The Birth of a Vintage
Terroir, Soil, Vines, Harvest
The earth the climate and the care of the vineyard, form the basic characteristics of a wine.
In early spring the sunlight hits a leaf as the morning due glistens on a pair of clippers, its quiet and all seems right with the world as the workers design and tailor the vines, nurturing them into pristine examples of beauty and conformation. Designing the vines to produce grapes of the highest quality, they proceed until the sun is overhead. Days are long in the summer. The activities of the vineyard follow a seasonal pattern.
“If you grow the right grapes in the right way wine making is easy”
“If you choose the proper site with the right soil drainage and the right elevation and choose the right trellis system… on and on. Homework in the beginning makes the challenge reasonable.”
The quality of wine begins with the intricate relationship between climate and soil. Specific soil vertical profiles impact the nourishment that vine roots obtain as they travel through the soil on the vines journey through life. Organic content at the soil surface helps the vine mature and allows it time to extend its roots deep into the soil, sometimes 20-30 feet, where it gains access to the complex mineral content which governs the characteristic flavor profile of the wine.
As the soil influences the flavor profile of the wine, the climate or combination of sun and rain makes it possible to have a great vintage. In rainy years like 2003, it’s impossible to have a great year for varieties like the late harvesting Cabernet Sauvignon. Grapes like Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir have a better chance to produce good wines because they harvest a month or month and a half earlier than the Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Each season has its purpose in the vineyard. As the vineyard sleeps the vineyard worker does not. One must never tarry for the catch up is impossible”
The life of a vintage begins in late November after the first frost has taken the leaves. Pruning begins at that time and lasts through February. Posts are replaced as necessary and wires are tightened prior to tying the newly pruned vines to the wire. The vineyard maintenance is scheduled to be completed by the first of April. Mid-April sees the pushing of the buds and shoot growth. The vines bloom in May and berries set in June.
Throughout July, vineyard work includes positioning the shoots and leaf removal around the grapes to open the canopy for good air drainage, hedging to keep growth under control and crop adjustment. At Elk Run our premium wines are cropped to 10 bunches per vine. The estate Cabernet Sauvignon is cropped to 5 bunches a vine. Arriving at the proper crop level is completed by color change in mid-August.
Harvest begins with the taking of the chardonnay to produce the champagne cuvee and ends with the harvest of the Cabernet Sauvignon. The Winemaker measures sugar, acid and ph levels, looks at the color of the grape seed, contemplates the texture and flavor of the grape flesh and ultimately makes a decision for the vineyard’s harvest times.
Each variety comes in at different times, making the harvest reasonable relative to labor needs. At harvest the grapes are picked and sorted in the field. They are then brought to the winery and sorted again prior to being de-stemed.
Vinification, Racking, Fining, Aging, Blending
Fermentation begins after inoculation with yeasts. The primary fermentation converts sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Temperatures during fermentation are maintained reasonably low for the whites and can reach the mid-nineties for the reds. In the reds the higher temperature helps extract the color and complex flavors. Fermentation lasts 7 to 10 days.
Racking is the process of taking relatively clear wine off the sediment at the bottom of barrels or tanks. Sometimes the wine is left on the sediment to achieve more complexity. The reds are racked four times over the 15 to 18 months that the reds are aged in oak. Since the chardonnays are in oak for only four months they are racked twice. The fruitier varieties like Riesling and Gewurztraminer never see oak so that the varietal characterIstics are maintained.
Elk Run uses one and two year old French Allier oak for the chardonnay and then these barrels are rotated into the red program. So the reds are aged in a mixture of French and American oak. The red program has barrels that are no more than four years old with 30% of the oak being new each year. The exception to this is the port, which is aged in older than four-year-old oak.
After the wine is aged it is stabilized. Stabilization is a process by which the wine is made to be less likely to change under influence of high or low temperatures. Cold stabilization is achieved by bringing the temperature of the white wines down to about 26 degrees Fahrenheit for two weeks. Reds are not treated this way due to the unlikelihood the wine being kept at low temperatures. Protein stabilization is accomplished by the addition of a solution of Wyoming clay called bentonite into the white wines. As the bentonite settles through the wine it attracts the protein in the wine and clarifies. In red wine a slurry of egg whites, generally 5 eggs per 59 gallon barrel, is used with the same effect as mentioned above. Once stabilization is complete the wine is ready for bottling.
Since the terroir of the soil affects the wine, wines produced from different segments of the vineyard are kept separate. At this point in the wine making process, it may be decided to blend some barrels together, to bottle free run separately or blend it in. It may be decided that one varietal of red may benefit from a small blend of another. After much tasting, the bottling can commence.
“The earth the climate and the care of the vineyard, form the basic characteristics of a wine. In the winery it is the enologist and ultimately the palate of the winemaker that sculpt the new vintage.”