“A single, great vineyard sight can express itself and be transparent through to a bottle of wine. You can actually taste the vineyard’s character in the glass.” Jamie Kutch – Kutch Wines Pinot Noir
I’ll admit it; I love single-vineyard wines. There is something about the nuance and singularity that speaks volumes me. When drinking a single-vineyard wine, I like to imagine the vineyard, its rows of vibrant vines offering abundant fruit. Sometimes I’ll even go techie and try to find pictures of the vineyard on Google so I can be even more anchored to the very spot that produced the wine in my glass. If I’ve personally walked amongst the vines of a particular vineyard, I can return with just a tip of my glass and a bit of imagination.
I wanted to learn more about these special wines. But not from the perspective of the wine drinker, I wanted to learn from winemakers themselves. So with the help of a few talented single-vineyard winemakers, here’s what I learned in a nutshell. The winemaker’s ultimate duty to single-vineyard wines compels him/her to draw on the incalculable variations of each vintage to bring forth the true voice and personality of the vineyard. When made well, a single-vineyard wine will convey a very specific sense of place, nuance and art. Obviously not all vineyards produce fruit with enough unique characteristics to be worthy of vineyard designation. Vineyards, like people, all have something to say, but not everything said is worth your attention.
To be designated single-vineyard, at least 95% of the grapes must come from one defined vineyard. An estate-bottled designated wine may be from a single-vineyard but can also include grapes from other vineyards controlled by the estate through ownership or long-term leases within the same appellation. Single-vineyards can be quite small, comprising only a few acres, with very unique characteristics as seen with gnarly old vine Zinfandel vineyards.
In contrast, some are very large offering unique characteristics across different blocks within the vineyard. Napa Valley’s Stagecoach Vineyard rolls across 600 acres divided into 175 blocks among four designated regions. The prized 89-acre Napa Beckstoffer To Kalon (prn. Toe kalon) Vineyard, planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, has been in recent years used by over 20 winemakers to create their single-vineyard designated wines. Each winemaker/artist creates a unique interpretation of the vineyard in much the same way no two artists could paint a sunset in exactly the same way.
Single-vineyard wines may be of all one variety or may be a blend of several varieties, grown in the same vineyard. The grapes within the vineyard may be picked all at the same time and co-fermented. In other cases the winemaker may choose to pick, ferment and barrel age separately only to blend later in a way that best expresses the singular beauty of the vineyard.
The winemaker often needs time to get to know the vineyard in a personal and intimate way. Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood and a single-vineyard Zinfandel pioneer, works with a vineyard for a minimum of three years and feels “it must produce flavors that are distinct and representative of a location, and it must be different (or better) than any of the other single vineyard wines I make.” Jamie Kutch, a Pinot Noir specialist says “You let the vineyard tell you by tasting and looking for unique characteristics which are exposed vintage after vintage.” Old vine Zinfandel whiz, Bruce Patch of Wine Guerilla researches the history and makeup of his heritage vineyards but in the end finds that “most all old vine vineyards are worth it.”
In many cases, blended wines are created in a consistent house style with little variation year after year. Although some blended wines are created to combine the best attributes of multiple vineyards, allowing for vintage variation. The bottom line is that multi-vineyard and multi-varietal blending gives the winemaker more wiggle room to get it right. Peterson knows “you have to get it right every time. There is no fudge factor like there is when making a blended wine. You either get it right or you blend it away.”
Blending however, can be very much a part of creating a single-vineyard wine. As mentioned earlier, some vineyards are very large with many varietals planted. With these single-vineyard wines, the winemaker has more latitude than with smaller single variety vineyards. Pinot Noir vineyards usually include any number of different Pinot clones that ripen at different speeds and respond best to different styles of oak barrels. In these cases the wines are often fermented and aged separately to be blended before bottling.” Mike Kohne of Mercy Vineyards explains, “Pinot Noir clones can have wildly different personalities so we find an advantage when we go to blend, if they’ve been kept separately.”
Other wines, like old vine Zinfandels lend themselves to field blends. These ancient vineyards, many planted before prohibition, contain predominantly Zinfandel vines but frequently include Petite Sirah, Carignane, other black grapes and the occasional white grape. Most old vine Zinfandel winemakers agree that co-fermentation of all the grapes from the vineyard offers the truest picture of the old vine vineyard’s soul.
Single-vineyard fruit is a limited resource requiring the winemaking style to be such that the vineyard speaks louder than the winemaker. So where does the vineyard end and the winemaker begin? A gentle touch and almost Zen-like understanding of the vineyard is required to let the vineyard sing its own distinctive song. Kutch explains it in terms of supermodels, “The challenge is to not mask the attributes with excessive use of oak, extraction, ripeness etc. In other terms, think of it like putting make-up all over a supermodel. You mask the beauty.” Joel Peterson agrees, “the aggressive use of oak, Brettanomyces, very ripe fruit, and excessive sweetness get in the way of vineyard expression.”
Single-vineyard wines, as I learned, are about nuance, requiring a winemaker’s special touch. A touch that is so in sync with a particular vineyard that he/she can coax out its unique voice from the terrior, without their personal winemaking style downing that voice out. I wonder to which unique vineyard I’ll be transported tonight with a simple pull of a cork. So raise your glass to singular beauty. Free the grapes, give them a voice and allow those grapes to speak their singular truth to us all. In vino veritas – In wine there is truth!