"Working by Hand" (Winemaking)
- Still, sparkling
- Winemaker choices and option
- Virtually all winemakers make use of available options (skin contact, malolactic, lees stirring, choice of fermentation vessel, etc.)
- All options used -- stainless steel, concrete, oak (barrels, vats, barriques, oak alternatives). Most sparkling wine ferments are done in stainless steel
- Aging potential (yes/no). If “yes,” give range
- Enjoyed young, while the best bottlings have the potential to age over 30 years
- Presented solo or frequently blended with
- Mostly sings solo, but blends for sparkling (usually Chardonnay) and the rare blended still wine
Working by Hand
Winemakers generally agree that the single most important element of making great Pinot Noir is cultivating pristine fruit and then adding just enough winemaking to steer it, but not dominate or overwork it. This requires a deft hand, a patient approach, and inherent restraint. The many winemaking tools available provide options but also distraction if not applied adroitly. Below are some of the choices.
Leaving the fermenting wine must (grape pulp and solids) in contact with the skins during and/or after fermentation.
What it does
With Pinot Noir, this is often done pre-fermentation in a process known as cold soaking, made popular in the 1980s by France’s Guy Accad. Keeping the fruit (and often stems -- see below) cold and macerating, fermentation is prevented from starting due to the cold temperature, while allowing for gentle extraction of flavors and pigments from this thin-skinned, lightly pigmented grape.
When at first the practice appeared on the scene, many vintners were skeptical and bemoaned that the process mitigated place/terroir and exacerbated correct uniformity in the wines. Over time and successive vintages in the bottle, that prophecy has proven to be false.
What it does
Proponents of wild yeast embrace the unique flavors coming from the “place,” including savory and matchstick-like aromas that many love and associate with France’s Burgundy region. Cultivated yeasts are more predictable and can be selected/customized to contribute specific flavors and aromas.
Some winemakers blend the two, sometimes starting with native yeast and reserving the use of commercial yeast only if something does not go right (e.g. fixing a stuck fermentation). Others may create cuvées/cocktails of specific commercial yeasts to achieve a desired flavor profile, since each strain brings something different. More and more producers are embracing native ferments with this variety. The lone exception is in sparkling wine where it is extremely rare for cuvée-based wines.
What it does
During the early stages of fermentation, open-top fermenters allow for increased oxygen contact which can help the yeast build a strong population. Open-top fermenters also allow easy access to the cap (the grape skins that rise to the top) and allow them to be punched down into the fermenting must easily. The heat generated during fermentation can easily escape the vessel, and an open-top can help better manage fermentation temperatures.
Open-top fermentations are only practical for relatively small volumes of wine, and are mainly used for red wines (or “orange” wines), as white wines tend to be fermented in the absence of grape skins. Given that so many lots of Pinot Noir are produced in single plot small volumes, open-top fermentation is an increasingly normal practice in premium Pinot Noir production.
What it does
Stem retention -- literally leaving a percentage of stems and stalks in the fermentation vessel rather than using exclusively destemmed fruit -- serves several purposes: paler color (stems absorb color), lower acidity (stems contain potassium, which combines with tartaric acid in the wine and precipitates, reducing the overall acidity level) and increased tannins (about 15% more depending on what percentage is used in concert with the fruit)
If this is done, the stems must be ripe/brown (lignified) or they will contribute a green, bitter, hard, and stringent character to the wine and make it quite unpleasant.
The wood employed for most wine barrels, used for aging the wine or actual fermentation of the wine in the barrel. Barrel decisions include the type of wood, the amount of toast (when the staves of the barrels are bent over an open flame), size (smaller = higher ratio of wood to wine = stronger oak influence) and the age of the barrels.
What it does
- Baking spice flavors that many identify with Pinot Noir come not from the grape but from oak aging.
- Heavily toasted barrels impart more intense roasted flavors (caramel, molasses, toffee, coffee, and burnt sugar).
- Oak bestows a waxy, velvety texture and can add a sweet buttercream flavor to the wine.
- New oak contributes much more flavor than older, previously used oak which, depending on the wine and the grapes, may be a better choice.
- Small (barrique-sized) barrel fermentation, at warmer temperatures than those in stainless steel and over shorter increments of time, also imparts a richer, smoother texture to the wine than one that is not fermented in barrel
Today, there is a movement toward keeping the oak in check, i.e. minimizing “over-oaking,” or using no oak at all. Unoaked wines (fermented in stainless steel, concrete or other neutral vessels) are increasingly popular, allowing the “purity” of the fruit to shine through.
Fining and filtration are both used for clarifying a wine, as well as to “stabilize” a wine. Fining, a practice as old as winemaking itself, specifically removes tannins and proteins, ensuring future clarity. Filtration, a technique used for clarification and microbiological stability is a technology with an advantage in that it can clarify a young, cloudy wine faster and more efficiently than fining.
What it does
With Pinot Noir, fining agents are used to clarify the wine to the point where only a light filtration or no filtration at all is needed prior to bottling. Filtration not only clarifies visually, but by removing suspended particles can make the fruit characteristics of a wine sharper and more vibrant. Filtration plays an important role in the “microbiological” stability of a wine by eliminating the risk that these microbes will ferment undetectable quantities of sugar.
Many Pinot producers refuse to filter as they feel it strips the soul of the wine away. Many who do not filter will do a light fining. That said, some eschew both practices with those who do not fine, believing that racking off a well-rested clear wine suffices.