Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
Aspen Times Weekly
The 2008 vintage is in barrel at Spring Mountain Vineyard in Napa, Calif. A year marked by early frost and late heat closed on an optimistic note as the harvest and the crush have been completed and the pace on the winery grounds has quieted.
Ah, but as the holiday season approached, the thoughts of Jac Cole and Leigh Meyering (winemaker and assistant winemaker, respectively, at Spring Mountain) turned to assemblage, or the art and science of blending wines. While the term is also used to describe the works of such artists as Joseph Cornell and Louise Nevelson, who assemble found objects into artful displays, for winemakers the art comes from layering different grapes from different plots of land and ultimately creating complete wines.
At Spring Mountain Vineyard there are 135 separate vineyards, or “blocks” as they are called. The majority, 70 percent, of the grapes harvested in these blocks are Cabernet Sauvignon while the remaining vineyards are planted to Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, a little Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Each December, Jac and Leigh taste the wines from the previous year’s vintage (2007 this past December) that have been in barrel for 12 months and begin making decisions on how to assemble the releases of their wines.
In the mornings, as that is when palates are most receptive to the nuances of tasting, the two sample wines from the individual blocks directly from the barrel. They begin thinking about which characteristics they would like to see in the Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings they will produce for Spring Mountain. For their flagship wine, Elivette, the winemakers want juice that shows elegance, structure and the ability to age; only their very best lots will be considered. For the Estate bottling, they want to produce a wine that will be ready to drink upon release and that will pair well with food.
As they taste, they both make notes on the characteristics of the wines and rate them on a scale of 1-4. A wine that gets a 4.0 would be an exceptional expression of a single vineyard and a single grape. Each wine is double tasted and the two winemakers talk and discuss what they both find interesting, arresting or, perhaps, off-putting about the barrel samples. Notes are made, scores given and entered into a computer program that keeps track of all the data.
Once the initial tastings are completed, the creativity starts. Jac says that the process of blending the wines is “not linear, it’s intuitive and sometimes you have to put logic aside.” The ultimate goal, according to Jac, is to “put several elements together to come up with a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
For the 2007 Elivette, Jac and Leigh began with a base of the best Cabernet lots. Then they began to add the juice of other grapes that they know, from their combined 35 years of experience, will affect the blend in certain ways. Merlot may provide richness, a “ganache” as Jac calls it. Petite amounts of Petit Verdot may provide a “top note of aromatic, like a Clementine” (a variety of Mandarin Orange) to the blend. And Cabernet Franc can add a herbal element to a wine that can soften it from pure fruit to complex and exciting.
While there is no substitute for experience, the real joy comes on those occasions when nature takes over and a combination is found that creates magic. This year Jac is extremely enthusiastic about a blend that may well be heavier than the computer models or intuition suggests on Cabernet Franc.
It seems that there is a very special vineyard on the property called Francisco’s, named after a longtime beloved compatriot who worked Spring Mountain for decades. This plot is planted to Cabernet Franc and for the last couple of years a bottling called Cabernet Francisco was made in minute quantities exclusively for Spring Mountain’s wine club.
The 2007 harvest in Francisco’s vineyard is so outstanding ” “someone said we should become the Cheval Blanc of Napa,” said Jac, referring to the classic Bordeaux that uses Cabernet Franc as the dominate grape ” that Jac plans on a blend that will contain as much as 15 percent Cabernet Franc.
Over the next couple of weeks, Jac and Leigh will tinker with the blend for their wines, seeking perfection And soon they will pour what they consider to be the their best efforts for Spring Mountain Vineyard owner Jacob Safra.
It is in the assemblage that the art of the winemaker comes to the fore.
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