Balance | September 2007

Winegrowers tend to use, and in many cases, overuse certain buzz words. I am no exception. My latest word is “balance”. Balance is admittedly an ambiguous term that is easy to throw into a conversation. That said, it has been a guiding force in my vineyard, my winemaking, and my life over the past several years. Too often we winegrowers get caught up in the latest fashionable trends. Clones, rootstocks, planting densities, gravity flow, sorting tables, basket presses, unfiltered wines—any progressive winegrower needs to have a certain awareness of how the latest innovations can improve their wines. I do find however that we tend to lose sight of the big picture. For me, balance should be the end result for which all these pieces of the puzzle are small contributors. In an attempt to become a bit less ambiguous, I would like to define “balance” in the various aspects of my winegrowing operating.

The Vineyard

Balance in the vineyard is perhaps easiest to define, but hardest to achieve. I define a balanced vineyard as one where growth is uniform with around 12 to 15 leaves per shoot, and each shoot has small laterals. The canopy is light and airy. Crop load per shoot and per vine is also uniform, and shoot tip growth ceases at or before veraison. In the East this is challenging because fluctuating rainfall amounts during the growing season can quickly change the dynamics. We make planting decisions best suited for our climate, and then spend each growing season adjusting for the “unusual weather” of that vintage. Climate is what we plan for, weather is what we get.

In the proverbial perfect world, vine balance is achieved by planting the right variety/rootstock at the spacing that is appropriate for a given soil and climate. After a couple of thousand years of experience, the Europeans have this down pretty well. We Americans are in more of a hurry, so we are experimenting with every tool available to us to achieve vine balance in a mere generation or two. There are two very different schools when it comes to balancing a vineyard without ancestral knowledge: Bonsai and Big Trellis.

Bonsai refers to the Japanese art of restricting root development and judicious green pruning to keep a plant unnaturally small. In viticulture this can be very radical. It is becoming more common as we transition to higher density (closer spaced) vineyards. On the root side this means slowing vine development, especially in the early years by withholding water, stressing vines with cover crops and weeds, and even root pruning using tillage and soil ripping close to the vines. On the canopy side it involves copious removal of leaves, shoots, and laterals during the growing season, especially in June. This reduction of green “biomass” intentionally weakens the vine.

Big Trellis refers to giving a vigorous vine lots of room to spread out and grow. Divided canopy systems such as Geneva Double Curtain (GDC), Lyre, Scott Henry and Smart-Dyson are now commonly used with good success.

Many growers use a hybrid approach. At Linden Vineyards I now have both extremes in place. They both work, but require very precise and flexible management. I tend to use the Bonsai approach on my more naturally restrictive soils (shallow, excessively well drained, low water holding capacity and steep slopes). I have both Lyre and GDC on my more clay based soils. I will save my comments on the pros and cons of each system for a future article. My goal with each system is to achieve vine balance, which I find is absolutely the key to producing my best wines.

The Cellar

As I mature, I have become satisfied with letting my wines express the vintage and terroir with as little manipulation as possible. Wine balance is where I get most involved. All the decisions based on producing a balanced wine are based on my own palate. My involvement as a winemaker is most pronounced in three areas: picking decisions with the whites; extraction decisions with my red fermentations; and in blending.

The structure of whites wines is in their acidity. To achieve balance, the acidity must be integrated with the texture of the wine. I am finding that when white grapes are ripening, there is a relatively small window when the acidity is of good quality and quantity. My site is relatively warm, and my early ripening white varieties can lose acid fairly rapidly. If I pick too early the wines can be “skinny” and meager with a hard malic acid finish. If I pick too late the wines are fat and flabby without the refreshing quality whites need to pair with food.

The structure of red wines is primarily their tannins. In some vintages the skins and seeds can achieve full ripeness. In this case my fermentations are fairly extractive, meaning crushed grapes are bled and fermented very warm with more punch-downs and late pressing. In years when tannins are less ripe, I want to de-emphasis the greener tannins. I tend to use more whole berries, less punch-downs and early pressing.

Blending is the final, and perhaps best tool a winemaker has to achieve wine balance. It is paramount to keep as many lots separate in the cellar so that the winemaker has as many options as possible. This is why I love making wines in barrels verses large tanks. I find that there can be substantial textural and structural differences not only in varieties (i.e. Merlot vs. Cabernet), but sometimes even more so in vine age, clone, soils, and slope aspect.

My blending goals are to make the most harmonious and focused “flagship” wine. I then have to have an economical place for the wines that don’t make the cut. I use the Bordeaux philosophy of declassification. My flagship wines are our single vineyard bottlings, then from there, I declassify lots down to varietal wines or a simple Claret.

Blending decisions are based on texture, concentration and balance, not aroma and flavor. Young wines are very dynamic. Their flavors and aromatics evolve and change constantly. Mouthfeel, structure, and overall balance remain relatively constant and are more predictable in their evolution.

Business, Marketing and Life

It was I who had changed. I was approaching 40; more mature, more relaxed. The wines became more serene and supple, because I was more at ease.
—Etienne Grivot/Burgundy

I have observed that most small winery operators rarely achieve the full potential in their wine quality. This is because there is a lack of focus. We are in business, and that business needs to be profitable. Wine marketing, events, and festivals often compete with the energy and creative juices that are needed to get our wines to the next level of quality. Just as with our vines and wines, we have to find a balance with our lives. I swear that I can taste a winegrower’s stress level in their wine. The wines taste forced, manipulated, and lack harmony.

With American business there is a constant underlying mantra that keeps telling us that success is measured by growth and expansion. We all need to kick back every once and a while and ask ourselves just why we got into this business.

Wine East, September 2007

Jim Law