Let us first point out the obvious and suggest that the term “winemaking” is in fact specious; the winemaker does not “make” the wine, any more than he or she is responsible for converting the sunlight striking the leaves of the grapevine into sugars and more complex flavor components elaborated within the vine. The yeast themselves must be the primary suspects, vis-à-vis “winemakers,” but at a minimum, we can propose that “winemaking” is somewhat of a group effort.
The French make a very important distinction between a vin de terroir, a wine that expresses a sense of place, and a vin d’effort, a wine that largely expresses the stylistic intention of the “winemaker’s” will. New World wines remain largely vins d’effort and certainly with good reason; most New World customers value the consistency of product and are less than enthused about vintage variation. But while controlled wines are what are seemingly done best in the New World, they also come at a price. While we may not be negatively surprised by unexpected results, we are at the same time seldom surprised by unexpectedly positive results either, and that replicability or standardization at a certain point become quite banal. “Wines of effort” are only as clever as the winemaker him/herself and that is just not so very. Wines of terroir on the other hand dazzle us with the great complexity of Nature’s order and create a real resonance within us; these are the wines that we at Bonny Doon Vineyard aspire to produce.
We have not quite arrived yet at fully producing wines of place, but have thankfully abandoned our previous “interventionist” winemaking methodology. In the past, when we worked with purchased grapes from conventionally farmed vineyards, we often had to resort to considerable winemaking legerdemain – be it acidulation of musts, the use of “designer” yeasts, bacteria and enzymes, organoleptic tannins, dealcoholization of wine2 – in short, all of the modern New World winemaker’s bag of tricks, all perfectly licit, but essentially oenvil. These tricks were, if not exactly for kids, at least in service to a somewhat juvenile world-wine-view – wine as a sort of fairy tale. No ogre-ish harsh tannins lurking in the [color-corrected] dark [oak chips ahoy] woods.
The new paradigm is deceptively simple: Making wines in a more or less old-fangled way, with a minimum of adornment and special FX; wines moderate in alcohol, not over-ripe or over-extracted and emphatically made with the minimal use of new oak. What is most interesting is the idea of producing wines that are “organized,” (even in their simplicity), wines that have a certain elemental life-force or qi. (The vitality of these wines derives in no small part from grapes grown in soils alive with symbiotic microflora, the mycorrhizae, which, incidentally actively transport minerals into the roots. “Minerality” in wine is a controversial subject, but like pornography, is something that one knows when one sees it. I imagine the mineral-intensive core of a wine not unlike a pebble that is tossed into a pond of water, creating concentric circles radiating out from its center. Wines like this cannot be “made.” They must be in some sense be translations of the intelligence of the vineyard.
As far as particular winemaking practices that inform the Bonny Doon Vineyard aesthetic: We work extensively with yeast lees – stirring and stirring like the Weird Sisters – and follow the Tantric practice of lees conservation, the retention of the Precious Substance, allowing it to become digested into the wine. At a minimum, the autolysate of the lees releases mannoprotein in the wine, imparting a creamier texture, some degree of minerality, glutamate from the yeast cells (imparting a wonderful savory or umami character) and perhaps an enhanced anti-oxidative potential. Lees are truly the soul of the wine, its Jiminy Cricket, as it were; they carry a memory of everywhere the wine has been.
Reds: We formally eschew the oh-so-fashionable Internazionale style of Red Wine – a vinonymous vision of enological pulchritude, so oozingly overripe and buttressed by new oak that it can come from absolutely anywhere and be composed of absolutely anything. We attempt to purchase grapes from the coolest possible regions where the aforesaid have a reasonable chance of ripening. Keeping yields well in hand from these cooler regions gives us fruit a lot of flavor at lower potential alcohols. The winemaking is relatively non-remarkable: We typically destem but not crush 65-85% of the grapes, the balance being a percentage of whole clusters. The stem tannin is interesting, (especially if the grapes have been harvested in conjunction with the recession of the sap back into the plant); the presence of whole berries seems to regulate the speed of the fermentation, as sugar from the broken berries is gradually being released into the must.
We typically allow for a pre-fermentation cold soak of 5-10 days and make certain through microscopic observation that our indigenous yeast species is appropriate for the conduct of a clean and complete fermentation. We really like the technique of pied de cuve, whereby we will pre-harvest a portion of the grapes and allow them to “go wild,” as it were, and then inoculate the main batch with this starter culture. We punch down the caps of the ferments in open-top tanks and for more robust, rustic varieties, utilize the technique known as délestage, or rack-and-return, which is the removal and return of fermenting juice from the tank.
We like long cuvaisons, as unfashionable as they may be, typically on the order of thirty days and thirty nights, sometimes longer and ideally with warm temperatures, especially at the fermentation’s dénouement. We also selectively practice microbullage, or micro-oxygenation of the wine, post-fermentation, to help give additional structure to the wine. We like to assemble our blends early in the life of the wine as possible, but at the same time also like to delay the completion of malolactic fermentation at least until spring if possible (this allows us to bottle our wines with typically much lower levels of total SO2). So, sometimes we just have to wait (and that’s okay). We eschew (there’s a lot of eschewal going on chez Doon) smaller wooden cooperage as much as possible, and primarily age our red wines in a mixture of well-conditioned 500-liter puncheons and 10,000-liter upright wood tanks.3 The latter is equipped with “lees hotels;” (lees check in but they don’t check out!), maybe better described as perforated stainless steel shelves on which the lees can deposit. Once reposing in cask, we touch the wine as little as possible. Our red wines are seldom fined and filtered.
2. Note, the intention here was to produce wines of better balance, i.e. not so infernally EtOH-driven, but this sort of intervention, like any “surgery,” leaves its scars. This brings to mind the old vaudeville joke: “Doctor, I broke my leg in three places. What should I do?” Doctor: “Stay out of those places.” If one is compelled to resort to high-tech solutions to bring a wine into ideal balance, one is best advised to “stay out of those places.” ↩
3. The only real exception to this rule is our usage of 5-gallon glass carboys, or “bonbonnes” for our Le Cigare Volant and Le Cigare Blanc Réserve wines, aged sur lie. This labor-intensive process is responsible for producing extraordinarily savory and distinctive wines.” ↩