Seasonal Winegrowing Update
Recently our winemaker, Richard Sowalsky, put together a brief update on what’s going on around the Clos Pegase Vineyards and Winery. Here’s what Richard had to say:
A Sense of Style
Embarking on my 20th year in the wine world (18 harvests plus a couple of years at UC Davis earning my Masters Degree in Wine Science), I have developed a sense of personal wine style, an internal guide that I use in crafting the best wines possible from the grapes I receive in any given vintage. Although it may seem like one of the more obvious responsibilities of my job, the continued development and nurturing of the skills required to achieve results that not only satisfy me, but also our supporters, is an ongoing and highly challenging process. As we finalize our 2009 Bordeaux varietal blends at Clos Pegase for bottling in a few weeks time, I thought this might be a good opportunity to provide a glimpse into the complex decision making required to succeed in achieving great winemaking results.
Wine style, first and foremost, begins with a detailed understanding of the raw materials at hand, namely varietal wine grapes. A precise knowledge of where the grapes are grown, how the grapes are grown, which variants (or clones) of each grape variety are present together with their inherent characteristics serve as a basic first step in planning overall wine style goals for fermentation, aging and blending. One may think that once a winemaker has established his or her personal sense of style, it results in a static set of preferences and ways of working, yet that is far from the truth. In order to achieve the best possible results with any given vineyard during any given vintage, my sense of style must be dynamic, with the ability to adapt based on the fruit sources and conditions. At its most simplistic, this is because a particular terroir, although potentially similar to a given vineyard situation I have previously experienced, is never exactly the same. The fruit of an Estate winery, such as Clos Pegase, has its own unique profile. Therefore, my goals in previous winemaking undertakings cannot be the same as my goals with the Clos Pegase Estate grapes, despite the fact that wines created are from identical varieties grown in Napa Valley.
In previous vintages, the Sauvignon Blanc with which I worked was grown in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley and bears only a slight family resemblance to our Mitsuko’s Vineyard Napa Carneros Sauvignon Blanc; similarly, bold and powerful Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon differs radically from our fleshy and finely structured Tenma Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. In each case, knowing what is intrinsically possible with the fruit, as it exists on the optimal date of harvest, provides the clearest guide of the best approach to subsequent winemaking, and this knowledge can only be gained over time and with much practice.
Although all decisions in the vineyard and winery can, to a lesser or greater extent, influence the final wine style, there is perhaps no more important single factor than the decision of when to harvest, if the goal is to achieve the ultimate expression of site-driven grape expression in the finished wine. The myriad choices which influence date of harvest are staggering, including current and impending weather patterns, fruit development (such as tannin development, sugar accumulation and acid balance), knowledge of the site and varietal performance on that site, together with more mundane considerations such as daily picking and fruit processing capacities. Again, it takes years of training to taste for acid and tannin changes in grapes against a background of essentially 25% sugar (it’s like assessing the future sourness or bitterness of highly sweetened lemonade or sweet tea knowing that soon the sugar will disappear). It takes years of training to know how to decide when to pick Sauvignon Blanc (acquiring the skill to taste for a flavor precursor “bloom” about 30 seconds after tasting the fruit itself), Chardonnay (highly clone-dependent with respect to optimal picking parameters to achieve desired textures), Pinot Noir (balancing fruit, earthy and mineral elements in a variety prone to rapid late season dehydration) and all other varieties in a manner that will give optimal wines. And, it takes years of experience to be able to predict how the balance of extract, textural elements, flavors, acids and final alcohol will work in tandem to produce balanced wines that are both fully expressive and gracefully refined. In essence, it is a very highly educated guess where the guess gets better and better every year based on experience.
From the time of harvest forward, the wine style goals are in the hands of the winemaker. At Clos Pegase, we are committed to presenting the essence of our Estate fruit in the bottle, as we feel this is what makes our wines unique. Thus, I take an approach in the cellar that enhances vineyard fruit characteristics while minimizing any interfering winemaking imprint, such as heavy oak flavors. I essentially “mentor” the grapes into becoming the best wine they have the potential to be rather than manipulating the grapes into a showcase for my parlor tricks. I believe that this intelligent yet restrained approach in the cellar compliments our learning in the vineyard to achieve the highest expression of Estate wines possible from our land, the totality of which is our signature Clos Pegase style.