Monday, November 29, 2010

Wake Up And (Try To) Smell The Roses

Whenever I have the chance to travel, eat out at a restaurant with a thoughtful wine list, or just visit a nice wine store I am reminded of one idiosyncratic feature of being a winemaker; the high-risk of developing a narrow palate.  Actually, narrow is probably not even the best word to describe the phenomenon so much as 'oblivious' or 'ignorant.'  It is not that we consciously decide to be ignorant in what we are tasting, no one would ever consider that a valuable mentality, so much as a narrow 'house palate' sneaks up on us.

It goes without saying that as individuals, we all have preferences when it comes to what we like to taste or not in anything from wine to cheese to breakfast.  These individual differences are what make anything interesting, but they can become a major problem for winemakers when the preferences take precedence over what consumers taste and desire.  At Fox Run, we have a strong preference for a tight-wire balance between sparkling acidity and dryness with our rieslings in particular.  To many consumers, these rieslings would seem far to dry to be enjoyable and we have to keep that in mind and push our personal opinions with sugar in riesling.  (As part of this balancing act we do end up rewarding our palates with our Reserve Rieslings, that are labeled as such because they suit our stylistic preferences with the understanding that they will not be appropriate for everyone.)

This difference between the palate of the winemakers and the consumers extends in many directions; tolerance of oak, tolerance of tannic structure, understanding of aging potential (i.e. how long a winermaker versus a consumer would age the wine), etc. etc.  A more fundamental problem with the house palate, however, is when it ends up becoming so firmly entrenched we are blinded to realities in the wine instead of preferences.

There are a multitude of flaws that can plague wines of every type that have to do with the winemaking; as opposed to something such as a corked wine which is beyond the control of a winemaker once the wine is in the bottle.  Nevertheless, there have been just as many cases where a winemaker is so used to tasting their own wines that they don't recognize that flaw as out of the ordinary.  This has far less to do with preferences than it does with lack of tasting variety, and in the past few years it is a problem that everyone from winemakers to owners are understandably keen to avoid in themselves and their staff.

Finally, slightly larger in scope than the house palate, is another preference set that has a more nuanced impact across an entire area; the regional palate.  The regional palate issue, however, is not restricted to those who work in a winery but can hold sway over an entire consumer base.  The general idea is that one's palate adjusts to the particular expression of grapes in a region or style that is consumed most often, and learning to get beyond that can be as frustrating as it is rewarding.  This is probably a topic for another blog post due to how fascinating and far-reaching its impact can be.  Instead, I'll leave it for now with this question that has been bothering me; why do so many people pride themselves on enjoying a multitude of cuisines from high to low brow, yet just as proudly proclaim a very narrow perspective in wine?

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

Music of the Day:

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Friday, November 26, 2010

What to be Thankful For

Yesterday, Thanksgiving, my family and I discovered and thoroughly investigated what I consider to be the greatest piece of software ever invented...Pandora. As I understand it, if you have a wireless internet connection you can set it up. We have wireless speakers and a little thing that looks and feels like a PDA and you can basically go around your house and choose and play any music, any radio station (that is streamed), any song that is downloaded into your computer. Or maybe play a CD in one room and other music in another room with one fingertip touch. My life is changed. It is unbelievable. Your favorite music all the time.

So last night we sat at the table after a delicious meal (except for my sweet potato biscuits - those were a flop - note to self: don't try new recipes on Thankgiving) and created playlists from the artists that my Mother used to make us listen to when we were growing up. The favorite of the night...Shirley Bassey radio!!! Santana, The Fifth Dimension, Jackson 5. What a riot. Each time you choose an artist Pandora will save that "station" and it will choose songs similar to that artist. It is magical.

What if there was a Pandora for wine?? If you loved, for instance, a flowery, mango-ish, perfectly balanced semi-dry riesling from Fox Run Vineyards a little voice would pop up and say, "well if you loved that wine, then you will love........" what a great viral selling tool for Finger Lakes wines. And the little voice would only suggest Finger Lakes rieslings because this is the only place that such wine is available. We are so lucky to be living and working here in this beautiful place.

What if there was a Pandora for winemaking teams?? That would be a complete failure. I can tell you for sure that there is no other team like the 3 amigos up there. Peter Bell is my hero. First of all, a man who speaks six languages makes me swoon. I am consistently amazed at the quality of every wine that shows up in the tasting room. One of the first times I met Peter he came down to the Cafe for a wine & food pairing and as we were tasting the 2006 Gewurztraminer I blurted out that he was a genius and he gave me a big hug. The talented Ms. Tricia Renshaw is quite a find with her uncanny olfactory memory and fantastic descriptors. When I first came to Fox Run I spent most of the night at an event with Tricia and the next day called up to the winery to announce to Peter that I was madly in love with her. Then there is Kelby J. Russell who started as an intern. He sent letters to lots of Finger Lakes wineries and I think Peter was one of only two people to respond...we are so lucky he did. Kelby graduated from Harvard, and basically has been traveling around the world in order to execute what I think is a very calculating strategy to find the perfect life. A brilliant, cool, winemaker-marketing expert-tech head-music fan-foodie. He is mainly responsible for this blog and keeping it alive.

As I sit here finishing this post I am listening to Nina Simone radio on Pandora which leads us to Charlie Spivak, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Big Mama Thorton, Rosemary Clooney, Diana Krall, Nat King Cole, etc!!!!! I am so thankful.

Here is my shameless Fox Run plug...sorry Kelby J. Russell: Today only!! Come to the winery and buy our delicious 2007 Meritage and get a bottle of our even more delicious 2007 Pinot noir FREE.

By: Leslie Kroeger, Marketing & Jack-of-all-trades

Music of the Day:

  • Stanton Moore - Take It To The Street; "Who Took The Happiness Out?"
    • Ed. Note: Leslie wins the award for being the first person to select a song I couldn't find a video for on Youtube to plug.  The selection is fantastic, however, and can be heard for free via the Amazon link above.  Check it out!

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Different Kind of Bug

People often stop me on the street and say, “What do winemakers talk about in late November?”  Well, probably the number-one question we ask of each other in this profession is “So, d’ya getcher deer?”

Just kidding. It’s “How are your MLs doing?”

MLs in this case are winemaker shorthand for malolactic fermentations. You may recall seeing a picture of Tricia in an earlier post, initiating the process from on high with little cups of freeze-dried bacteria. That was a few weeks ago: by now, our MLs are either well underway or wrapped up entirely.

What’s the point of this procedure? A guaranteed modest reduction in the acidity of the wine, associated with the conversion of malic acid to lactic, is rarely a bad thing in our cool climate. But we also expect an increase in aroma and flavor complexity.

Not all wines need to undergo this extra microbial treatment, but we normally ask it of our reds and our barrel-fermented Chardonnay. In Chards, the added complexity often presents as a mild butter or butterscotch character (a little goes a long way), whereas in reds the change is harder to describe but definitely a good thing. We can transform Pinot noir, for instance, from a simple cherry- and berry-flavored concoction into one that’s more reminiscent of earth, cola and spices with the aid of bacteria, especially if ML happens in conjunction with barrel maturation.

The organism we recruit to do the work has the scientific name oenococcus oeni, with both the oe- prefixes pronounced like ee-. Our friend Chris Stamp at Lakewood Vineyards, who has a decidedly un-eunuch-like devotion to his craft, went ahead and renamed it weenie coccus weenie, despite the fact that bacteria don’t actually have undersized sexual organs, and in fact possess none at all. (To give you an even clearer idea of what’s on Chris’s mind much of the time, he’s still upset that he didn’t trademark the name ‘Viagra’ for a proprietary blend of Vignoles and Niagara, years ago.)

Malolactic bacteria are dwarfed by yeast cells, though neither is visible to the naked eye. It takes a serious microscope to get a look at oenococci. They’re fussier and more fickle too, somewhat like the stereotype of a Russian mail-order bride: apt to sulk if they don’t get the things they want and deserve. Thus we keep the cellar at a balmy 70 degrees F, and play soothing music rather than the more jarring stuff, and perhaps ply them with baubles.

Most wineries with modest budgets use a process called paper chromatography to monitor the progress of this transformation. It’s a fun though somewhat laborious technique involving a smelly solvent, some tiny glass tubes called micropipettes, and a few run-of-the-mill items like pickle jars, staplers, blow dryers and clothes pegs. Here are a few visuals:

Preparing to Evaluate Our MLs
Ten barrel samples of wine in the yogurt cups are
carefully transferred to the spots on the paper.

Chromatography Underway
The strong smelling solution (hence the lid) is drawn upwards.

Not a Standard X-Ray

Ten columns of spots, left to right.  Individual columns represent
a different wine sample, in various stages of ML.  Samples 2, 8, 9, and 10
aren't finished yet, as indicated bya spot midway up: malic acid.

Another quick and easy way to find out if ML is progressing in a barrel is to press your ear tightly to the bunghole. A telltale crackling sound indicates the evolution of carbon dioxide gas: either alcoholic fermentation is still finishing up (unlikely in a wine this late in the year) or the lactic acid bacteria are having at it. No way is this a sensitive enough diagnostic by itself – it’s the wine equivalent of gauging wind speed by the flapping of a flag in the breeze. It simply tells us if something is happening or not happening.

Moreover, the ear-to-the bunghole technique carries the risk of a very specific pseudo-malady. Without being consciously aware of it, we often ‘apply’ a bruise-like ring of red wine to the outer ear when we listen in on a barrel. It makes us look either like we have an exotic disease, or like our head area has been worked over by bullies. ‘Red Ear’ is a minor badge of honor around the winery, but it’s important to wash it off before emerging into the outside world, or risk getting some odd looks if we stop in at the supermarket on the way home. Then again, it might mean that we get the Express Lane all to ourselves.

Barrel Music
Sounds like a tired pastiche of every sea shell you've ever
listened to; this barrel needs to up its artistic game to be as
worthy of critical attention, radio play, and trite metaphors.

Red Ear
Pseudo-malady or awesome pirate name?  You decide!

By: Peter Bell, Winemaker

Music of the Day:

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Where Have All The Fruit Flavors Gone?

With the fun and work of vintage behind us, now is the time that we have to have courage in our convictions at the winery.  By this point in the year (i.e. three weeks after the completion of vintage) when we are asked a question regarding the 2010 vintage we almost resemble a high school debate team; ask about the Finger Lakes 2010 Harvest and we can tear off an answer from rote in record time.  Ironically, it is precisely this time of year that we also happen to lose our ability to really track how our wines are doing.
This is not to say that our thoughts on Vintage 2010 are glib.  Based on the available information, which we feel is only useful after all the grapes are in, we are happy to provide our estimation of how everything will look as these wines are released and opened.  Nevertheless, in the winery we are now faced with an annual twist in winemaking that keeps us humble: the Thanksgiving slumber.
In her post on Gewürztraminer, Tricia briefly mentioned that one of the many times that leaves us doubtful in gewürztraminer’s development actually occurs after the harvest.  The wine seems to go into a quiet funk, losing much of the lychee, rose, and fruit precociousness that made it so endearing mere weeks ago.  What does it smell like it instead?  Well, nothing, to be frank.
While we have seen this happen to our gewürztraminer already, it is a phenomenon that occurs with all of our aromatic white wines.  Just as many of us will be doing after a large turkey dinner in a few days time, the rieslings, pinot gris, and gewürztraminer have all decided to take a snooze.  These wines will not wake up from their nap for quite some time, however, and in the meantime will send us into fits in the winery wondering whether everything is all right.
This is where the courage part comes into the equation.  During the fermentations of these wines we are constantly tasting everything and noting the beautiful aromas present in them at that stage.  While this process is enjoyable, the primary purpose is to evaluate how the fermentation is progressing and ensuring nothing is compromising the wine.  The other purpose of this tasting, however, is just as important; to get an early feel for what style of wine each block of grapes in each tank is best suited for.  
Particularly as our rieslings are fermenting, when we taste we are taking note of the flavors in the wine and how they match up with its structure - especially the acid profile.  With a softer and rounder riesling proto-wine, we start to think of our semi dry program and the slightly more tropical and tree fruit flavors we find complement that level of sugar.  With a riesling that is lean and electric in its acidity, we lean more towards our dry program and the citrus driven flavors we appreciate with a lower level of sugar. 
Based on this tasting we eventually decide when to end the fermentation of our individual blocks of grapes and thus how much sugar will be left in each.  It is at this point that we then lose the guiding light of those beautiful flavors.  By chilling the wine down to 28 degrees fahrenheit for a week and then adding sulfur, we arrest the fermentation and then kill the yeast.  Trying to taste the wine at this point to find the flavors we hoped to lock into it is fruitless (your call whether it is the loss of fruit flavors or that terrible pun that is most unfortunate).  To me, the wine smells and tastes flat even though the structure remains.  Maybe there are hints of banana, but this aroma reminds me more of the suspended-solids character of a nice hefeweizen rather than the wine we wanted.
And with that we enter the winter, having to trust our decisions and our noses back when we decided to stop the fermentation.  This trust gnaws away at us in the coming weeks as the continuing lack of fruit flavors begin to worry us, even though we know and expect this to happen.  How was vintage 2010?  It was fantastic, but right now we would appreciate it if some of those wines decided to agree.
By:  Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Autumn Repose

I hear it may snow tonight.  I’m not really surprised—despite last week’s balmy weather, we are in the middle of November.  We’ve lost our yellows and reds; the trees are skeletal, and everything is green or brown.  The lake and sky are steely, and it is so still.  It feels like snow.  
At the winery, we’ve moved inside, and are tending to those homey things that get put off during the frenzy of vintage.  
Kelby spent the morning scrubbing tanks.  It turns out that Mr. Clean Magic Erasers are wonderful for shining stainless steel.  Peter did some laboratory analysis, started a filtration, and answered e-mails.  I vacuumed the warehouse- and winery-floors.   None of it’s glamorous, but it’s essential.  
Kelby’s roommate from his Harvard days, Dave, came to the winery today.  He’s very friendly and has an easy smile.  He fit right in here, and kept busy at the computer while Kelby finished his work.  We all waited for a visit from our friends from Anthony Road.  
Around 11:00, Johannes Reinhardt (winemaker) and Peter Becraft (assistant winemaker) came to review our wines with us.  We gathered samples of all of our Rieslings, as well as our Pinot gris and Gewurztraminer.  
We tasted and talked.  We compared harvest figures (°Brix, pH, and titratable acidity) with those from Anthony Road.  We made predictions about how our wines might develop: How will this Riesling taste when it’s reached dryness?  Will the acid profile be just right when we blend these two Rieslings?  After we filter this Riesling, will it show the clarity we’re after?  Should Riesling 6 be released as a Reserve?  We discussed flavors, and textures, and palate-weight.  Johannes gave us his highest praise.  “Elegant,” he quietly declared, as he sipped and nodded.
When we tasted our low-alcohol style Riesling, Johannes excused himself to fetch some samples from his winery, which is just down the road.  
He returned with two fascinating bottles: one contained their low-alcohol Riesling.  The other held a Riesling that they had allowed to spontaneously ferment (that’s to say, they did not add any yeast).  They were made last year, and will not be released for a few years yet.  These styles need time to develop into the beautiful and complex wines they will surely become.  
Our small laboratory seemed a bright and cheery island in nature’s gray.  It was warm, not only from all the bodies in our little space, but from the outpouring of enthusiasm and friendship.  
It’s one o’clock, now.  Johannes and Peter Becraft just slid away to attend to other tasks.  Kelby and Dave packed into Kelby’s car; they’re off to visit old haunts in Boston.  Peter is finishing up his filtration, and I, of course, am writing to you.  
It occurs to me how the winery at this time of year is so much like many of our homes in late autumn.  There is a lot of cleaning to be done, but it’s not all drudgery.  The dreary days are often brightened by visits from friends we haven’t seen in a while.  And it’s always nice to be puttering inside when it’s blustery outside.  
Ask me in February how I feel about being indoors while gales are blowing, but for today, as geese are silhouetted against arctic clouds in a chrome sky, as pale-gold barren cornstalks wave about, as friends enjoy with us the bounty of our harvest, I am extraordinarily happy.  
By: Tricia Renshaw, Assistant Winemaker

Music of the Day:

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rackin' in the Free World

Mid November, and the winery crew is able to make it home for dinner, no sweat, every night, and take a bit of a break on weekends to boot. If I look back at the careful cellar records we keep for each wine we make, nicely done up in a binder specific to that year, I see that this has not always been so. Just a few years ago we were still pressing out a few bins of Cab franc in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, and yes, the snow was flying at the time.

The fruit flies I’ve written so fondly about in previous posts (did you know that fruit flies and people share 60% of their genes?) are doing their Custer’s Last Stand thing right now. Their redoubt in this case is not a bleak spot in the hills of Montana, but the winery lab; and they seem to know the game is up. 

This week is a big one for racking. I should probably define that term here, and perhaps the best way to do that is to scroll through the Wiktionary entries on the verb ‘to rack’. We have:
  1. To Place in or hang on a rack
    • Well, we do place our jackets on a rack most mornings, but that's not the definition we're after.
  2. (billiards, snooker, pool) To put the balls into the triangular rack and set them in place on the table.
    • Sometimes we joke about getting a pool table up here, but that has yet to happen.  Nope.
  3. (slang) To strike a male in the groin with the knee.
    • Not gonna go there.  I have been 'racked' once or twice in my life, but I didn't enjoy it enough to learn that there was actually a term for it.
  4. To stretch the joints of a person.
    • I racked my brains trying to make this definition fit anything wine-related, and came up empty.
  5. To fly, as vapor or broken clouds.
    • Obscure!  Maybe someone had kneed the clouds in the groin.  Fly away, little broken clouds!
  6. (brewing) To clarify, and thereby deter further fermentation of, beer, wine or cider by draining or siphoning it from the dregs.

At last! Here’s the definition we’re looking for, though in miserable sixth place, dictionary-wise. Our collective ego is bruised: Is what we do really less important than broken clouds? And what’s with calling lees ‘dregs’? 

Anyway, picture a shiny tank of wine. Riesling inside. It has finished fermentation, and the yeasts – those beautiful microbes that do our bidding every fall (know what? we share a bunch of genes with them, too) are either still in suspension or sitting in a thick layer at the bottom of the tank. 

It’s the ones at the bottom, the so-called heavy lees, that it’s time to say adios to. Here they are, in a picture taken moments before they were unceremoniously sluiced down the drain:

The sediment in a tank of wine at this time of year is composed mostly of dead or dying yeast cells.
Their brethren and sistern, the light lees that are still in suspension, are not just pesky non-team-players in the wine clarification game. In fact, we want them there for a few more months, yea though they make the wine cloudy and gross looking. Some winemakers employ these dead and dying yeast cells to gradually add a little mouthfeel to their wines, in a process called autolysis. Others take advantage of their ability to scavenge oxygen from the wine, a really very useful talent if you think of a wine’s aging trajectory as being progressively more oxygen-averse.

By: Peter Bell, Winemaker

Music of the Day:
  • Pearl Jam, covering Neil Young's Rockin' In The Free World at Pink Pop 92:

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Wine and Thanksgiving

My wine recommendations for Thanksgiving Dinner appear at the end.  I know this topic would be more timely next week, but I hope it is more useful this week with time and a weekend yet to make plans and purchases.

It is one of my favorite times of the year.  No, not the completion of vintage and the ecstasy, expectation, and sense of relief that follow it. (Had you asked me two weeks ago the third variable in that series would have been ennui, but as nice as that alliterative flourish would be, I don't roll that way.)  Instead, I am talking about the imminent arrival of Thanksgiving.

For me this brings back memories of the fantastic five-day weekend we received from public school, watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, great food, the beginning of the Christmas season, and a trip the weekend before to watch my Harvard Crimson crush the bullies from the inferior institution located somewhere unpleasant in Connecticut.  But for the past few years, and now more than ever before, this time of year is a favorite of mine due to the arrival of the annual "What Wine to Have with Thanksgiving Dinner" articles in publications across this fine nation.

Why does this amuse me so?  It all boils down to a little secret that all of us in the wine industry, especially wine writers, know: there is hardly a wine in this world that does not pair with turkey and Thanksgiving Dinner.  There are two considerations that factor into this reality:

  • Turkey pairs well with nearly any light to medium bodied wine.  This isn't a beef or fish situation that clearly calls out for a certain wine to stand-up and/or not overwhelm the food; roast turkey is a flavorful dish that pairs with nearly all interesting white, red, or rosé wines.  With the notable exception of very heavy, jammy, alcoholic, or extracted red wines, you will enjoy nearly any wine you like with turkey.
  • Thanksgiving Dinner is too large, too varied, and too complex a meal to ever find the "perfect" wine for.  What goes nicely with the green bean casserole is not likely to match the cranberry sauce.  What pairs with the mashed potatoes will likely be a miss with the sweet potatoes.  
    1. One option would be to have a large variety of individual bottles for the evening, but this is onerous and expensive.
    2. A second, equally unpalatable, option would be to select wines and then pair them with each dish in the meal.  This would not only be expensive, but is a pot shot at best.  We can have a hard time pairing when we have access to tasting every wine in our tasting room, let alone guessing in the dark.
What's my suggestion?  Pick a wine or two (one white/rosé, one red) that you enjoy and you cannot go wrong!  Preferably these wines would be light to medium bodied (not too heavy or alcoholic) so you do not tire of it or have it tire you out over the course of a long meal, but this is the only other guideline I would offer to "drink what you enjoy."

Despite the fact that wine with Thanksgiving Dinner should not be complicated or intimidating, the way it is usually treated always results in the wine articles I love so much.  It is no offense to the wine writers, who are asked and compelled to provide insight on the issue, that this is the easiest feature they have to write every year.  They know they can pick most any wine and be successful, they just need to put some words on paper and they have earned a handy pay check.

Some wine writers, such as Eric Asimov at the New York Times, go above and beyond and preface their yearly article with this reality; nearly anything will work and their recommendations are more suggestions and insight into their pairing philosophy.  Others continue to print the idea that one should only serve zinfandel from the US because it is an American grape, from a California producer, for American Thanksgiving.  With all due respect; the grape is not American, there are many places other than California that produce wine in America, and high-octane zinfandels are actually in that small group of wines that pair terribly with Thanksgiving Dinner.

With all that being said, and our advice that you pick the wines you enjoy most for your Thanksgiving Dinner, here is what will be on my table:
  • '09 Riesling (Semi-Dry):  Beautiful tropical and tree fruit aromas and flavors, with a refreshing combination of sugar and enough acidity to keep you coming back for another sip and more food. Complements rich foods by keeping them from getting cloying, while the slight sugar and fruit flavors provide a nice counterpoint to turkey and vegetables.
  • '07 Pinot Noir:  A medium-light bodied Pinot Noir that has developed the earthy and cherry aromas and flavors that we find so enticing.  Refreshing to drink and those flavors are dynamite with Thanksgiving staples, but this wine still has enough grip to keep you interested.

Happy Feasting!

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

Music of the Day:
  • In memoriam of an inspired composer with one of the most transcendent pieces of the 20th century.  
  • Henryk Górecki; Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 - Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (as performed by Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta):

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Friday, November 12, 2010

The Barrel: Wine Container Ne Plus Ultra

Barrels are such an integral part of winemaking that it’s hard to visit a winery anywhere and not see at least a few of these beautiful oaken containers on display. In fact, the standard, cliché photo of a winemaker shows him or her either posed in front of a stack of barrels or taking a sample of wine out of one for evaluation.

The barrel as we know it is a remarkably old invention, having been developed by the Celts about 700 years ago. Yes! In addition to having brought us Enya, Lucky Charms and the phrase “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!”, the Celts, who populated a great swath of Europe in their heyday, also developed the technology to bend staves of wood and hold them tight with iron hoops. I guess they had to have some way of keeping the vermin out of their breakfast cereal.

Primarily a transport container in its original iteration, the barrel came to be associated with directly improving wine quality only much more recently. Nowadays it’s almost obligatory to put fine red wines in barrels for a year or so, and many of the finest Chardonnays camp out there too (Riesling,
Nein danke).

As it happens, Chardonnay likes to be introduced to oak well before it is actually a finished wine, via a process called barrel fermentation. Now commonplace, this practice was new and cutting-edge to New World winemakers about 30 years ago, though in reality it had been practiced by Burgundian winemakers for eons (add your own definition of an eon here).

The story goes that either a Californian or an Australian practitioner went to Burgundy and asked, “Why do you ferment your Chardonnay in barrels?” The answer, no doubt accompanied by a Gallic shrug, was along the lines of  “Because that’s the only container I have.”

The other story, this one actually verifiable, is that Fox Run owner Scott Osborn is here in the Finger Lakes because of barrel fermented Chardonnay. He had spent some time immersed in the California wine industry in the 1980s, but decided to set up shop locally after tasting an early example from the pioneers of that style here,
Wagner Vineyards.

Putting Chardonnay juice in barrels, and then commencing to look after what has just become a large number of individual fermentations rather than just one, certainly ramps up the work load during vintage. But the returns in terms of wine quality are enormous. Thanks to our understanding of microbiology and biochemistry, we now know that yeast cell enzymes act in concert with the soluble components of oak to produce aroma compounds that would otherwise not make their way into the wine.

Thus a barrel-fermented Chardonnay, even one from new oak, can show as not especially oaky. The integration of oak into the fruit can be so subtle that we even ferment that most delicate of wine styles, our Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine, in oak, albeit oak that was “pre-owned” by several previous vintages of Chardonnay. By contrast, a Chardonnay introduced to a new barrel after fermenting to dryness would smell more like a lumberyard than a wine. (Those of us who tasted the early, clumsy examples of oak-aged California Chard in the late 1970s remember that very sensation. Eeew.)

Our barrel-fermented Chardonnay, destined for the bottling we designate Reserve, is just coasting to dryness as I write this. Next step: coaxing all 33 barrels through malolactic fermentation. More on that, including the winemaker-specific pseudo-malady known as Red Ear, in a future post.

-By Peter Bell, Winemaker

Music of the Day:
  • Patrick Hadley; Jazz Improvisation on a 5 Octave Array Mbira (Youtube Only):

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wine and Beer - Fighting to be on the Same Team

Whether we are crushing grapes or making final blending decisions, the thought of how our wines will pair with food is always foremost in our minds.  Simply put, so far as we are concerned, wine and food are meant to go together so that they may complement, contrast, and/or refresh one another.  The fact that we make this so paramount to our winemaking philosophy may come as a surprise to some, and we will be glad to get into how it informs and inspires the decisions we make here in the winery in the future.  Especially as our fantastic new Chef, Jarrod, has hit the ground running, the opportunity for us to pair our wines with dishes will prove quite the muse for our blogging as well.

In the meantime, I had the opportunity to attend a fantastic dinner last night focusing on another classic food-pairing beverage: beer.  The wine world has often joked that it takes a lot of beer to make wine, a fact that is demonstrably true, but is also a backhanded complement to the brewing world we are not so far removed from.  Beer is not just an input that yields wine, it is a beverage that deserves equal space at a fine dining table when the "best match" is being sought for a dish.

Don't believe me?  Try wine and cheese together, a cliché that everyone assumes just works, and if you pay attention to what you are tasting you will realize it often doesn't work at all.  Red wines all seem to taste the same with cheese, white wines are often overwhelmed, and the unique nutty, fruity, earthy, and vegetal flavors of the cheese disappear as well.  While some wines and cheese do pair together spectacularly, that is a bit like winning the lottery twice in a row.  Try a handcrafted beer with cheese, however, and with very few guidelines you will have a transcendent experience.  This is just one example of many that could be mentioned, and should be mentioned now that our local economies have such great brewers popping up.

Last night was another such experience for those who attended the Great Lakes Brewing dinner at the Wegmans in Canandaigua.  Great Lakes are one of the best regional brewers out there and I am a huge fan of Wegmans, so fair warning that I am undoubtedly biased.  Getting to meet Luke Purcell, the brewer down at Great Lakes, only made the experience more enjoyable and intellectually fascinating.  He speaks about balance and moderation in use of hops or oak aging experiments the same way we speak about balance and presence of acid in cool climate wines rather than a race for highest ABV%.

Despite my bias, I will absolutely say that the food prepared by the chefs was fantastic and the beers paired beautifully.  Crispy Pork Belly paired with Conways Irish Ale, Garganeli with Duck and Walnuts paired with Eliot Ness, Roast Leg of Lamb with Cassoulet beans paired with Nosferatu, and Pear Gingerbread Cake paired with Great Lake's infamous Christmas Ale.  All were interesting (albeit filling) pairings that brought out the fall flavors and warmth we all like to call up during storybook waves of nostalgia.

Being employed in a winery, I could not help but wonder what wines might have worked with these dishes or would not have worked at all.  In particular, I would have loved the crisp finish of a riesling to pair with the pork belly to help refresh it from all the fat content.  This is not to say that the pairing there wasn't appropriate, but to say that there is always more than one pairing that will work.  And with microbrewers caring as much about their product, craft, and food as we do; the number of matches is only growing.

By: Kelby, Winemaking Team

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Socratic Dialogue Yields Quick Results

Last year, a good friend of ours, Evan Dawson, challenged the Finger Lakes wine community with a question: Why don’t we make a low-alcohol style Riesling like Germany does?

Our responding question at the time seemed straightforward and air-tight: given that our Rieslings are beautifully balanced at around 11-12% alcohol; given that our cool climate blesses us with Rieslings which are nuanced and crisp; given their vibrant flavors that range from lime zest to mango purée to pineapple to tangerine; given that sometimes there are notes of fennel or bay leaf, and always some alluring river rock (who else can boast of river rocks?)…

Why would we want to copy a wine style from another part of the world, when our own Rieslings are so beguiling?

Fast-forward to last July, and you’d find Peter, Kelby and me at the Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle, Washington, a winemaker-heavy think tank devoted to this most singular grape variety. We, along with several other winemakers from the Finger Lakes, had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Rieslings from around the world.  Over the course of three days, we participated in a slew of blind tastings and seminars, and came to some interesting conclusions.  

First of all, you’ll be proud to know how well our local Rieslings showed among those from long-established Rock Star producers.  Without knowing what they were tasting, the crowd -- comprised of Riesling producers from Alsace, Germany, Austria, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US (both coasts as well as Michigan) -- extolled the enchanting flavors, beautiful acidity, purity and length of the Finger Lakes examples. 

We weren’t at all surprised to rediscover how delicious our Rieslings are, but it was certainly nice to have our firmly-held beliefs reaffirmed in an international forum. 

We were also not the least bit surprised to find some delicious, and different, expressions of Riesling being made around the world.

You might be surprised to learn that one of those styles was, yes, a low-alcohol sweet Riesling from Germany.  What we admired in those examples was the balance achieved in a wine which should, by rights, taste like sugary juice.  These wines had a lot, and I mean a lot, of sugar: around 60 to 70 grams per liter (or 6-7 percent, if that’s a more comfortable measurement for you).  Their alcohol content ranged from 8-10 percent, and they achieved some delicacy, despite their fruit intensity.  We were inspired.

We never want to stop making Rieslings in the styles Peter Bell has helped make internationally famous—very dry to semi-dry, with luscious flavors and clarity; perfectly balanced and with a moderate alcohol content (11-11.5 %).  These wines are exquisitely poised as they go into the bottle in their youth, and they have consistently proven that they become even more delicious as they age.  However, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to play with our boundaries.

At that conference, we surmised that our Finger Lakes fruit, given the right growing conditions, could produce a stunning wine in the low-alcohol style.  As if by design, this summer provided what had to be ideal conditions.  Lots of heat and sunlight produced grapes with a range of intense flavors—loads of lime and tangerine.  We also had a good quantity of Botrytis, which presented as Noble Rot, concentrating the sugars and producing lovely marmalade aromas.  We had high sugar accumulation, which meant we could ferment until we reached around 8% alcohol while still retaining quite a large quantity of sugar. 

Of course, we had to take the plunge, albeit on a very small scale. 

This past Friday, we stopped the fermentation on a few hundred gallons of low-alcohol Riesling by lowering its temperature below the comfort zone of yeasts.  Boy, is it tasty!  How it manages to taste like wine, despite having so little alcohol, is confounding but thrilling.  It’s at once rich and delicate.  It’s a Cool River of orange-fleshed aromas—papaya and mango and clementine -- with a lovely lashing of lime, which keeps the wine lively.  Wait until you try it.

It won’t be a dead-ringer for German Riesling, but that’s a good thing.  We always want our Rieslings to express their Finger Lakes character.  The industry here is long past the point where we need to think of copying another region: our Rieslings have a sui generis standing that is acknowledged world-wide.

A few other wineries in the Finger Lakes are tinkering with this particular manifestation of old-world style winemaking, as well.  Watch for these lower-alcohol wines, and let us know if you try any of them.  We’d love to hear from you.

By: Tricia, Assistant Winemaker

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Friday, November 5, 2010

Aftermath: “And How Does That Make You Feel?”

Long ago I used to volunteer at a large annual music event in Toronto called the Mariposa Folk Festival. For folk music lovers – there seemed to be so many more of them back then – it was the highlight of the year, and attracted the likes of Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Taj Mahal and Steve Goodman, along with performers in newly-rediscovered old genres like Zydeco, Old-Timey and even Clogging.

My tiny part in the planning and execution of this event involved making sure that performers got from the airport to their hotel and thence to the performance venue, and a few days later doing it all in reverse.

As soon as the last performer had been packed off to the airport late on Sunday afternoon, the festival was abruptly over for me. I was always struck with a “now what?” ennui for a few days afterward, a feeling that something really big and all-consuming had come and gone and now there was nothing to fill the void.

Not so with the phenomenon we have been blogging about so much lately, Vintage. Yes, vintage is over, but this is when the work begins. Work, that is, that feels more like normal winemaking and less like a concerted, giddy frenzy.

Here are some of the post-vintage tasks that are keeping us busy and engaged:

  • Giving the crusher, must pump and press a final, thorough cleaning, and hanging up Son of Bertha, our trusty 4” must hose
  • Inoculating about 80 barrels and tanks with the bacteria that will conduct the malolactic fermentation in the wines
 Fourth Floor Walkup
Tricia adds freeze dried bacteria to a barrel of Chardonnay

  • Beginning the task of deciding which tanks of Riesling will play well with others, and introducing them to each other in a larger tank
  • Vacuuming up the approximately 4 quadrillion fruit fly carcasses littering the lab
  • Pumping last year’s red wines out of barrels and filling the barrels with this year’s reds
  • Figuring out how we’re going to come up with the 400 cases of 2010 Arctic Fox wine that our marketing department needs in less than a month
  • Trying to convince a defiant tank of Chardonnay to hurry up and ferment to dryness
  • Tasting, spitting, tasting, spitting…

Overall it’s a thrilling time of year. No ennui to be found here.

By: Peter, Winemaker

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Reviewing Vintage 2010 (No Grades, New York Times Style)

2010 will go down as an unique growing season and vintage in the Finger Lakes.  While our colleagues in California were dealing with difficulty ripening grapes (!), I remember calling my parents in early April as I was working in New Zealand - only to be told the temperatures were in the 80s.  From a frighteningly early bud-break, given the threat of frost, to extremely warm and wet conditions throughout the summer, I do not think anyone has a clear idea of what this vintage will look like a few years from now.

Despite that, we have finished pressing out all our grapes now and I love to prognosticate.  Based on what we are tasting and hearing from others around the lakes, here is a first stab at deciphering vintage 2010 now that we have enough information to try:

  • Hybrid and Native Grape Wines (Cayuga, Concord, Niagara): This is a huge category to try and lump together, but the fact of the matter is that these grapes tend to ripen early and in the same timeframe.  This vintage that meant we heard of people harvesting these grapes in early and mid-August at entirely normal sugar levels.  Considering they came in so early, before the rain and storms that proved troublesome come September/October, it is a safe bet that 2010 wines made of these grapes will be just fine.  Certainly the fruit was ripe, the only question that may vary from producer to producer is whether there was enough acid to back up the wine.
  • Chardonnay and Pinot Noir:  Both came in for most around Seneca Lake in early to mid-September, in that nice balmy stretch that finished out our summer.  Dry skies and warm temperatures means that the harvest conditions were ideal, the warmth during the growing season resulted in some jaw-dropping sugar measurements on these two grapes.  Never will the Finger Lakes turn into a producer of the bland, jammy, international style of red wine that some other New World pinot noir regions have traded on; but certainly this is a year for some of the richest fruit aromas and flavors we could hope for.  Chardonnay were also rich and dense, so it looks like a great year across the region for wines made from either grape.
  • Pinot Gris/Grigio and Gewürztraminer:  Hard to summarize for these two Alsatian grapes, folks pulled them in at markedly different times across the region.  At Fox Run we kept ours hanging for three weeks more than many down in the Seneca Lake Banana Belt were, but in the end I think everyone is happy with the ripeness of the grapes both in sugar and flavor.  You’ve already heard Tricia’s take on our Gewürz, but I think the thing we were most amazed by was the fact that Pinot Gris grapes actually had distinct flavors.  As popular a wine as it is, Pinot Gris grapes are not usually so striking in their aromatics and flavors.  All in all, these were generally the last grapes to make it in before the series of rain events hit the Finger Lakes harvest and consistent high quality for 2010 seem likely.
  • Riesling:  There is never a bad year for riesling in the Finger Lakes, as Fox Run’s owner/president Scott Osborn often points out.  2010 is no exception, and has the potential to be a truly great year for the right growers and producers.  By consensus, 2006 was one of the best years in recent memory for riesling in the Finger Lakes due to a nice balance of sugar with a clean acidity that did not disappear.  The concern with 2010 is that the warmth and accumulated sugar levels would come at the expense of acid levels in the grapes and, subsequently, the grapes.  So far that doesn’t appear to be a problem, and instead we are left with fantastically ripe fruit with tropical flavors we rarely attain.  The bigger concern for 2010 riesling in the Finger Lakes will be variability due to harvest conditions.  Riesling did not start being harvested until the brunt of the rain started to hit (as well as reports of ladybug outbreaks), leading to extreme disease pressure for growers that were not ready for the poor weather.  Dreams of noble rot and late-harvest wines were shot by the reality of sour rot and disintegrating grape-skins forcing the hand of some growers to harvest everything and quickly.  Having not had a chance to taste much, all we can say is a huge THANK YOU to John Kaiser and our vineyard team.  Despite the rain, at Fox Run we had the luxury to pick our riesling when we felt they were ready - even leaving one special block hanging to pick up noble rot.  John kept our fruit clean of disease and we are ecstatic with the 12 tanks of riesling now in our cellar.
  • Bordeaux Reds (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot):  It is no secret that Finger Lakes reds can have a difficult time achieving ripeness levels we would consider ideal.  Regardless of that, we can say something in general about the bordeaux reds of 2010 that would normally sound delusional; quality is likely as variable as with riesling.  Great ripeness levels were almost a given this year for these grapes; high Brix levels, great flavor ripeness, even the seeds tasted densely chocolaty and nutty without a hint of bitterness.  Unfortunately, due to how long they take to ripen, they had to survive the battering of cooler weather, rain, and wind that threatened later rieslings in October.  We have high hopes for quite a few of our blocks, especially those we put into our Ruby Port and Tawny Port programs, but nothing firm will be known for another year when they start to come out of barrels.

2010 is not even fully in the books yet - and won’t be for quite some time if a winery is doing a late harvest or icewine - but there is a first attempt at summing up what we think we’re seeing.  For the earlier ripening grapes 2010 looks to be fantastic across the Finger Lakes, for the later ripening grapes it comes down to knowing your producer.  There will be nothing bad out there and the potential for greatness absolutely exists if a winery was able to seize it.

By: Kelby, Winemaking Team

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