Early Returns on the 2010 Harvest: Montesquieu Winemaker Reviews Progress In The Cellar
Artistry In The Cellar
After one of the most eventful seasons in quite some time, we’ve shifted from vineyard work at the end of October 2010 and negotiating all of Mother Nature’s whims, to cellar work in November and December with more controlled variables. This might appear to some to be a break in the hectic pace of things. But our winemaker, Hélène Mingot, tells us this is not the case — it is merely a change of focus, not unlike dancers transitioning from a quickstep to a tango. A change of rhythm and technique, yes, but both dances are equally challenging to perform. Similarly, Hélène and Stéphane are light on their feet, striving to allow the raw quality of the fruit to blossom in such a way as to make the best and most expressive wine possible from each of our parcel’s terroir.
Hélène and Stéphane monitoring fermentation in our cellar
Achieving this goal requires a delicate balance between doing just enough in the cellar to harness the full potential of the fruit, but not intervening too much in order to avoid manipulating the character of the wine. Such an approach is extremely time consuming, as it demands the kind of care and attention that is anything but automated or formulaic, nothing like the mechanical procedures employed by so many corporate-run, high-volume wine producers. This goes beyond simple execution. It requires artistry and having all senses attuned and ready, watching, listening, interacting, — no “one size fits all” here!
As we look to what 2011 promises to bring, let’s review exactly how we got from point A to point B — what’s happened in the cellar from harvest until now.
Bringing in the Grapes
Once the grapes were all finally harvested, they were transported immediately to our production facility Arkenstone on Howell Mountain. It is especially important for the temperature to not be too high, which is why some of our harvests took place at night! Our Lake County AVA Red Hills Cab was the last to come in, and was harvested at night October 27th. Among all of our parcels, Red Hills is farthest away from Arkenstone, so the earlier and cooler the grapes arrive to the facility, then better. Cleanliness is essential for good winemaking, as troublesome bacteria can be disastrous. This is one of many reasons that Hélène is thrilled to be making our wine at Arkenstone, as the facility is brand-new and state-of-the-art. The equipment is new, and the space is beautifully designed as well. The majority of the facility is below ground, which helps keeps the cellar at proper, stable temperatures during the winemaking process.
Sorting & Destemming
When the grapes arrive to the winery, they are first placed on a shaker, which distributes the clusters, sending them on to a conveyor belt where they are hand-sorted, removing leaves and the few grapes not up to our high standards. Then on to the destemmer and the table where the stems and jacks are removed. (Jacks are the connecting parts of the stem closest to the grapes, and look exactly like little jacks!) Each berry then moves one-by-one into the funnel leading to the tank. Off they go to grow up and become wine!
Initial Cold-Soak Maceration
The next step for red wine is to allow the grape skins and must (the fleshy inner part of the grape) to have some contact so as to transfer the acids, tannins, flavors and color – which form the majority of the final wine’s character – from the skins to juice. Hélène and Stéphane favor the technique of whole-berry, cold-soak maceration (that is, softening and macerating whole grapes by soaking them in a cool liquid), which helps elicit excellent aromatics, delicate flavors, and a very balanced extraction. Depending on the varietal and other conditions, the grapes will usually soak for two to four days. During this time the grapes are slowly allowed to warm up to the perfect temperature to introduce fermentation.
C6 H12O6 -> 2 C2H5OH + 2CO2
Yeast-glucose (sugar) -> Alcohol (ethanol) + Carbon Dioxide
Of course until fermentation takes place, in which yeast causes the grapes’ natural sugars to convert into alcohol, we merely have fancy grape juice on our hands – a lot less fun to drink! So after the cold-soak maceration, the lots are inoculated with Saccharomyces Cerevisae yeast, with fermentation beginning generally the next day or so, and it is at this point that the grape juice can officially be called wine! This stage is a delicate dance of pump-overs and punch-downs to extract the best of the ripe skins as the sugars complete their transformation into alcohol.
Extended Maceration & Press
When fermentation is finished, we keep the juice and the skins in contact at temperatures of 80 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit, a process called extended maceration that can take as long as 23 or 24 days. Throughout the extended maceration period, Hélène engages in a methodical tasting cadence of each lot in order to assess the evolution of the wine. When the extraction has reached its optimal point, we drain the juice using a natural gravity-fed system and send it to barrels (new and used, depending on the varietal and goals, always 100% French oak). We shovel the skins off the tank into a basket for pressing. The juice that is collected from the press is separated into different lots depending on their quality. Some of these lots will be blended back into the free run juice, while some others will be kept separated during aging in used barrels.
After press, we keep the barrels in a dedicated aisle at around 62-64 F for malolactic fermentation (also called secondary fermentation). This is a reaction in which malic acid is converted into lactic acid, and results in the texture of the wine changing from crisp and light to creamy and deep. The barrels are constantly evaluated by tasting and monitoring. This process, which is where we are right now, can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Every vintage is different, and it’s imperative to customize the timing of each wine- making step to the needs and character of each lot. Hélène anticipates that this year’s malolactic fermentation will probably be complete by the end of January, at which point each lot will be racked individually to separate the heavy lees from the fine lees to continue aging under peak conditions.
We are excited for how our 2010 Montesquieu wines and the latest range of Derenoncourt California are showing in the cellar, and will keep you posted with any new developments along the way! Industry reports are now coming out echoing earlier feedback from Hélène and Stéphane of how the 2010 harvest has great potential to yield exciting, elegantly balanced wines. Stay tuned!