The New Era: Oak Versus Whole-Cluster

2012 marks the first of three evenly hot, perfect growing seasons. The timing of these vintages coincides both with the launch of new winemaking methods, and with the culmination of long-term projects. We have the luxury of embarking on new journeys under ideal conditions.
Prior to the 2014 Syrah harvest, I sat down with Sashi Moorman to learn more about the changes afoot.

WHOLECLUSTERFERM
W H O L E  C L U S T E R S
As the vineyard has matured and each vine’s roots grow deeper, we now extensively dry-farm. Without irrigation, the stems lignify into woody twigs.
The logic of whole cluster fermentation is straight forward. The native wood of dry-farmed stems imparts further backbone into the profile of the wine rather than using foreign oak. The stems are one more element of our vineyard’s personality, the terroir. The stems add intriguing, seductive aromas. Sashi notes lavender, chamomile, herbal tea, delicate flowers, sage, dust and bay leaves. Overall, the whole clusters add prettiness to the wines. To play into the prettiness, Sashi opts not to cold-soak the fruit prior to fermentation. Rather, the insulating concrete fermenters allow for a slow, native fermentation that keeps the wine delicate and nuanced. No sulfur is added to the wines until after pressing into barrels.

CONCRETEFERM
When wineries employ high percentages of new oak, a different set of flavors are added. Often, new oak imparts sweetness, similar to oak-aged bourbon. Combined with excessively ripe fruit, red wines can take on flavors of bourbon-soaked maraschino cherries. Winemakers shooting for this style will often delay fermentation and macerate to extract chewy tannin and inky black color.
The difference between stems and barrels can be boiled down to this: Stems are savory, barrels are sweet.

PUNCHEONS

P U N C H E O N S  &  C I G A R S: The effects of our 7 year transition
Speaking of barrels, since 2006, we have been on an expensive journey to eliminate Burgundy barrels from the winery. As of 2012, the Syrahs age entirely in large 500L Puncheons and long 265L Cigars, almost all of which are neutral.
L’Avion and Estate Roussanne ferment and age in the new oak Puncheons, and then in subsequent harvests, reds age in the neutral, used oak. Sashi’s reasoning for employing Puncheons is fairly straightforward. The larger barrels provide a more subtle effect on the Roussanne: Due to the size, puncheons provide 55% less gallon to barrel surface-area exposure. The Oak Puncheons frame the Roussanne for aging while not over-powering the fruit profile.
Sashi also finds further benefit through the increased Lees contact in the larger barrels. We leave the Roussanne in barrel for 15 months, never racking the wine. Part of the wines’ beautiful richness comes from resting on a layer of skin and pulp sediment at the bottom of the barrels. With longer and wider oak vessels, the layer of lees spreads out across the gradual slope. The expansive lees deposit lends to more exposure to the aging wine, resulting in heightened richness.

CIGARS

While Roussanne enters all of our new puncheons each year, we still buy a few 265 cigars that are used judiciously on La Croce and Hilltops Syrah. The difference in gallon-to-surface area ratio is only 15% compared to a standard 225L barrel. It is the extended length of the cigars that compels Sashi to purchase them each year. Sashi explains that because the staves are the same length as the Puncheons, just constructed with a tight diameter, Ermitage (our cooper) only selects the very finest wood to construct the longer staves for both. Overall, Sashi purchases over 10% of Ermitage’s total long-stave production.

C O N C L U S I O N
Tasting the 2012 wines alongside older vintages, Sashi has clearly hit a finer point of balance. He enhanced an already beautiful vintage with gentle fermentations and added seductively savory notes through careful whole-cluster inclusion. The 2012s, 2013s, and 2014s, will not be jammy, oaky, and black; any winemaker who waited weeks longer to pick, macerated, and bought new barrels could have made such wines. We feel that both the vineyard, and our winemaking techniques, have hit a new revolutionary era. Try the wines.