A brash young man watched a sage drawing water from the village well. Slowly, hand over hand, the old man pulled up the wooden bucket of water. After some time the young man left and returned with a pulley, and excitedly explained how to use it, and how easy it would be to draw water by cranking the handle. The old man refused: “Were I to use a device like this, my mind would congratulate itself on being so clever, and then I would quit putting my heart into what I was doing….If I don’t put my heart and whole body into my work, my work will become joyless. And how, then, do you think the water would taste?”
In the French language there is no word for winemaker. We share the French philosophy that the wine makes itself with some minimal human intervention and guidance. However, to avoid confusion, the English terms winemaker and winemaking are used.
Most of the important decisions are made before fermentation even begins. The most important winemaking decision is when to pick the grapes. If the grapes are harvested with good balance, concentration and flavors, the winemaking can take a backseat. The initial winemaking stages of evaluating grape maturity, selective hand picking, gentle handling, sorting and small lot fermentation are where most of the effort goes. In 2002 a new facility was built just to facilitate the gentle handling and sorting of grapes.
The Linden style for white wines centers around a refreshing minerality. The weight of the wine comes from the vineyard (sap) rather than the winemaking (alcohol, oak and lees). White wines best show their terroir (place) through their aromas and acidity.
Soil type plays a big role in picking strategies. Lighter soil will ripen grapes as much as 10 days earlier than a heavy soil. Vine age and canopy exposures also have significant influence on maturity and flavor development. Occasionally we will make several picking passes over a 2-week period, picking by visual differences in cluster color and hue. With few exceptions our vineyards are picked by our regular staff. All grapes are hand picked into 25-pound boxes (lugs).
The grapes are chilled in a cooler overnight and then sorted, destemed and pressed the next day. We have a variable speed sorting table that can accommodate up to 6 workers. Sorting can be snail’s pace slow or very fast depending on the condition of the grapes. In a wet year, sorting out rot will make the process painfully slow. The grapes then fall into our destemmer which removes stems. Next is crushing. Linden’s crusher rollers can be adjusted depending on the desired influence of the skins. More crushing equals more skin influence on the juice. Skins can contribute wonderful aromas, but can also give an undesired phenolic load (bitterness). Skins are evaluated by taste. Previous history of individual blocks also has great influence on the degree of crushing given to the berries. Destemmed, crushed grapes fall through a chute by gravity into the press. We have two 1500-liter Wilmes pneumatic presses that I love because of the gentle juice extraction and manual control. Typically there are two press cuts: free run and light press are combined and hard press kept seperate. Free run is considered to be the highest quality, although the light press can add some nice dimension and can be a useful blending tool. Hard press juice is kept seperate and often declassified.
The juice is settled, usually overnight, sometimes for two days. In dry vintages the juice is left slightly cloudy (“dirty”) as this gives more character to the wine. In rainy harvest years, the juice is settled more completely so that any off flavors from rot are eliminated. After years of experimenting with uninnoculated fermentations in white wines, Linden has returned to primarily cultured yeast fermentations with the occassional exception of Hardscrabble Chardonnay. The resulting wines simply tastes better to me. Most white wines are fermented at 60 to 75 F (16 to 22 C). Chardonnay and Late Harvest are barrel fermented. All other whites are typically tank-fermented. Only Chardonnay may go through malolactic fermentation, but this is rare as we like to retain as much acidity and freshness as possible.
White wines made in tank are racked (decanted) once, just after fermentation to get the wine off its gross lees. The next racking will be in preparation for bottling. Barrel fermented Chardonnay and Late Harvest are not racked until close to bottling and are aged on the lees (sur lie) and may be stirred occasionally depending on development, although this is becoming increasingly rare. Most whites are bottled in late winter in order to retain freshness and aromatics. The exceptions are Chardonnay and Late Harvest, which are bottled in August or sometimes later. All Linden wines benefit from bottle aging. We try to give the bottled wines at least 6 months and often several years of bottle aging here in our cellars.
All our vineyards are planted to the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Carménère. Each of these grapes has inherent strengths and weaknesses both in the vineyard and in the wine. It takes decades to understand the intricacies of each. Linden has found that blending produces the most balanced and interesting wine. All our reds are blends of different Bordeaux grape varieties.
Our single vineyard reds are the best expression of their terroir. These are wines that are made for aging and have depth, structure and complexity. Our Claret and Petit Verdot are wines that reflect the vintage and are typically approachable at a younger age and have straightforward, appealing flavors and structure.
Skin ripeness is our most important harvest parameter. There is an important evolution that happens when the skin changes from thick and resilient to thin and fragile. Red stained fingers are a very good sign when sampling grapes in September. Seed ripeness is also considered, but only to help determine the length of post fermentation maceration. Linden’s cooler mountain site results in reds with higher acidity than is typical in New World wines. This higher acid is often a bigger contributor to the red wines structure than tannins. Vintage palys a major role in each wine’s balance. Harvesting by soil type is extremely important with the reds, as there is a direct relationship between soil and wine quality. Cabernet Sauvignon requires the driest, warmest soils, whereas Merlot needs more water and can easily get over stressed in a hot dry summer.
We double-sort the reds, first, before destemming, to remove leaves, petioles and “pink“ or excessively shriveled clusters. The second sorting is more important. It comes after the grapes have gone through the destemmer. At the second sorting table we remove stem fragments (“jacks“) and pink berries. This is a very slow and meticulous job slowing our “crush rate“ to less than one ton per hour. The degree of crushing or breaking of the skins depends on our evaluation of the tannins. Typically for ripe Cabernet Sauvignon we will break the skins significantly to get better tannin extraction during fermentation. Petit Verdot, on the other hand, is sometimes fermented with whole berries as the tannins can be too assertive and rustic.
Destemmed and sorted grapes fall by gravity into one-ton fermentors. This reflects the need to keep lots small and separate. Because red harvest occurs from late September to mid-October the grapes are already quite cold. We heat the fermentation cellar in order to stimulate yeast and malolactic fermentations. Linden now uses cultured yeast as “native” (uninoculated) fermentations often diminished the character of individual terroirs. Cultured ML bacteria are sometimes used. Draining and press timing decisions are made by evaluating tannin extraction. This can be at dryness or in the case of very ripe Cabernet, extended post fermentation macerations can give a total cuvaison of 28 days. Press fractions are divided: free run (drained from fermentor), lees press, extracted press, and hard press. They are kept separate until blending decisions are made. The young wine is settled for a day or two, then racked into barrels to complete malolactic fermentations in our warm cellar.
We now use all French oak. After years of experimenting with Hungarian and Virginian oak, I have concluded that they are too aggresive for Linden’s style. Typically our single-vineyard lots see 30 to 50% new oak, while Claret sees very little new oak. In some rare vintages where the wines need more fat, red wines may age sur lie. We rack in most winters to give the young wines oxygen, but then put them to bed by spring. They spend anywhere from 9 to 22 months in oak before bottling. Blending decisions are made in the winter following harvest. A panel consisting of Linden staff and colleagues taste blind over a several-month period to fine tune the blends. Red wines are usually bottled unfined, but now receive a light filtration.