The ritual of blending and the birth of Cuvee Number One
At its heart, winemaking is a series of rituals. Some wine rituals are mysterious, some commonplace. Blending is one of the most talked about and most mysterious of all rituals. People who enjoy and are curious about wine ask me all the time: “How do you blend wine? How can you detect differences between lots, between clones, between tanks? How do you determine that perfect final blend?” So, here is the true secret to how I do it . . . I believe that the true blending of any wine always takes place in the vineyard, before we even pick the fruit
What does it mean to blend wine?
Blending is a common expression winemakers use to talk about the process of selecting vineyard lots, varietals, specific vine selections, oak barrel profiles, etc. No matter how small a final wine bottling is, there is always a fusion of blending that eventually plays an important role in the final taste of the wine.
From France to California – blending lessons learned
In my experience, blending rituals begin with knowing your vineyards, as I learned in France through years of walking the rows and tending the vines. That intimate knowledge of the plants themselves is fundamental to success in making the finest wines in the world. Then, based on the knowledge of the fruit you are working with, blending becomes your “magic wand” to refine, select and confirm your gut feelings. Result: a moment where all your experience, knowledge and expectations become one single, focused lens. Will the result be success or failure?
I remember my harvest experience at Château Haut-Brion in 2003, as I was just starting to learn the art of making wine at the highest level. When harvest arrived, each parcel from the estate vineyard was fermented separately, giving birth to many lots. These became individual components that the winemaking team at the Château would use to create a wine with a perfect expression. As the winemaker began tasting each tank, the process of blending physical lots began. Each varietal carries a particular taste, color and tannin quality that impacts the overall balance. For example, Merlot generally provides a sense of velvety and soft tannins with an intense aromatic profile. As the king of all Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon was used as the backbone of the wine, providing a long-lasting structure during aging.
Later, when working in Burgundy in 2006, the blending experience was completely different than that of Bordeaux. Blending Pinot from one single parcel requires you to become more in tune with each barrel, as if they are a unique sound that will play a subtle but essential role in a symphony. Making a Chambolle-Musigny for example, involves evaluating the quality of each barrel before blending them all into just 100 cases of wine from a certain producer. Also see this link about how different varietals are use (or not used) in blends:
From Sonoma County, CA. Bibiana González Rave
One vintage on the vine, another in the barrel . . . As the vineyard calls my heart and hands.
To me, springtime always means sensory overload. My mind, my soul and my emotions are never far from the vibrancy and new life bursting in the vineyard.. It is the inception of the vine lifecycle. On a macro level, all other life around explodes: wildflowers, fruit trees, green grass and sweet air carrying the fresh smells of the season.
Much joy found in making wine naturally involves lovely time spent outdoors and the enjoyment of wine itself. (It’s all part of the job!) All that fun is balanced with the reality that farming is real work – taking years of mastering the craft and educating oneself to fulfill the great potential in winemaking. So even though I now enjoy daily views of the countryside and being outside, this is, ironically, a long way from my upbringing. I grew up in the large and beautiful city of Medellín, Colombia. It wasn’t until my vineyard studies in France that I first donned a pair of boots, started pruning grapevines in the cold, wet winters and began my life of farming. So, as Malcolm Gladwell shared in his book Outliers – The Story of Success: To master any craft, we need to invest 10,000 hours of hard work, education and hands-on experience to insure we become the best we can be in whatever our field.
Once bud-break season arrives, I grow excited during the weeks to come in anticipation of my utmost favorite moments during the grape berry lifecycle: The moment of pollination and seeing the beautiful and delicate grape flower become a berry.
This year, bloom started around April 25th and after the first 20 days on the count, we are not close to having 100% bloom for all clusters. This brings some questions to us and will require new decisions to make in the vineyard: When and how to decide our leafing procedures? How even will the maturity of the clusters be? Which clusters do we want to keep to insure we make the best wine possible? And how good will this crop likely be? Cold weather, rain, strong winds, or storms can significantly affect the crop from a given vintage, so we are crossing our fingers right now, as a storm with possible showers and thunderstorms passes through Northern California over the next few days.
Annual Ritual: The Winterization of Hillside Vineyards
Annual Ritual: The Winterization of Hillside Vineyard
Some questions to ask about winter in the vineyards:
Why should we care so much about doing all we can to avoid the erosion of vineyards planted on hillsides?
Why do winegrowers plant on hillsides when it would be so much easier to utilize the gentler, flatter areas of the countryside?
And what about those timeless Romans who have always created the most amazing terraced vineyards throughout Europe?
To prepare the vineyard, a few steps must take place:
• Analysis of soil amendments and resulting adjustments needed to improve the health of the soil and mineral balance.
• Addition of compostand seeding of cover crops in between rows
• Distribution of straw, placement of wattles, digging V-ditches and ultimately creation of “French drains” to reduce the impact of rainwater running through the rows, dragging the topsoil to the bottom of the hills.
• Collecting soil that has moved to the bottom of the hills and moving it to the top of the hills — all done by hand as in past centuries.
So, allow me to answer some of these timely and fascinating questions:
Well, erosion means that topsoil on any given farmed land has moved down a hill due to the effects of weather — mainly wind and rainfall. So, each year, on hillside plantings, soil will tend to move down the hill, all the while reducing depth of the topsoil. Over generations, it would become impossible to continue farming, as we would reach rock beneath. Farmers need to preserve the topsoil by keeping the microflora, microfauna, and texture of the soil healthy and stable.
Furthermore, caring for the soil is a long-term investment. Caring for the topsoil is essential for the long life and productivity of a vineyard. Therefore, limiting erosion and nurturing for the soil is essential to our survival as winegrowers.
• Why do we plant vineyards on hillsides?
Mainly because hillside areas are more perfectly exposed to the sun and other natural elements. Additionally, hillsides are by nature more stressful on the vines. The perfect amount of stress for vineyard growth is important in order to obtain concentration, intensity of flavors, and quality of tannins. As an example, the vast majority of the top Grand Crus from around the world are planted on hillsides.
• What did those wise Romans know?
And the work paid of! After the cumulative 15 inches of rain we received in less than a week this past December of year 2014, the inspection of our vineyard rows proved very satisfactory … only a few shovels full of sandy soil needed to be brought back to the top of the blocks.
At the Soberanes Vineyard, Mark Pisoni does similar intensive work to protect the topsoil from erosion. Conditions in The Santa Lucia Highlands, where only a few inches of rain fall each winter (average 4-5” per year), are quite different from the western Sonoma Coast. Regardless of the lighter rainfall, they don’t limit their efforts to insure that cover crops, straw, v-ditches and drainage are improved in between rows and around driveways. Water is then diverted to areas where drainage is optimum and out of vineyard-planted acreage.
In steep European AVAs such as Côte-Rôtie and across the Rhône Valley, as well as in Alsace, Burgundy, Languedoc, and in general for all acres planted on hillsides in countries along the Mediterranean, you will still encounter the traditional terraces and beautiful cover crops growing during the winter/spring, protecting the soil from moving away.
So, as we are just at the end of January and expecting (hoping for!) more inches of rain to bless us, we’re happy to see the results of our intensive, protective care of the topsoil being effective in a winter of lots of rain — rain most needed in California after few years of a troublesome drought.
From Sonoma County, CA. Bibiana González Rave
24 hours in the Ritual of Harvest
24 hours in the Ritual of Harvest
It is that time of the year once again. As 2014 winds to a close, I paused to look at the results of our work. Recollections of the harvest ritual were so vivid in my mind. So, during this holiday season, I decided to begin Cattleya Wines’ new blog: “WineRituals.” This first-ever blog post encapsulates the critical hours where the life of a new wine begins . . . harvest time.
At Midnight: The night Harvest Ritual begins.
Whether waking up from sleep -or continuing a long day without it, night harvest rituals begin in the dark of the night. Cold nocturnal temperatures (between 47 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit) can significantly impact the integrity of the fruit, due to a nearly imperceptible change in fruit quality induced by oxidative or enzymatic reactions that can occur under warm conditions. These slight changes can be significant in the final wine.
Beyond lack of sleep, darkness and cold, there is the challenge of a 47-mile drive on a largely untraveled and winding country road to the coast. Anticipation is high for the entire distance and nearly an hour and 15 minutes later, I arrive at the remote vineyard for the ritual of checking the harvest.
This particular day in this amazing place was very special to me. This was day one of harvest at a single remote vineyard, sited at the extreme western edge of Sonoma County, four miles from the Pacific. The first day of harvest marks the new vintage and all its rituals of making wine. This day sets the tone for the quality we should expect.
Heaven on Earth: were ideal, quality of fruit magnificent. As for my heart, it was beating rapidly with the anxiety and excitement that harvest brings to my body. These long days of harvest and winemaking would not be possible without that productive hormone called adrenaline.I have no other explanation for how we can go seemingly endless 16-hour days for weeks – except for helpful hormones and the passion fueling our bodies.
Present and accounted for: 23 pickers, our vineyard supervisor, my assistant and myself walk through the rows; checking the fruit, harvesting only the most perfectly ripe clusters of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We tally the tonnage picked per block and compare it with our year-’round crop estimates. The 2014 vintage crop is as expected – less than three pounds per vine for our Pinot Noir blocks, but less than two pounds per vine for our clone Swan, as well as for our Chardonnay Mt Eden loose clusters.
Above and Beyond: As I wearily count 18 hours of non-stop work, I return to my desk to analyze the numbers gathered from our maturity samples and set the schedule for the next day of fruit picking at this particular site.
I then move to the Pisoni winery, where I make Cattleya Wines and Shared Notes (a very small project of only Sauvignon Blanc wines made in partnership with my husband). Checking on the wines we currently have fermenting, I also make for next day’s picking decisions and assure that fruit sample tasting is on schedule.
I make a quick round of tasting and check on the small fermenters, smell the fermentation in barrels and tanks, then move to my office on the second floor, write work orders and head out for dinner. It is already 9:00 PM. Where did the time go?!
10:00 PM: Although I am quite ready to go to bed, I check with the night harvest crew by phone to be sure we are all set for the new harvest. This time, I will not be driving to the vineyard.
Before trying to sleep, I post the day’s images to Instagram. I then disconnect my mind from the day and fall into a deep sleep!
P.S.: When I woke up, I vividly recalled a dream of pumps, sorting tables and harvest. These dreams happen quite often when your body, soul and mind are 100% into a passionate and quite physical ritual.
The Ritual of making wine. This is my life’s work.
Discover The Reds of Cattleya – Cattleya Newsletter-Release
I am living the dream of making wine that I’ve had since I was just 14 and growing up in Colombia (a country with no wine culture at that time). Since then, I have passionately sought to make only the best possible wines.