Close Menu

Napa Valley winemaking techniques create a buzz

If it sounds like a good idea, California will try it.

California has long been eyed for its innovation, often challenging current trains of thought. The wine industry is no exception.

In the industry’s early years Agoston Haraszthy, Martin Ray, Charles Krug and others stand out as fervently experimenting with techniques new to the California wine industry.

Most of the techniques came from Europe and sprung from winemakers’ desires to emulate the great wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Portugal and Spain especially.

The biggest challenges prior to sterile filtration were keeping the wines clean and controlling instabilities. Once a greater understanding came of the chemical and microbial interactions happening in wine, the more the industry could concentrate on winemaking techniques to further aroma and flavour development, greater mouth feel and more.

In Napa Valley, a big wave of investment and innovation came in the late 1970s and 80s. Wineries experimented with or re-explored skin contact, unfiltered wines and numerous other viticultural and enological procedures.

That curious zeal still ignites the Napa Valley wine industry today, and the drinks business set out to determine what winemaking techniques are creating buzz and being used by Napa Valley wineries today.

Cement eggs, native yeasts and whole cluster fermentations are on the top of wineries’ lists.

These processes and an example of a Napa Valley wine produced using these techniques are discussed:

While cement has been used since Roman times in winemaking, the egg shape is a newer development. The Rudd and Viader wineries were the first to use these eggs in Napa Valley, sharing the costs of a shipment from France’s Nomblot manufacturer in 2003. Quintessa, Vineyard 29, Harlan, Cliff Lede, and Spottswoode are among other wineries using cement fermenters. The local company, Sonoma Cast Stone, has worked with numerous California wineries and is now producing cement tanks in the US.

The benefits, its proponents say, are numerous. The cement keeps a steady temperature during fermentation without the need for heating/ cooling coils. The egg shape in particular ensures there are no dead corners so there is better uniformity of the juice.

The material that the cement fermenters are made from is porous so the cement breathes as wood does. This reduces off odours which can come when a wine has no air, and it also imparts a rounder, richer mouth feel in the wine.  It does this without imparting oak flavours on the wine while maintaining fresh fruit flavours.

The winery Viader Napa Valley is making a Petit Verdot in a cement fermenter, and has two shapes available to it: the egg and cubes. Winemaker Alan Viader explains that the cement fermentation produces fresh, expressive fruit flavours. The winery blends this with some French barrel-influenced wine in order to combine the fresh fruit character of the concrete with the complex flavours that come from the barrel.

Another buzz word in the industry is native (wild) yeast. While certainly not new, this term is being used by those who want to express their fine winemaking. With sustainability being a major theme for winemakers today, some feel that the use of wild yeasts is a continued expression of their terroir. Using these yeasts, they say, is more natural, with a greater connection to the place of vine growing.

Some producers knock native yeasts for their slow start to fermentation or some strains’ inability to deal with higher alcohols that lead to stuck fermentations. Yet other winemakers argue that stuck fermentations can happen with commercial yeast as well.

Whole cluster fermentation is another current favourite. Some Napa Valley wineries are fermenting whole clusters in order to create fruit-driven wines. Relic Wine Cellars creates its 2010 Red Blend of 47% Mourvedre, 21% Carignane, 15% Grenache, 12% Petite Sirah and 5% Syrah in this way. The Carignane vines are 110 years old, and the Petite Sirah, 75 years old.

Another Napa Valley wine made with whole clusters is Elyse Winery’s 2007 Grenache. Winemaker Michael Trotta uses this technique to bring out the fruit character in the wine. We mention a second here because of another interesting procedure being used at Elyse. Mike is using a version of an older Rhône Valley technique and adding dried cane stalks to the must. He does this to enhance aromas, noticing an addition of white pepper and smokiness with this technique.

To complete this process, canes are chopped into smaller one inch pieces, toasted, and then put into cheese cloth sachets. These are then steeped in the open top fermenters.

In our next report on current trends in Napa Valley winemaking, we will cover small barrel fermentations, non-filtered and non-fined wines and other techniques that Napa Valley vintners are saying help them to create their premium wines.

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No