Another great vintage is behind us—tucked away behind the cellar doors in barrels. Even though it’s very early to make any statements regarding the quality of the first wines drained to barrels, we winegrowers throughout the valley can’t but agree that 2016 has all the qualities and characteristics to be another great year.
Marco Gressi, The Napa Valley Reserve Winemaker
After receiving those much anticipated rains through the winter, soil profiles where refilled at full capacity allowing the vines to set full canopies after yet another early start. We are lucky to grow vines in a valley framed by two mountain ranges—The Vaca Mountains and Mayacama Mountains—that redirect most of the rainfall to the floors even on drought years.
Cabernet is a thrifty varietal not needing much water and because of that we water only if, when, or where we need to water. As a result most of the estate receives very little irrigation. In the areas where irrigation is necessary, we opt to do infrequent deep watering pushing the roots deeper in our soil.
There are a growing number of tools that help growers advance the knowledge of the vineyards they farm:
· Weekly infrared photography from planes that fly over the valley
· Drone technology that allows us to fly over vineyards capturing images on preprogrammed flight patterns
· Sap flow monitoring that offers continuous feedback on the stress the vine is experiencing out in the vineyard
· Vine-by-vine mapping
We use a few of those tools, but we always rely on our boots on the ground before making any decisions.
Under ideal conditions flowering moved at a fast pace setting a great crop after the not- so-plentiful yield of 2015.
The 2016 vintage is overall a cooler one that had a few heat spikes, which were much tamer than the ones we witnessed in the previous few years. After growing accustomed to those heat events, we learned to arm ourselves with proper canopy management and shading on the afternoon side of the vine. Next summer, we will try a misting system on two acres. This will enable us to turn on a fine mist on the fruit zone and canopy during the hot hours of a heat spell, lowering the temperature in that zone by as much as 10°F.
Harvest started early with the first Sauvignon Blanc grapes filling our press on August 15th; Cabernet came through the cellar doors on September 13th—only a few days later than last year. The quality and the hygiene of the fruit were remarkable, with very little dehydration seen only on the last few picks. Great weather and little dehydration allowed us to pick what we wanted, when we wanted, at a consistent pace without being pushed into a picking decision by the elements. This is a key factor and good sign of quality. This was a refreshing change from some vintages that forced us to pick before our plan in order to avoid potentially catastrophic elements like an impeding rain or heat spike.
Sorting went extremely fast thanks to the healthy crop and new equipment. We broke records in both tonnage and number of barrel fermentations with the help of a dedicated and hardworking team in the vineyard and the winery. I remember getting nervous during the last few days of harvest wondering if I was going to have enough fermentation vessels. Sure enough we brought in the last Cabernet grapes on October 10th after filling every single barrel and tank in the winery!
White grapes were whole cluster pressed and fermented in a variety of sizes of oak barrel (mostly used), and a few concrete eggs. The resulting wines show promise, offer generous aromatics and a great mouthfeel—all framed by a mouthwatering acidity.
The red grapes finished fermentation and were pressed at a steady pace. The balanced fruit that I tasted in the vineyard is translating into balanced wines with great extraction, freshness, and resolved tannins. We had all wines quietly aging in barrel by the end of November so that we could turn our attention to racking and bottling the gorgeous 2014 vintage. We will start with the 38 Member blends in the various formats requested and then turn our attention to the Estate blend by racking and blending more than 260 barrels to tank, hand bottling the various large formats by hand first, then finishing our regular size bottles and magnums on the bottling line. Cases will be shipped to the warehouse where the wine will age for almost a year prior to the hand-labeling process and release.
If you’ve visited our cellar in the last few months you might have noticed a growing number of oval oak casks. We have been experimenting with the use of larger aging vessels to age wine during the last year of elevage. So far we have 12 and 20-hectoliter casks, or the equivalent of 5 and 9 regular sized barrels. The oak and oxygen-to-wine ratio is obviously diminished, and the result is a
slower, less oxidative aging that tends to showcase the fruit and highlight finer tannins. Potentially, we will be aging in regular-sized French oak barrels for the first 12–16 months and blending into various sized casks for the last year prior bottling.
In addition to larger casks, we’re adding several small concrete tanks in the newly redesigned fermentation room. Eventually, we’ll have 17 three-ton tanks so we can conduct small-batch fermentations that will help us fine-tune our picking strategy. For years, we’ve been working with concrete and have been pleased with the outcome—most notably an unprecedented evenness in fermentation temperatures.
As I finish writing these notes, the vineyard crew is busy pruning our vines with great precision and dedication. This is a very important task that will establish the structure and growing patters for the upcoming vintage. It’s been a very wet winter that’s helping to recharge and replenish our soil profiles after years of drought.