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One Grape At a Time

Single-vineyard wines: Why make anything else?

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"We used reverse osmosis to clean out the smokiness of the 2008, and then we used the wine in a blend," says Jeff Cichocki, assistant winemaker at Bonterra Winery. Bonterra's McNab and Butler vineyards are points of particular pride for the Ukiah-based biodynamic winery. Most years, these two locations are made into vineyard designates, of which bottles go for roughly $50.

"But not every season is worthy," Cichocki says. "We produce vineyard designates when they deserve it." Most winemakers work by a similarly selective approach.

But occasionally, the historical value of capturing a vineyard in a bottle takes precedence over just how fine its crop is each year. At the Scholium Project, a small winery near Vacaville, owner Abe Schoener makes vineyard designates from 10 small vineyards around Northern California. Schoener takes particular pride in using relatively unknown, off-the-map vineyards, sometimes no bigger than a backyard. In some years, Schoener sets aside subpar harvests for use in blends, but for one small block of grapes, the McDowell Vineyard on Glos Lane near Yountville, Schoener has bottled up every vintage since 2004, good or bad.

"Even when the Glos vineyard doesn't measure up, I bottle it every time," Schoener says. "The owners have told me it's going to be torn out soon, and I'm pretty sure that 2012 will be its last harvest." In 2006 and 2007, the Glos vineyard's wines "were more interesting than they were excellent," Schoener says, "but I bottled them anyway, because I think it's important that I preserve the historical record of that vineyard."

Makers of vineyard-designate wines tend to acknowledge that their job as winemaker is to exert a minimal influence on the wine and, instead, do their best to showcase the land and its grapes. Winemakers attempt to do this in varying ways. At Halcon Vineyards, Gordon doesn't filter or refine his single vineyard wines, and he points out that his Syrah touches nothing but steel tanks before going to the bottle.

At Bonterra, vineyard manager Chad Boardman believes that biodynamic farming is the key. In biodynamic farming, no fertilizers or nutrients produced offsite are ever introduced to the life cycle of the vines. "Our McNab and Butler wines are the truest possible expression of those sites," he explains. "We aren't trying to add or mask anything."

MacGregor at Saracina Vineyards believes commercially made yeasts will homogenize the nuances of a wine, and that the best vineyard designates are made with native airborne yeasts. Also, the addition of grape concentrate to boost final alcohol levels and the use of artificial coloring agents—both common winemaking tactics—"can mitigate the whole point of a single-vineyard wine," he says.

But winemakers also must intervene at times as their wines ferment and age.

"I'm trying to showcase the vineyard more than anything else in the winemaking process," says Judson Hale, who makes a vineyard designate of Yorkville Highlands Pinot Noir. "I try my hardest to stay out of the process, but I'm also a UC Davis [wine program] graduate. I know where things can go wrong, and I know how to fix them and keep a wine palatable."

Hale's chief wine is a buttery, chocolatey Pinot Noir, a popular variety for use as vineyard designates—but at the Scholium Project, grape names are irrelevant. In fact, Schoener doesn't even put them on his bottle labels.

"I want the focus to be on the vineyard, not on the grape," he says. "The grape variety brings too many expectations with it. I don't want people to look at my wine and say, 'Oh, another Syrah.' It doesn't matter that it's a Syrah. It's the Hudson Vineyard wine."

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