We were all really impressed with the grounds, the wines and the hospitality. Should you get the chance, make it a priority to visit this spot if you are ever in Sonoma Valley.
Last November, we bottled our first “Hawkes-worthy pink wine,” as Jake puts it. We did it just in time for Thanksgiving, and it’s been a hit over the last couple of months as more and more people have the chance to try it. Our 2011 Vin Gris is a rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon entirely from our Stone Vineyard, from a year that was … well, a bit difficult. Late spring rains resulted in shattered fruit on the vineyards, and cooler-than-ideal temperatures meant that harvest was later than I can remember it being. But something about the long, cool growing season made 2011 a great year for pink wines; it seems like everyone released one for the summer.
And thank goodness. Call me a cheap date, but I love a good glass of pink.
We opted for the term “vin gris” for a few reasons. Stylistically, this wine reminds us of the dry, zesty rosés from the Provence region. Bright and refreshing, it’s a versatile wine that’s light enough to enjoy with salad but possesses enough body that it will hold its own against a burger. In fact, rosé’s versatility is one of the reasons we released it when we did — the acidity tends to cut through the heaviness of wintertime foods, but the red fruit flavors hold up against the heavier dishes.
The other reason we went for “vin gris” over “rosé” is the method by which we produced this wine. Vin Gris is often produced by the saignée method, French for “bled” or “bleeding.” It’s not nearly as graphic as that though. Essentially, the saignée method starts with a red wine — in our case, Cabernet — right after the fruit has been pressed. In order to impart deeper color and better structure into the Cab, we removed a little of the juice, reducing the volume of the red wine and concentrating the must involved in maceration. The result was a Cabernet with the depth and intensity that we desired. And a little pink wine as a nice bonus.
In general, my personal preferences have always guided me toward rosés made from Rhône varietals — Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, or any combination thereof. Perhaps it’s my inner Frenchwoman? The Provençal pink wines are primarily Mourvèdre, with the Bandol region being the only area “dominated” by that varietal, which is required by law to compose at least 50% of the blend for both rosé and red wines. But our Vin Gris is right up my alley: as light and crisp with refreshing acidity as I could want, and with ripe strawberry, watermelon, and even a touch of the mint that is a defining characteristic of Cabernet from Alexander Valley.
Not to brag or anything, but that’s exactly what we’ve managed to achieve.
Grapevines are simultaneously extraordinarily delicate and astonishingly resilient. From the moment they produce leaf buds in the spring until the time those leaves drop off after harvest, they are susceptible to damage from pests, disease, rot, rain, frost, and wind. Even the sun can wreak havoc on a vineyard. You know: too much of a good thing is, well … too much.
But in the winter, when the vines are bare, Vitis vinifera proves to be remarkably hardy for a species that originated in the Mediterranean and Near East regions and which are grown in scores of other locations that are dramatically different. Of course, Alexander Valley and much of California has what is designated to be a Mediterranean climate, so it makes sense that wine grapes would flourish here. But it is in wintertime that some of the most crucial work is done.
It’s both a matter of vine health and the quality of the crop, and the process starts as soon as the fruit is picked. The vine continues to go through photosynthesis, building up nutrient reserves to get it through the winter. When that process is complete, the leaves change color and drop away, leaving the bare vines that you’ll see all over the county right now.
It’s the onset of cold weather that puts the vines to sleep. Dormancy is a critical period for the vine in the same way that we rely on sleep to re-energize ourselves. And that’s where the health and quality factors connect. Grapevines are trained in different styles for different results. But the one thing all the systems have in common is that they are all done to regulate the canopy and control crop yields by promoting “favorable leaf-to-fruit ratios.” And that’s what happens in the winter.
Grapevines grow pretty vigorously. If left unattended, they’ll eventually produce so much fruit that things won’t ripen evenly — or at all — and the quality of the crop is diminished. So in the winter, when the frosts and the cold have put the vines to bed, the vineyard crews go through and prune back the canes (young growth that started as a bud back in the previous spring). Pruning is done with the next autumn’s crop in mind by spacing things evenly to make sure the next year’s growth is balanced and that the vine’s energy will be concentrated on the fruit during the summer months.
I joke pretty regularly that wintertime grapevines are nearly indestructible, and that only a nuclear explosion could do any real damage. That is, of course, complete hyperbole. But grapes are grown in all kinds of areas, including places like New York, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand, and even France — all of which have much colder, longer winters than my backyard. And while I’m counting down the hours until Daylight Savings kicks back in, our Cabernet vineyards are enjoying their time off, relishing the cold, and building back their strength for the coming harvest.
It’s been cold this January. No, not the way it was cold this morning when my friend Noelle walked to work in Boston. That doesn’t happen in Alexander Valley. But we’ve had temperatures down in the twenties for the last few weeks. The puddles on the roadside are covered in ice, and the frost at the ranch and down at the river seems to accumulate with each passing day. There’s a fire burning constantly in the woodstove, and woe betide us if it should go out. I don’t go a day without snuggly wool socks.
Folks who come into the tasting room ask me, “Won’t the cold hurt the grapes?” And for a long time, the only thing I could tell them was, “No, not this time of year.” But I never really knew why the winter freeze wasn’t an issue until I bought a book called The Geography of Wine while I was perusing the local bookstore. I bought it on a whim, mostly to keep on the coffee table along with The River Cottage Meat Book and The Dude and the Zen Master, to flip through when idle.
Unsurprisingly, the answer to “why doesn’t the cold hurt the vines” came by accident, when I wasn’t looking for it. And once I read it, I thought, “Actually, that makes sense.”
You see, cold temperatures are actually necessary for growing quality wine grapes. In The Geography of Wine, Brian Sommers breaks down the the five basic climates that exist throughout the world: tropical, desert, subtropical, continental, and polar. There are local variations and areas over overlap, but basically, everything can be categorized into one of those five. And of them. the majority of wine production occurs within “Subtropical climates with mean monthly temperatures between 26.6 and 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit.”
So what happens in the winter? Dormancy. It turns out, the cold of the winter puts the vines to sleep for a while, and “without a period of dormancy or rest, wine grapes produce poorly for wine. Most plant species adapted to climates with a true winter cool period need that period to be at their best.” Within those subtropical classifications are the Mediterranean climates, “typically found at 30 to 45 degrees latitude (either north or south),” with mild winters and dry summers, and winters that “do not have more than a couple months when the average temperature is below freezing.”
In other words, Alexander Valley.
So the cold weather—from the chilly morning that keeps me in bed longer than I should be each morning and the ice that builds up on the bridge over Maacama Creek—is part of a necessary cycle. And for now, it shouldn’t be a problem.
One of the most frequent questions I hear about aging wine is “What happens to the wine as it gets older?” Well, “the fruit will turn to darker flavors,” I will say, “and the tannins soften.”
“How long can I age my wine?”
“Depends on how the wine was made and the conditions in which it was stored.”
Well, a few days ago I had a chance to taste some wines that are older than I am, and the results were astounding. Just for warm-ups, we had a ‘77 and ‘76 Burgess Napa Valley Cabs. The ‘77 was a bit past its prime, for the fruit wasn’t there really at all and it was a mouthful of tannin, but the ‘76 was superb. A perfect harmony of fruit and spice and tannin. One of those wines that you sip once… and then again… and then another… and before you know it you’re wondering where the rest of the bottle went. It was that good. But I digress.
One of my roommates’ friends brought over three bottles and we tasted them blind. All we knew was that they were Cabs from Napa and we tried to guess the vintages. First one was big and bold with robust, dark fruit and still some fairly pronounced tannins. In other words, it could have lived in the bottle for a lot longer. Next was one that still tasted good, but was past its peak. The structure was thinning out and the color was starting to turn that oxidized brown color that we look for in a good Barolo. Still a great wine, though. The last one we tried was barely drinkable. It was totally oxidized and tasted like a Tawny (which is intentionally oxidized). The color had past from a brown to almost an orange hue and the structure essentially nonexistent.
We guessed the vintages and the years ranged from 1976 to 1996. But here’s the kicker… when he revealed the bottles they were all the exact same wine! It was an ‘80 Conn Creek Cabernet and each bottle had been stored by a different wine storage facility. I was blown away, and a little perturbed I wasn’t able to pick up on the similarities across bottles. I mean, sure, we were essentially dissecting various levels of oxidation, but “Come on!” I thought, “I’m supposed to be a professional!” But it was an enlightening and revealing exercise. And, honestly, when do you not have fun when you open five bottles of wine?
It is starting to get chilly and what that usually means around here is project time. But then again, we are always making stuff around here. Perhaps that is why I feel so lucky to have this job, I am never idle.