I feel so bad for Merlot sometimes. Ever since a certain film came out, scores of people were duped into believing that Merlot was an inferior grape. Sales of Merlot tanked, and acres upon acres of established merlot vines were grafted over for more popular varieties.
Merlot didn't deserve this.
The first historical mention of the variety was at the end of the 18th century in the Bordeaux area. This makes sense, since it is likely here that Merlot originated, growing on an island in the Garonne River. Other origin hypothesis place it broadly in the region-- somewhere from southwestern France or the Pais Vasco in Spain. It was named after the blackbirds who liked to eat the grape-- in French, merle means blackbird, and in Occitan, a language of southern France and Spain, the word for blackbird is actually merlau, even closer to the grape's name itself.
DNA analysis tells us that Merlot is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and a very obscure grape called "Magdeleine Noire des Charentes." Thanks to the Cabernet Franc, that makes Merlot the often overshadowed half-sibling of Cabernet Sauvignon.
It's growing habits are to bud early, ripen midway through the season, and to throw out moderate to vigorous vegetative growth. It does well in clay-limestone soils, so in places like Bordeaux where the soils range from gravel to clay, you will often see Merlot planted on the heavier clay. But more than that, it tends to be grown along with Cabernet Sauvignon so often because it is a perfect blending companion, giving blends a rich fruitiness and roundness to hang on Cabernet Sauvignon's more robust tannin structure. It can also often reach higher sugar levels than Cabs, especially when grown in marginal climates, which results in a higher alcohol percentage in the finished wine.
Geographically speaking, Merlot can be found just about anywhere wine is grown-- from Turkey to Slovenia to New Zealand to New Mexico. Our 2015 Merlot came in on August 18th from the Cadeuceus Vineyards on the Willcox bench. We brought in just under three tons, fermented it in stainless, and then transferred it to barrels for aging -- 43% new French oak, and 57% neutral oak. We let it rest for 18 months before bottling. It's at its peak with delicate rose and cedar aromas backed by red fruit. Plum jam and fresh fig wash over your palate, which then transitions to vanilla, toasted hazelnut and caramel on the finish. It's a pretty tasty wine. We definitely take our Merlot seriously around here.
So if you're ready to release yourself from the tyranny of the opinions of movie personalities, why doen't you stop by our tasting room and give the Merlot a shot? We're releasing it this Friday!
What is the difference between new and neutral oak? The short answer is: extractable flavor.
After wine is placed in a barrel for the first time, it absorbs a huge amount of the flavor and aroma compounds that were generated during the barrel's toasting-- vanillin (vanilla), syringaldehyde (spicy, smoky), other aromatic aldehydes (resinous), lactones (oaky, coconut), and aromatic phenolics (clove, smoky). As these are extracted into the wine, the concentration available for further extraction is diminished. It varies from winery to winery, but most folks consider a barrel to be effectively neutral somewhere between the 4th and 6th fill. Neutrality in this case means that no discernable oak compounds are extracted into the wine held in barrel.
This doesn't mean that the barrel itself is useless, though. Despite not contributing to the wine's aromatic or flavor profile via extractables, the oak provides a semi-permeable vessel that can allow a wine the space it needs to soften through slow oxidation, and allows the polymerization reactions necessary for tannins to smooth out to take place.
Not everyone loves the flavors of big oak, and a mix of new and neutral oak can help a winemaker strike the correct balance between the oak complexity and allowing the fruit's varietal flavors to shine.
Have you ever had the pleasure of sipping on a 50 year old wine? If so, do you do it regularly? If you do, can I come to dinner sometime? The reality for most of us wine drinkers is that popping open aged wine is an infrequent occurance. However, there is a perception that aged wines are by necessity better than younger wines. What is happening in a bottle that is aging, though? And what allows those really remarkable bottles to sit for generations?
There are a few major components of a wine that allow it to age-- protection from oxygen, the way it is stored, and the concentration of certain compounds in the wine. White wines and red wines, because of their differences in desired characteristics, concentrations of tannins and other anti-oxidative compounds, age differently.
The aging process is generally broken down into two phases. Maturation is the time post-fermentation during which the wine sits in barrel or tank. Time in barrel or bulk tank typically lasts anywhere from 6-36 months. During this time, the wine may be treated with clafiying agents, racked a number of times, and generally has some degree of contact with the oxygen in the atmosphere through the bung in the barrel and through general permeation through the wood. During this time, the yeast left over from fermentation drops out of solution, and the initial concentration of fruity esters drops as they transform into other compounds. Since most white wines are prized for their fresh, delicate fruit aromas, it is generally best to consume them young, before these esters have broken down too much. This is why you tend to see more recent-vintage whites on the shelves than reds.
Reductive aging begins when the wine is bottled. There are a few major factors that influence the aging process of the wine in bottle: oxygen, temperature, light, and pH.
Once in bottle, the wine's contact with oxygen is greatly reduced, with the only access being through the closure (cork, synthetic, or screwcap). The presence of oxygen in bottle can lead to a myriad of issues, and certain types of wine are more prone to oxidation than others. This is why prior to bottling, it's important to protect the wine from oxygen pick-up. Excessive oxygen in bottle can lead to browning of both white and red wines, as well as oxidative aromas and flavors-- those of bruised or rotting fruit. Acetaldehyde concentration increases, and certain phenols can become oxidized giving the wine flavors such as cooked cabbage.
Temperature can mean the difference between a fresh-tasting wine and a tired wine. Most chemical reactions speed up at higher temperatures, and those involved in wine aging are no exception. One example of this would be the appearance of a gasoline/kerosene aroma in Riesling-- a compound known as TDN accumulates quickly once storage temperatures creep into the 70s and 80s.
Light exposure plays a role in wine aging and quality, as ultraviolet light leads to the production of sulfur off-aromas that can make white and sparkling wines, especially, taste skunky.
The pH of the wine has a huge effect on aging, because the higher the pH, the more preservatives needed to protect against oxidation. The pH affects the equilibrium of phenolics, and esters in the wine. At higher pH you can shift the phenolics in a wine into a form that makes them more susceptible to oxidation. This is partially why higher acid wines with low pH tend to have more longevity. Additionally, the presence of a high concentration of tannins also has an antioxidative and slightly antimicrobial action, thus conferring to red wines an additional measure of protection that slows the effects of aging. And it's the slowing of the aging process that allows us to taste over a longer period of time, and choose the moment when we deem a wine "just right" to drink.
It's finally here! Harvest! My favorite time of the year!
How I've missed working 16 hour days, seven days a week. Having my hands stained a constant purple. Wearing beat-up old work clothes every day. Oh, wait, I do that last one all the time, anyway.
It's going to be busy, and it's going to be hectic, but I'll try my best to give you updates every week as to how things are progressing here at the winery. Photos, stories, anecdotes... anything to give you a little taste of what goes on here during crush.
If you follow us on any of the various social media platforms, you probably already know that we've already been receiving fruit. On July 19th, we brought in the first fruit from our estate vineyard-- 1.6 tons of Sauvignon Blanc. We followed that up last week with another 1.5 tons of Sauvignon Blanc from our vineyard.
Here's a shot of our press set-up, and the first bin of Sauvignon Blanc just waiting to be dumped in.
Happy Harvest, One and All!