Obsession: Fine Tannins in 2013

IMG_5614After 19 harvests we’re just as obsessed with improving our wines as we were with our first vintage in 1994. Dry farming Limestone in Ballard Canyon doesn’t always leave me with sexy stories (a tale of organic fertilizer, anyone?), but it’s important to let our devotees know about evolving ideology as an estate.
For the past few vintages, winemaker Sashi Moorman has directed his focus on refining the tannin structure and mouth-feel of Stolpman wines. According to Sashi, year in and year out, Santa Barbara County has no problem achieving phenolic ripeness thanks to our Southern location and subsequent sun exposure. The winemaking challenge lies in balancing the ripe flavor with all of the other components of wine; mainly the textures that we categorize into terms like mouth-feel, tannin, and finish.
With a daily 40 degree Fahrenheit swing, we’ve realized that Santa Barbara County grapes are different than the rest of the Central Coast and Northern California. In other more moderate climates, grapes continue to ripen through the night.
Just a quick glance at Cuadrilla bundled up during harvest to protect against the misty, cold fog and I don’t think there’s any question that Ballard Canyon nights are chilly. We embrace the temperature swing and only pick at night to capture the fresh, cool flavor profile of the grapes. Because the vines rest at night, we are insured a long growing season in which the grapes are able to retain balancing acidity. But the wild temperature cycle presents more subtle winemaking challenges.
The most obvious effect of Santa Barbara County’s diurnal swing can be seen and felt on the surface of the grapes: the skins. Skins are thicker in Santa Barbara County and I’m not talking about sun damaged beach bums. To weather the intense rays of the days and then to insulate the grape during the cold nights, vines naturally create a more effective buffer. Winemaking 101 teaches us that tannin is derived from the grape skins, so we conclude that we will have more tannic wines than other regions.
Perhaps an even more profound difference can be seen at the core of the grape: the seed. The cold nights prevent seed maturation from green to brown, a process called lignification. As the vine senses the end of its year approaching with the arrival of colder weather, the entire vine prepares to go dormant, including the seed, which, if it was up to the vine, would stay dormant over the winter and become a seedling the next year, hopefully with the aid of fertilizer in an animal dropping.
20130903-133441.jpgWinemakers are generally seed obsessed, when they taste grapes in the vineyard, it’s not unusual to spit the seeds back into one’s hand, examine the color and hardness, and even chew the seed in half to look inside. I first experienced this when I was charged with sampling the blocks of a 250 acre Chianti Classico vineyard in 2006. Francesco, the head winemaker, looked for browning and softening from rock hard green to indicate harvest dates and was less worried about sugar levels. Because reds are fermented with the seeds, these textures and flavors will be imparted in the wine. In the shorter growing season in Chianti; bitter, green, under-ripe seeds could counter Francesco’s winemaking efforts to create a pleasurable wine out of medium bodied, austere, and tannic Sangiovese.
Because of the delayed seed maturation and high tannins in Santa Barbara County, Sashi has implemented a more gentle extraction approach. In the short winemaking tradition here in Santa Barbara County, winemakers have always favored punch-downs to extract color, tannin, and flavor. Cellar crews climb on top of fermenters and use oak rods to press down and submerge the floating cap of seeds and skins. Punch downs force solids into the juice below with all the weight of a human body, so the liquid can absorb flavor and texture. The exhausting manual labor; usually done three times a day during maceration and fermentation, up to a month in total; ensures full extraction, but is that what we want?
One of the most exciting elements of the Santa Barbara County wine industry is the sense of the young and up-and-coming. The region itself is new, and many critics have noticed the independent and entrepreneurial enthusiasm of young winemakers striking out on their own. The result of this spirit are small wineries that possess plenty of elbow grease in the form of long hours and strong upper bodies, but lack the capital for large or “fancy” fermenting equipment.
Relatively inexpensive, small, square fermenters and punch downs are the tradition in Santa Barbara County and Stolpman naturally embraced them in our early stages. Now that we’re established and reinvesting in the winery, we took a closer look into whether this winemaking technique is merely the standard here or if it’s the best practice.
If we have thicker tannic skins and seeds not quite brown, is it best to vigorously extract through punchdowns in small fermenters with high cap to juice ratios? Maybe not!
ConcreteSkyLast year we invested in 8 larger 4 ton fermenters and Rajat Parr brought in a beautiful new, gentle pump from Italy. With the deeper concrete tanks and larger volume, there is more gallonage underneath the skin and seed cap to reduce the contact ratio. The pump allows the juice to flow over the cap rather than jamming the cap down into the juice. The thick unsealed concrete walls naturally insulate the juice and impart further soft textures.
After being blown away by our trial run of 8 last year, Sashi will now have 20 4-ton concrete fermenters at his disposal in 2013.
In the vineyard, dry farming allows for earlier lignification, or browning, of the stems and seeds. As more of the vineyard matures and can survive without irrigation, we expect to see seed browning earlier across the board. Ruben is also busy playing with a new vine trellising system to help the cause as well. His new “Christmas Tree” technique of sheltering grapes within the vine’s triangular canopy allow the clusters to stay just a few degrees warmer at night. Ruben identified accelerated seed maturation from the new Block 3 Grenache and Block 5 Sangiovese vines, and beginning in 2014, we expect to see the same in the replanted Block 6 Syrah.
The 2013 harvest kicked off on Saturday, August 24 when we picked Block 5 Sauvignon Blanc. Then, on Monday August 26th, La Cuadrilla carefully picked the top 2/3 of Ruben’s Block. The bottom portion will be picked at least a week later, and Sashi will decide if that portion will make the cut into Ruben’s Block Syrah.
IMG_5586To follow shortly are Sangiovese and Grenache picks destined for Rose, snatched early at 21 brix to be pressed into refreshing pink wine. More Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and then Chardonnay will keep the crew busy until we jump into Syrah and Sangiovese in late September. Because all of the vines recorded the dry winter conditions, they set a conservative crop, and are in a mode to go dormant relatively early this year, accelerating seed maturation.
Over the past 20 years, we have become further convinced we sit on an extraordinary site for a vineyard, and the decade-old wines in library prove this. The massive tannin and structure have integrated into the fruit profile and it’s tough to resist closing my eyes to shut out the rest of the world and enjoy whenever I taste them. The intensity and Limestone driven minerality and acidity will never change at Stolpman Vineyards. However, if we can improve our methodology, these wines won’t need 10 years to hit a sublime peak. Our intent is not to shorten the life of Stolpman wines, rather, our goal is to elevate the deliciousness quotient out of the gate. If we can nail a more delicate, finer point of balance, the wines will have more appeal upon release, and as long as we continue with native fermentation and bottling unfiltered, they will evolve and develop nuance with age.
Olivier Clape, of Domaine Auguste Clape in Cornas, left an impression on me with his quick summation of the 2012 harvest over email, “the 2012 vintage turned out great in the end, very fine tannins.” That was it!
While the tannin obsession is relatively recent for Stolpman, everything we do is recent relative to the ancient cellars and traditions of Cornas Syrah. Maybe our quest for fine tannin isn’t so ground breaking after all.
Most of our customers might not realize the thinking behind the wines, so our goal is simply the universal conclusion, “those Stolpman wines just keep getting better!”