The Pursuit of Northern Rhone Magic

On our trip to France in June of 2019, the 2018 Northern Rhone Syrahs we tasted out of barrel floored us.  A warmer, giving vintage oozed and coated, but also popped with bright freshness.  Some of the barrels – particularly Syrah at Monier Perreol and Pierre Gonon in St-Joseph – and the vineyard-designated Mourvedre blends, La Migoua, La Tourtine, and Cabassaou at Tempier in Bandol – seemed so delicious we wished the wine could be bottled as is, immediately.  If only that magic could be captured right then! Other barrels (or Foudres in the case of Tempier) might have benefitted from just a couple more months in barrel to allow tannins to integrate. 

Applying what we tasted to Stolpman Syrah

As we’ve evolved in the winery to gentle, gradual extraction; we no longer need to wait for coarse tannins to resolve.  Those extended months always risked drying the fruit profile, possibly losing the vibrant energy of fresh fruit.  To me, this verve is a key element to any great wine – it must be alive – not flat and dead.

Everything Can’t be So Fresh

We are in love with our Carbonic “So Fresh” line of wines.  But, these wines have their own separate place in our hearts – lighter-weight, pure fruit versus intense concentration and depth.  Now we challenge ourselves to bring the freshness of those magical 2018 Northern Rhone Syrahs to our bolder Ballard Canyon reds.

Where we’ve come from

Along with the more gentle extraction that we’ve explored since 2012, we now debate further options to capture that elevated level of balance: intense and coating, yet tantalizingly fresh and energetic – all while avoiding parching tannins.  Because of this evolution in gentle extraction and the subsequent finer tannins, we have bottled our main Estate Grown Syrah the summer following harvest for the past few vintages.  The wine now rests in barrel for 10-11 months rather than 15-18 months as was the case prior to the 2012 vintage.  The recent Estate Grown Syrah wines are undeniably the best we have ever made.

Since returning from the Northern Rhone, we plan on expanding the experimental paths that we think might further heighten our wines.  Now we more keenly taste our own barrels relative to the wines of our trip.

Options to capture the magic:

  1. A Short Carbonic Fermentation: Start fermentations for only a couple days in our Carbonic tanks, whole-grape and 100% whole-cluster, then crush to open-top Concrete.  Wines would only sit crushed on skins for 10 or so days, beating what is known as the tannin bell-curve.  (Stolpman Vineyards tannin seems to peak if crushed fermentation lasts around 14 days, but tannins are finer with either less time crushed, or significantly more time sitting without pressing, post fermentation.)  By starting fermentation whole-grape and uncrushed, we are able to reduce the amount of time on skins and hopefully achieve depth without coarse tannin.
  • Longer time crushed on skins: Tannins seem to grow finer if the skins are given more time to integrate with the wine.  With the last bits of sugar fermenting and emitting co2, and co2 still seeping from the post-fermentation mass, no potentially-deadening sulfur should be needed for at least a week after the typical 2-week-long native fermentation at Stolpman – stretching time crushed on skins to 21 days.  After this mark, the exposed open top fermenter – with threats of oxidation and other activity, might necessitate a Sulfur addition.  Even without sulfur additions, this idea of a long, protracted fermentation seems a bit counter to our goal of freshness – but the proof is in barrel…
  • Saignee (or bleeding juice off prior to fermentation): If we are going to rely on extremely gentle tannin extraction for earlier bottling eligibility – Perhaps bleeding off some juice would allow for more concentration: that deep, robust, coating mid-palate texture we all crave since tasting those 2018s in barrel.  Note, this term is usually associated with the bi-product wine, the juice that is bled off and made into rose – however, any Syrah Saignee experiments of the past have ended up down the drain due to flavor profile – we prefer the earlier picked presse rose wines that are lower in alcohol, lighter, and higher in acidity.
  • Sulfur: Continue to push the envelope of minimalistic additions of preservative so we don’t lose any magic once bottled.  Ideally, only a bit of sulfur will be added upon racking the wine off of fine lees – primary fermentation would continue to be naked, no protection, to allow for the inclusion of every possible nuanced flavor.  Dependent on a particular wine’s stability, our goal will be zero sulfur additions in the weeks leading up to bottling.  This is an effort not to “shut down” the beautiful, fresh aromatics that we smell in our barrels.  Wines of the noble depth we are shooting will be aged a range of 9-28 months in barrel.  The lighter wines of our So Fresh brand only rest in barrel for up to 6 months so we feel we can get away with zero sulfur additions.  Wines that are bottled after 9-10 months might only need that one minimalistic sulfur add.

Not all the cuvees

Now more than ever, I realize we can never be doctrinaires.  We must adapt to every vintage and every micro-lot that Cuadrilla harvests each night.  Some fruit is going to come in so intense, so packed with flavor – we won’t want to cut that potential short.  By not extracting some lots to their fullest, we might lose richness and compelling textures and flavors.  This is why we must barrel age some wines longer to allow for those intense elements to come together into one cohesive, beauty).  We will never make freshness the sole focus of our most robust cuvees – Originals, Hilltops, La Croce, Angeli, Ruben’s Block, August James Syrah, Sun+Earth, Sangiovese, and of course, the richest – Hair of the Bear.

Barrels – Size Matters when it comes to Freshness

In France, the most frequent barrel size we saw was 600L along with the much larger Foudres of Clape and Tempier.  The larger the barrel, the less oxidative, the fresher.  For the past decade we have been purchasing only 500L barrels rather than the 228+/- liter barrels most common in California.  Thus far we have purchased one large 4,000L foudre and we are certainly interested in purchasing more large-format oak in pursuit of freshness.