinot Noir production standards, six winemakers from two regions-Sonoma and Willamette Valley-share their viticultural, vinification and post-production methods here. The wines in this article retail for $45 to $90 per bottle.
     Oregon winemakers include Thomas Houseman of Anne Amie Vineyards in Chehalem Mountains, Claire Jarreau of Brooks Wines in Eola-Amity Hills and Felipe Ramirez of Chapter 24 Vineyards, also in Eola-Amity Hills. California winemakers comprise Theresa Heredia of Gary Farrell Vineyards in Russian River Valley, Michael Cox of Schug Carneros Estate in Sonoma Carneros and Paul Sloan of Small Vines in Sebastopol.
Note: This article draws inspiration from The Cube Project launched in 2010 by three winemakers in three regions over three vintages: Thomas Houseman of Oregon's Anne Amie, Andrew Brooks at Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros and Leslie Renaud at Lincourt in Santa Rita Hills.
     For that project, each producer picked six tons of Pommard clone Pinot Noir on the same day from their respective vineyards, keeping two tons for their own use and distributing two tons each to the remaining wineries. The results yielded nine wines from three vineyard sites, representing three expressions of each vineyard. The impetus behind The Cube Project was to understand whether or not technique trumps terroir.
     The matrix or table in this feature derives from The Cube Project, with minor modifications, by permission of Anne Amie Vineyards.

Viticulture
Legendary Burgundy winemaker Henri Jayer once stated, "A successful vinification thus means that you must be a good wine grower before being a good winemaker."
     Many Burgundians endeavor to bottle the essence of each vintage and respective parcel with minimum intervention, thereby allowing for maximum expression of terroir, a sense of place, to shine through.
     But Burgundy operates within strict production guidelines outlined by France's Appellation d'origine Contrôlée, which dictates everything from varietal options to labeling. In contrast, Pinot Noir producers in the United States have no such constraints, thereby controlling winemaking decisions as disparate as soils, aspect, elevation, clones, rootstock, vine spacing, trellising and pruning selection in the vineyard, as well as work areas, additives and production methods in the cellar.

Vineyard variations
Regardless, Mother Nature calls the final shots in the vineyard. Vintages dictate choices, both in the vineyard and the cellar. In this study, vintages span 2014-2017, based upon the winemaker's preference.
     "One of the reasons I chose the 2014 is because it's probably, to date, my favorite vintage," says Paul Sloan of Small Vines in Sonoma's Sebastopol. "The 2014 vintage had great balance across the board, which resulted in wines of exquisite balance in acidity in fruit, in tertiary components, in structure, in ageability. So I literally did not have to do any augmentation to the wines. The only thing I added was sulfur post-ML. If you can achieve an excellent wine without modification, to me that's the holy grail, the best of the best."
     Michael Cox of Schug winery in Sonoma Carneros proffers the 2016 vintage, conceding, "The 2016 vintage start was the earliest ever at Schug. We did see some cooling in August and then things normalized a bit so we ended the season not that far off. The main concern during the growing season was the health of the vines. However, crop loads were modest and actually our water demands were not as high as one might expect."

Dijon vs. heritage clones
Sloan, who provides data on two sites (TBH Vineyard and MK Vineyard) in order to better illustrate variables within a harvest, also touches on clonal predilections, contrasting heritage clones of Pinot Noir with the modern Dijon clones propagated in Burgundy.
     "With clones, it's been an interesting journey," he said, "We planted MK Vineyard 19 years ago, when there was little information on clones. I used a book by John Caldwell ("A Concise Guide to Wine Grape Clones for Professionals," 1996) at a time when Dijon selections were first coming on scene in California. Almost every vineyard I planted to Dijon starts out at 3.5-3.6 pH before fermentation, so you're having to add tartaric acid in the winery. With the Calera, Swan and Pommard clones, I don't in general. I'm a classic, more traditional Pinot Noir producer-a little bit more on the tertiary, a little less on the forward fruit side. I like those herbal notes, the forest floor and mushroom notes, and I find I get more of that kind of rustic, old world essence in wines from the Calera and Swan and Pommard selections than I do with the Dijon."
     Meanwhile, in Oregon, Thomas Houseman of Anne Amie said: "I am finding that my favorite wines the past few years are coming from non-Dijon clones. There seems to be a predictable uniformity in Dijon clones. They do their job. They do it well. But, I'm really enjoying the unique flavors of the selections. Musigny was a favorite in my cellar last year. I also am curious about others who have had an opportunity to work with this selection."
     In Eola-Amity Hills, Felipe Ramirez of Chapter 24 Vineyards uses Dijon clones. "We care about clones, but for us it is more important what kind of soils and rocks we have under the vines, so all our new plantation is a blend of clones driven by the soil," he said.

Vine spacing
Besides clonal selection, vine spacing and trellising choices run the gamut. Ramirez employs 6.5-feet by 3.2-feet vine spacing with cane pruning. "We think this is the good compromise between a good expression of the vigor of the vines and the yield," he said. "We look for a balance between the vegetative and the reproductive part of the plant, so, on these soils, we found this spacing, trellis and pruning give us the best opportunity to labor the vineyard and to have balance in the vines, then balance in the grapes and finally harmonious wines."
     In California's Russian River Valley, Gary Farrell's Theresa Heredia favors established norms. "Back then the Rochioli family was moving to closer vine spacing, but they had to consider vine vigor along the river and decided on 10-by-7 spacing. Vertical shoot positioning (VSP) is best for canopy management and sun exposure, and they have historically used cordon pruning at Rochioli and Allen vineyards as it works well to help control vine vigor," she said.
     On the Sonoma Coast, Sloan of Small Vines prefers Burgundian-inspired tight 4-by-3 and 4-by-4 spacing and double Guyot pruning to prevent too much sunlight on the fruit, thereby allowing for greater acid preservation. "If you can dry farm, have good acid preservation and get phenological maturity at low Brix levels, you have the makings of a great, classic Pinot Noir," he said.
     In Carneros, Michael Cox states: "Existing equipment and soil fertility played a role in planting density. VSP to maximize airflow and sun on fruit and buds. Cane pruning because we have found that in our harsh conditions it gives more consistent yields."

Vinification
In the cellar, all six winemakers follow fairly consistent protocols, staying with levels of 22°-25° Brix for red wine, pH levels of 3.4 to 3.6 and a titratable acidity of in the range of 6.5 to 7.5 grams per liter. YAN (yeast assimilable nitrogen) measurements all fall below the danger zone of 300 milligrams per liter.
     Divergences manifest when considering nutrient additions. Anne Amie adds diammonium phosphate nutrients, as well as metatartaric acid at warm up. "I do a fairly long cold soak to let the indigenous population build up. At warming (slight Brix drop) I add nutrients to help them on their way. No real secret here, just common sense," Houseman said.
     Chapter 24 bases additions upon YAN levels, whereas Gary Farrell incorporates SpringFerm during the inoculation process and then again after fermentation ramps up, but only if necessary.
     Three wineries favor stem retention: Oregon's Anne Amie, and California's Gary Farrell and Small Vines. "I utilize whole cluster as part of my style," said Houseman of Anne Amie. "It can vary from site to site and year to year, but generally ranges from none to 30% with an average of about 15%. In 2016, if you read the vintage notes, we had a heat spike during flowering and had some very uneven set in some vineyards. In sites with lots of hens and chicks I did no whole cluster. In sites with better set I topped out at 15%, but the average was lower given the smaller cluster size and tannic concentration from the skins. 10% signifies I had good set in this block, but not perfect."
     Heredia of Gary Farrell adds, "I just chose 20% whole cluster for this particular block. I generally like 10-15% whole clusters in Rochioli Pinot Noir, but the clusters and stems in this vintage looked really nice so I decided to go with a bit more. I often use higher percentages of whole cluster with cool, coastal vineyards (sometimes 40-50%) because the stems harden off more evenly as the fruit ripens, but here in the Middle Reach (of the Russian River) where it is a bit warmer I tend to be a bit more careful with this technique. I think the use of 20% whole clusters in this case gives the wine a nice backbone of tannin and adds layers of spice and black tea."
     Sloan of Small Vines says, "I use different percentages of whole cluster, basing on dry farming. If I'm able to dry farm, I use more whole cluster."

Cold soaks
All the winemakers perform cold-soak macerations with length of maceration averaging between two to nine days and temperatures between 40°-59° F. Only two wineries introduce non-native yeasts to initiate fermentation: Gary Farrell winery likes Levuline BRG, while Schug winery is partial to Assmanshausen.
     "I have a few favorite yeast strains, but the BRG yeast is a very strong fermenter, it generates enough heat for good tannin extraction and it ferments quickly, but not too fast," Heredia said.
     While most practice punchdowns one to three times daily throughout fermentation, Chapter 24 eschews punchdown altogether. In contrast, Anne Amie applies modified carbonic fermentation. "I've been experimenting for a number of years with a very reductive approach," Houseman says, as opposed to the traditional oxidative punchdown open-top fermentation. "I find that not only does it turn the flavor profile from red fruit to darker fruits, but it also alters the mouthfeel of the tannins. It's just another way of giving me more dimensions to work with for blending. Basically, I seal a floating lid on the tank at reception. The tank is gassed with CO2 during cold soak and pumped over, as well as extended maceration. During fermentation it is creating its own CO2. It never receives a punchdown and the lid does not come off until digging the wine into the press."
     Maximum fermentation temperatures range from 75° F at Brooks, to 90° F at Anne Amie, with an average range between 85° and 87° F for the balance of wineries. Post-maceration typically runs 12-15 days, except for Schug and Small Vines. Gary Farrell does no punchdowns during extended maceration. "I do not want to perform any maceration techniques during extended maceration," Heredia said. "I only add dry ice to gas the headspace to prevent oxidation of the cap, which is floating on top during the entire extended maceration period."
     Total time on skins averages between 21-40 days, with the exception of Schug (12 days) and Small Vines (17-18 days). Only Gary Farrell inoculates for malolactic fermentation, treating with Enoferm Alpha after drain and press and before going to barrel. In addition, Anne Amie, Gary Farrell and Schug do acid additions. At pressing Anne Amie adds .8 g/L tartaric acid, while Gary Farrell adds 2 g/L at the grape stage during cold soak and Schug introduces 1.25 g/L post cold soak at inoculation.

Post-production
Oregon's Anne Amie features the most elaborate oaking protocols, favoring 100% French oak comprised of 25% new, 25% one-year and 50% neutral. All wines are racked to neutral oak after nine months for an additional seven months aging. In California, Gary Farrell uses 40% new French oak with light toast, Schug 25% new French oak and Small Vines 30% and 40% respectively.
     "My use of oak varies vintage to vintage," said Sloan with Small Vines. "Every vintage wears oak slightly differently. Great oak brings a brightness and tension to the wine. I'm looking for barrels that change the wine the least."
     After fermentation and aging, final alcohol levels range from 13.0% at Brooks in Oregon to 13.9% at Schug in California. Final pH levels range from 3.43 at Brooks in Oregon to 3.68 at Small Vines in Sonoma.

Conclusions
While all of these producers aspire to a classic style of Pinot Noir, none follows a dogmatic approach either in the vineyard or the cellar. Oregon's Chapter 24 may be considered an outlier in its emphasis on soils analysis as the blueprint for building their vineyards, while California's Small Vines hews its own path with its commitment to old-world best practices such as spacing, trellising, canopy management and judicious use of whole clusters during fermentation.
     While production methods may vary, the motivation of these six winemakers for working with Pinot Noir does not-a shared quest for purity, precision and perfection.
     "What I like about Pinot Noir is its transparency," says Houseman. "As a red grape it yields a finished wine when made well that has many white wine qualities. Like a white wine, there is less to hide behind. This means for me, and, the Cube Project demonstrated this very well, that tiny nuances in site, clone, vintage, viticulture and of course winemaking intent can result in very different wines. As a winemaker, its transparency keeps one honest. For that reason alone, I am thankful both as a winemaker and a consumer."
     Claire Jarreau of Brooks Wines confesses, "Due to its thin skins and late-ripening nature, growing and making Pinot Noir in Oregon can be a high-stakes gamble, especially in challenging vintages. There can be no hiding mistakes made on the vine or in the cellar; every aspect of the grapes' transformation into wine is expressed. However, this transparency makes Pinot Noir a great storyteller and highly rewarding for those that enjoy the challenge."
     Ultimately, concludes Ramirez of Chapter 24, "After several years making wines and learning from different sides of the world, I'm pretty sure that Pinot Noir is the most challenging of all varieties. The standard is so, so high, and in Burgundy quite mythic. It is a cépage that really doesn't forget any mistake, not in the vineyard, not at the winery. Best things are never easy and always challenging."


L. M. Archer is a wine and lifestyle writer specializing in Burgundy and sparkling wine. A resident of Santa Cruz, Calif., she is also the founder and editor of binNotes.com, a site showcasing affordable Burgundy and regions that produce Pinot Noir and sparkling wine worldwide.

 
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