Raising the Bar on Reds

by Jim Law

For years Virginia has been thought of as primarily a white wine region. In the 1980’s and most of the 1990’s even our most loyal customers had often disparaging comments about the state of Virginia red wines. In recent tastings of Linden library wines back to 1987, I can now understand where they were coming from.

During this period viticulture was good, but not precise. Grapes were picked too early because of unfounded fears of high pHs and fruit degradation. The winemaking inappropriately mimicked hot, sunny California. Our wines were highly extracted with gobs of new oak. The wines were often thin, hard and vegetal.

Good whites can be made by ‘recipe’ and are more forgiving of less than ideal sites or viticultural practices. This is far from true for red wines. Great reds require precision, tenacity and experiential intuition. Virginia red wines have improved dramatically in recent years, but there remains plenty of room for improvement.

Over the past 5 years I have been implementing a variety of changes and improvements to our red wine production. Progress has been very slow. I make the analogy to a pole-vaulter who makes great progress in ‘raising the bar’ quickly in his early years, but at a certain point all his being is focused on gaining that next elusive extra inch. I would like to share some of my experiences in attempting to gain that additional inch.

In the Vineyard

Fine-tuning can be as simple as experimenting with the timing and severity of leaf pulling and as agonizing as removing underachieving vineyard blocks. Soil/site/vine relationships are much more pronounced in reds than whites. Much of this seems to be related to vine balance. With our high capacity soils and summer rains, excessive vigor has always been a major quality issue. I have found that my best wines come from the most balanced vines. There are several ways that I have tried to address this issue:

  1. Band-Aid Viticulture: Beat back the vines with lots of hedging, lateral and leaf removal. This has not really worked. The vines continue to grow well past veraison and the grapes and wines tend to be vegetal with hard tannins.
  2. Competition: I have been experimenting with sowing covercrops under the vines. It is still too early to come to any conclusions, but I am encouraged, especially in very high vigor situations. Some blocks have been showing signs of nutritional deficiencies because of the competition. It seems that vine nutrition and vine vigor are not linearly related.
  3. Yields: I have been slowly reducing yields, trying to find that place where I get full ripeness and concentration without unduly sacrificing quantity. I am finding that in some cases lower yields can make a significant difference in shortening the ripening period. We learn from our mistakes. In 2002 I underestimated crop loads. Cluster weights were way above average resulting in large yields and slow ripening. Just as an otherwise spectacular harvest was beginning it started to rain and continued for weeks. If I had reduced yields down more ruthlessly I feel that we could have ripened and harvested before the rains.
  4. Picking Strategies: Small is beautiful. I try to keep lot sizes as small as possible in order to learn and to `cherry pick’ to make high-end blends. Picking, fermenting and aging wines by soil, slope aspect vine age, canopy side, or clone accelerates my learning curve. I have come to believe that tannins define the style and quality of red wines. All my decisions are based on tannin quality. This is especially true in deciding when to pick. I no longer do any lab work on red grapes. I do not want to know about sugars or pHs. They are an unwanted distraction. Skin and seed maturity is all I care about. We harvest some pretty sorry looking grapes. Berries are often falling off the clusters when we pick. A French vineyardist once told me “if they look good, they aren’t ripe”. I was recently pleasantly surprised to fine a publication that tries to quantify ripeness of berries, seeds and skins Winegrape Berry Sensory Assessment in Australia by Winter, Whiting and Rousseau. Tannin ripeness does not necessarily correlate to sugar levels. In tasting past vintages, when I did pick by sugar rather than tannin maturity, I find that the `lesser’ vintages are the most attractive. This is because in cooler, wetter years I was waiting for higher sugars and inadvertently attaining ripe tannins. In those hot, dry vintages the high sugar levels came quickly, before the tannins ripened.
  5. Matching Variety to Place: My initial plantings, now 20 years old, were somewhat random in terms of matching soil and variety. I have learned to put Cabernet Sauvignon on my warmest, best drained, lowest capacity soils. Merlot seems happy in heavier, but still well drained, soils and can ripen even on the coolest sites. Petit Verdot is able to handle a variety of soils, but needs a long growing season. Cabernet Franc likes the same situations Cabernet Sauvignon, but is more forgiving if the site is less than ideal.

I didn’t get it all right 20 years ago, but I am still reluctant to remove old, productive red grape vineyards. The grapes from these vines produce good, but never great wine and go into my entry-level wines.

In the cellar

I’m finding that it is extremely important to be my own harshest critic. I spend a lot of time and money tasting the great wines of the world so that I can better understand the shortcomings of my own. In addition I try to swallow my pride and seek out experienced palates to constructively criticize my work. Over the past several years the areas I have been most focused on are the finish, reductive tones, vegetative notes, and lack of complexity.

As a result, these are the practices that I am adopting and experimenting with:

  1. Making ‘Vintage Appropriate’ Wines: I have focused my learning on non-Mediterranean European wines as they have learned how to make the best wines from varying growing and harvest weather conditions. In my early winemaking days I had recipes for my winemaking, not taking into account the enormous vintage variations we experience in the mid-Atlantic. Slowly I am learning to use techniques and tools more appropriately. My crusher roller can be adjusted from whole berry to heavy crushing. I evaluate skin and seed tannins and then decide on the level of crushing, and therefor extraction. The time that the fermenting wine spends on its skins is equally important. If Cabernet Sauvignon has ripe tannins I will give it a long cuvaison, whereas Petit Verdot, with its green seeds and intense rustic skin tannins is usually pressed before fermentation has completed.
  2. Sorting: In 2002 Linden acquired its first sorting table. In 2003 we purchased another. We now double sort our reds. The first sorting is done to the grapes before destemming. We remove leaves and leaf stems along with pink berried clusters that should not have been harvested. This is an easy sorting with typically requiring only one or two people. After the grapes pass through he destemmer they fall onto a second sorting table that is usually manned by 4 to 6 workers. Here we meticulously sort out stem fragments (jacks) and pink berries. I feel that this has made a significant difference in the finish of my wines. Rarely are our stems ripe. They can contribute a green, bitter, stemmy mouth feel and flavor to our red wines.
  3. Bleeding: In 1998 I started bleeding anywhere from 5 to 20% of my reds in order to achieve more intensity. I now use this technique less frequently as it can often throw the wines off balance. I reserve it for vintages like 2002 and 2004 where the grapes absorbed lots of water because of late season rains.
  4. Barrel Fermentation: This vintage for the first time we are ‘barrel fermenting’ some of our red wines. We purchased a number of 500-liter puncheons, and asked John Madison of Barrel Renaissance to come up from North Carolina to give us lessons on removing and replacing the heads. I have to admit that I was very nervous about dismantling thousands of dollars worth of new barrels, but it was successful. We removed one head on each puncheon, put them upright on a pallet and did a standard twice daily punch down. The goal is to integrate oak and wine during fermentation in order to get more harmony and complexity. I did find that fermentations took a day or two longer, probably due to the smaller lot size (1,200 pounds of grapes per 500-liter puncheon). The puncheons each saw two or three fermentations. In most cases I have the same lot of grapes divided into barrel and plastic fermenters and will evaluate each as they age separately.
  5. No Added Yeasts: Uninnoculated fermentations are now standard for red wines at Linden. We started experimenting in 2001, did about 60% in 2002, and 100% in 2003 and 2004. I find that the wines have a greater degree of complexity and improved mouth feel. Our grapes are cool at harvest, so they take about 3 days to start fermenting (cold soak). Fermentations are slower than with cultured yeast and can start with some fairly bizarre aromas. This is not for the faint at heart. I do use yeast nutrients as a precaution.
  6. Temperature: We now have a new cellar that can be warmed up to 85 F. Because Linden does all small lot (one ton) fermentations, the heat helps keep the fermentation peak temperature at around 85F to 90F. I am finding that a warmer fermentation temperature can blow off some of the vegetal flavors and achieve better tannin and color extraction.
  7. Oxygen: I have been experiencing some reduction problem in my red wines. This year I have experimented with adding oxygen to the fermenting wines for healthier fermentations and better tannin structure. As with many of my winemaking practices, my techniques are based more on intuition than science. I simply attached a sparging stone to the end of an air compressor hose and let it blow while I was punching down. I have to say that the 2004 reds that I did this to are very supple.
  8. Lees: My lees strategies with red wines have been evolving. I used to get reds off of the lees as soon as possible, following traditional technique. Then, the pendulum swing when the other way, where I left the wine to age on fairly heavy lees. Reduction problems followed. Now I use age sur lie on fine lees and stir, just as with chardonnay. I am hoping to gain more weight, texture, and complexity in my reds.

No single technique makes a significant difference in wine style or quality. Winegrowing and making are a culmination of thousands of often mundane decisions that start at preplant and continue until the day the wine is released to the public. At times this can be overwhelming and discouraging. At other times it can be stimulating and invigorating. I cannot complain about being bored with my job. If I keep doing the same thing, my wines will not improve.