Out on the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, there is a lot to do and see surprisingly. The vineyard crews start their winter pruning as early as the weather permits and in 2020 that was plenty early. The vines need to be cut back a bit to get them ready to produce the right amount of fruit and leaves for this coming harvest. Too many leaves shade out the fruit and quality suffers. Extra grapes cause dilution and immaturity as well. Pruning in February and March requires a keen eye for detail and a close relationship with the vines to be able to tell what to cut and what to leave.
Back in the winery a lot of juice has been put in barrels, eggs, amphoras, and tanks. When the juice went into the containers there are still a lot of small solid bits of "stuff" in there. As the liquid rests in whatever container it's in, the solids tend to settle down to the lowest point of the vessel. Cloudy wine with chunks is not a good thing so now is the time to start the soutirage process. That's a French word for moving clear wine away from the solids and into a new clean container. Most of the winemakers I know call it racking.
How and when this is done will affect the taste of the wine in your glass. Not only is this part of the clarification process that also involves filters and chemical stabilization down the road, it puts the wine in contact with more air too. Especially in red wines, this helps develop more tannins, richer colors and develops a more complex sensory experience in the finished product. Some folks choose to siphon the wine out or use pumps or even pull the solid bits out of the bottom of the tanks. These myriad different decisions are what help make each wine a unique and magical experience.
Choosing which containers to age wine is also really important as they convey tastes and compounds to the wine stored in them. Winemakers use barrels like a baker uses spices. "New" oak will have the most influence on flavors while "Neutral" oak means the barrel is just there to hold the liquid and imparts no flavors to the wine inside. The older the barrel, the less influence it has on the final flavors in your glass.
White wines like Chardonnays that are aged in a concrete tank have been known to take on a sort of mineral flavor note, while some wood-aged Sauvignon Blancs have even heavier mineral notes. New oak barrels can be toasted heavy, lightly or not at all. (Toasting is the process of charring the inside of the barrel with fire!). In different regions of the world, wood from the same type of trees produce very different flavors. Some winemakers will even take the time to match their barrel wood with different wine varietals. Hungarian oak, French oak, and American oak are all used out on Sunnyslope Wine Trail to age the wines we love. The final call is a matter of style and budget, so ask your favorite winemaker about their barrel program and you will be amazed at how complex it can become.
A winemaker in Spain asked me once if I knew the difference between French oak and American oak…he said it was about 370 Euros a barrel. Inside his Rioja storerooms, the majority of his wine was aging quietly in casks made from Missouri Oak.
Wine is always moving from old barrels or tanks, with leftover solid bits in them, to clean barrels or tanks where it will rest and settle out again. As the months go by you may see a winemaker racking off multiple times or just topping up barrels to make up for the portion of wine that evaporates out of the barrel. That's also known as the "angels share". All of this means there is a LOT of cleaning of pumps, hoses, barrels, and fittings going on in the winery too!
Some happenings in the winter wine world require travel as well. It's trade show time so a lot of the industry gathers in Sacramento or Tri-Cities to share notes, hear about the state of the industry, look at all the latest and greatest equipment available, and put in orders for all the cool wine-themed swag that you will want to pick up in your favorite tasting room later this year. The Idaho Wine Commission annual meeting is in February as well and provides fantastic opportunities for tasting room staff training, technical seminars, and Idaho specific vineyard issues to be discussed. The Idaho Wine Commission also makes time to recognize the leaders in the industry that have made a huge difference in moving Idaho wines from their humble beginnings to the burgeoning industry it is today.
It's still a great time to come out and visit the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, discover new wines and watch spring move into the valley. Thanks to Mike Williamson, Storm Hodge, and Martin Fujishin for their time this month!
Cheers to 2020 and all the wines of the 2019 vintage that are patiently waiting and getting better just for our enjoyment!
The Idaho Wine Ambassador
© 2020 Jim Thomssen
About Jim Thomssen, the Idaho Wine Ambassador: Jim grew up in Minnesota but moved west to get away from the snow. He landed in Washington state with a degree in Economics. He discovered the wines of Washington in the 1980s as the region emerged, and when his banking career brought him to the Treasure Valley in 1993 he saw the wine region in Idaho had the same potential. Jim has worked with and volunteered for the Caldwell Economic Development, The Idaho Wine Commission, The University of Idaho, Great Northwest Wine, and the Sunnyslope Wine Trail over the last ten years to help develop the Idaho wine industry and promote Idaho wines. Jim is an avid wine traveler and has visited Napa Valley, the Alsace, and Portugal. He earned the title of Ambassador after arranging a trip to the Rioja in Spain with an Idaho Winemaker to explore the differences and similarities between the Snake River AVA and the Rioja Alta.