In the recent article What Is Ultra-Premium Wine I tried to clarify what an ultra-premium wine is, but didn't go into detail about how to make one.
Since you're interested in ultra-premium wine, I thought you might like to know a little more about such wines are made. I'll concentrate on Napa Valley and Cabernet Sauvignon, since that's what Charnu is all about.
As always with wine, the major factors are the grapes and the winemaking. Let's look at each in turn.
You can't make great wine from average grapes. Clever winemaking can sometimes make grape flaws less noticeable, but if you aspire to greatness in wine you need to start in the vineyard.
Soil and Climate
Some sites consistently produce better grapes. If you want to make ultra-premium wine, you need to find a site capable of producing ultra-premium grapes.
Some of the more important factors are:
- Temperature and days of sunshine—The climate at your site has to fit the types of grapes you want to grow. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon grows well in warm locations, while cooler areas are more suitable for Pinot Noir. Since the northern part of Napa Valley is very warm during the growing season, it's a great place for Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Day/night temperature variation—Even grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon that thrive in hot weather do better when it's not hot all the time. Cabernet grapes grown in sites that don't cool down much at night tend to lack acid, and produce wine often described as “flabby”. In contrast, in the St. Helena area of Napa Valley it's common to have very wide temperature swings between day and night (as much as 40-50°F). This tends to produce Cabernet Sauvignon that retains enough acid to have good structure.
- Soil profile—Unlike food crops, grapes do better in poorer soils. In addition, it helps if the soil drains well (e.g. is gravelly). It seems that having to struggle for water and nutrients causes vines to produce better wine grapes.
Once you have picked a good site, you then need to farm it properly. By studying the farming practices of “cult” and other ultra-premium wines, we can identify some factors that seem to make a difference:
- Lower yields—Somewhat lower-than-average yields (tons of grapes per acre) tend to produce better wine. The vines are able to concentrate their energy on a smaller number of grapes, making each grape better (although it's not clear that extremely low yields necessarily gain much). If the soil is very non-fertile (e.g. some mountain sites), low yields can occur naturally. For better soils, the vineyard manager may need to employ other techniques, such as cutting off some of the grape clusters or planting vines close together (so they have to compete with one another).
- Good canopy management—While the vine canopy (foliage) is critical for proper growth and maturity, the objective is to grow grapes, not leaves. The vineyard manager needs to prune back excessive canopy, while ensuring that the grapes get the proper mix of sunlight, shade and air movement.
There are many other aspects of wine grape growing that don't seem to be a determining factor in whether the resulting wine qualifies as ultra-premium. For example, there is currently a lot of discussion about conventional vs. organic vs. Biodynamic farming. In fact, there are ultra-premium wines using each of these approaches.
Although you will hear people say that wine is “made in the vineyard”, winemaking clearly has an impact on the final product.
The winemaker must make many, many decisions during production. Each affects the wine to some extent. This is one reason why wines from the same general area can be quite different.
There is no magic winemaking formula for ultra-premium wines. There can be significant differences in how various ultra-premium wines are made, but we can identify some common approaches.
When To Pick
In some wine growing regions, when to pick is less a winemaking decision than it is a factor of the weather. In these cases, the ripeness and maturity of the grapes that go into the wine depend heavily on the weather in that vintage.
In contrast, Napa Valley has excellent weather, so that winemakers can usually choose when they want to pick. As a result, this has become a significant winemaking decision.
For ultra-premium wines, winemakers are looking for what they consider “optimal maturity”, which is when flavors have reached their peak. Winemakers differ in their opinion of when this is, but ultra-premium Napa Valley grapes are almost always riper than grapes grown in so-called “old world” vineyards (except when those areas have exceptional weather), and are riper than was typical even in Napa Valley in earlier decades.
The period between destemming and press is the period in which there is probably most variation among methods for ultra-premium wines. But we can identify a few common practices:
- Gentleness—grapes are treated as gently as possible. For example, they are not really “crushed”, but simply have the skin surface broken to let out the juice. Grapes are often moved from crushpad to tank using gravity rather than pumps.
- Longer time on skins—ultra-premium wine usually spends a lot of time in contact with the skins. Winemakers will often leave the skins and juice together for a while before fermentation even begins, and let the wine continue to sit on the skins even after fermentation is complete. The result is more flavor and tannin in the wine, giving the wine more structure. The feeling is that higher grape ripeness allows the wine to handle the higher tannin levels.
- Oak—Aging red wine in new French Oak barrels improves the structure of the wine and adds flavors that high-end wine buyers seem to like. And for ultra-premium wines, it's not just any French Oak barrel. Certain coopers have developed a reputation for making barrels that give the wine a better flavor profile. Ultra premium wines often use a high-percentage of new oak barrels, and a higher percentage of ultra-premium barrels.
Now It's Your Turn
This is not been an exhaustive exploration of ultra-premium winemaking. That would take an entire book.
What I hope came across in this discussion is that:
- There are some practices that are common among ultra-premium wineries
- These practices are similar to those used in the production of lesser wines, but ultra-premium producers take them to a higher (and more expensive) level
- There are also many differences in technique between different ultra-premium producers; there is no single right way to make ultra-premium wine
What do you think? Did I ignore an important factor? Do you disagree with any of my points? I'd love to hear from you.
Background photo chrisolson via Flickr