Natural Magic

'Why would you age a wine?" asks Craig Becker, winemaker at -- among other places -- Peacock Family Vineyard, which produces a Cabernet from Napa's Spring Mountain District. "We age wine because of the winemaking tradition that came from Europe. Those wines required aging; they needed time for acids to soften or drop, for tannins to soften. In California, we can do that on the vine. We can get things to a point where it's delicious just after it's bottled. We're making fleshy, immediately enjoyable wines -- because we can. If anybody's had a Harlan, they know that it's going to age nicely, but it's really good right now."

But what about the storied complexities of flavors that can only develop with time in the bottle? Aren't there things that only an older wine can offer? "There's a lot of truth to that," grants Becker. But, he notes, "Most people don't have a cellar." Most people aren't interested in waiting 15 years to open a bottle. "As I go around and sell Peacock, I would say we've got probably a 90 percent acceptance rate. People either love it or they want something more European -- it's just different palates."

However much the gulf between Old World and New World wines has been discussed, the dichotomy was not always so clear. Explains Becker, "What we have in California that's shared by maybe just a couple of other wine regions is a tremendous amount of sun during the ripening season. Other countries have quite a bit of rain." Sunshine and heat aid in the production of sugar within the grape, "So in California, we can get sugar spikes in the grapes without the other compounds developing in a similar fashion" -- notably, the tannins. "You can end up with a wine that is fairly alcoholic" -- high alcohol being the result of high sugar -- "but still fairly tannic." The sugar spikes, so the California winemaker picks before he gets a 16.5 percent alcoholic monster. But he ends up with tannins, acids, and flavor compounds that could have used a little more time to develop on the vine. He makes a wine that needs a few years in a cellar to really open up -- just like its Old World counterparts.

"What we've learned," continues Becker, "is that if you wait, you get better flavors, more concentration, and softer tannins. When you go through harvest decisions, you're looking for things beyond just sugar, pH, and titratable acidity. Those are very important factors, but what you're really looking for, especially with mountain fruit, is for the tannins to become soft. You taste the vineyard on a very regular basis, and you can track the development of flavors and tannins. When I first started at Spring Mountain Vineyard in '97, everything was 100 percent whole-berry fermentation. It was defensive winemaking. I believe in being able to extract everything I can out of the grapes. At Peacock, I get the tannins to a point where I enjoy them enough to crush absolutely every berry."

And what about sugar? What about alcohol? "The alcohol is, in some ways, an afterthought." You pick when the fruit is perfect, "and then you look at the chemistry of the wine and say, 'How can I make a stable wine?' Sometimes you don't have to do anything. But often, when you have a fermenter full of juice, you've released a lot of sugars." Peacock's grapes go through two rounds of sorting -- in the vineyard and back at the winery -- and many sugar-intense raisins are removed. Even so, an especially warm ripening stage can result in above-optimal sugars. What then? "We're not supposed to talk about it," says Becker, "so we use the term 'adjusted.' But the government did clarify a law allowing you to adjust the must to ensure a 'healthy fermentation.' That basically means that you can add water," which dilutes the sugar concentration and reduces your chances of a stuck fermentation.

Adding water -- it's not something you hear about on your average winery tour. Neither are reverse osmosis and nanofiltration, processes that separate wine into component parts. After the separation, "You have water, volatile acidity, and alcohol in one camp and then color, flavor, and everything else in the other." You can distill your water/volatile/alcohol component to remove alcohol, then mix your water back into the color/flavor component. Or, you can run it through a charged filter to remove volatile acidity, and even some of the compounds produced by the renegade yeast Brettanomyces. "You can't get rid of all of it, but you can certainly tone down a giant defect. It becomes expensive, but it's not nearly as expensive as losing the whole batch."

You don't hear about these practices for a number of reasons. One, suggests Becker, is that "Everybody wants to be considered a magician. Winemakers want to be the best, and they don't want to give away their secrets." But it's more than that as well. Winemakers, after all, are usually happy to talk about extended macerations, cold soaking, and various other winemaking techniques that affect the finished wine. "What it's become," says Becker, "is space-age technology vs. natural, holistic winemaking. There's a big movement in the industry to keep wine natural. People say, 'What's the point of being organic and sustainable and biodynamic in the vineyard if you end up using processes that are totally unnatural?' "

Becker sees the point, and he tries to avoid technological tweaking where he can, but he's not opposed in principle. "Every once in a while, I think people have to peer into this underworld of technology to fix something or make something better. I think de-alcoholizing can actually make a better wine. You can bring a wine back into balance; you can find different aromas, different fruit characters. I think, oftentimes, the wine is better. This is a very general comment, but I think wines that tend to score over 90 points tend to be wines that have been adjusted."

As he's noted, "adjusting" can mean something as involved as nanofiltration or something as simple as the addition of water. "Deacidification is another one, taking a wine with a pH of 3.55 and a titratable acidity of 6.5 and making it into a 3.85/4.8. It means you get a big, fat, juicy Cabernet instead of one you have to lay down for ten years. It changes the mouthfeel -- tannins tend to become smoother and softer with a higher pH. Essentially, it just involves adding potassium carbonate to the wine; it binds the acid and precipitates out." He's even seen deacidification make the difference between an 88-point wine and a 91-point wine -- same grapes, same style, but the modified acidity helped garner 3 crucial points.

Becker regards these technological tweaks as tools, tools a winemaker may need when he "pushes the envelope of ripeness and stability. If you're using them, it doesn't mean you're a novice, it doesn't mean you don't know how to ferment. They're tools you can use to help shape the wine and to rectify problems. You prefer not to use it most of the time, but knowing how to use it is smart, good business."

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