It has often been said that if Cabernet Sauvignon is king here in Napa Valley, then Chardonnay is queen. Chardonnay has reigned supreme among white wine grapes in California since the Judgment of Paris in 1976, when Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay trumped the French competition in a blind tasting and helped to put Napa Valley on the map of world-renowned winegrowing regions. Today, there are over 100,000 acres of Chardonnay vineyards planted throughout California, and the varietal remains one of the top white wines consumed by Americans each year.
One of the reasons for Chardonnay’s popularity is the wide variety of styles it can be crafted in, based on where the grapes came from and how the wine was aged. While the majority of Chardonnays are aged in oak barrels, unoaked Chardonnays are rapidly increasing in popularity due to their brighter, fruitier notes, and both aging styles offer a wide range of complexity in the finished wines.
Chardonnay at the Castello
Here at the Castello, we produce two Chardonnays every year from two select cool climate vineyards in California. Our Napa Valley Chardonnay fruit comes from own estate vineyard in the Los Carneros AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the southern end of the Napa Valley, which is meticulously tended to by our Vineyard Manager, David Bejar, who has worked with Dario Sattui and our winemaking team for the past 17 years. Our Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay comes from the iconic family owned vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, along the Central California Coast. In using these two cool climate vineyards to produce our Chardonnays, we hope to showcase the unique terroir of each region while utilizing both traditional and innovative winemaking techniques.
Our Bien Nacido Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay
All of our Chardonnay is harvested at night in order for the fruit to arrive at the Castello cold, which preserves the its delicate aromatics and natural acidity. Once the fruit gets to the winery, the whole grape clusters are placed into our two pneumatic, or “bladder” presses, which gently presses the juice from the skins and seeds. The juice is then pumped into Burgundian French oak barrels, where it ages for 8-10 months. We use 50% new and 50% second use French oak barrels on our oak-aged Chardonnays, which provides a balance between showcasing the terroir of the vineyard, acidity and fruit characteristics of the varietal, and the subtle notes of toast and spices that come from each individual barrel.
Two of our clear-headed oak barrels, which show the wine aging on the lees
After the wine has undergone primary fermentation, which converts the sugars in the juice into alcohol, our winemaking team then selects a specific number of barrels to undergo malolactic, or secondary fermentation. Here, the malic acid in the juice is converted into lactic acid, which gives Chardonnay its signature creamy mouthfeel (think “lactose” like milk). Roughly 40-60% of our Chardonnay barrels undergo malolactic fermentation, depending on the characteristics of the vintage and the acidity levels of each blend.
La Rocca Chardonnay – A new twist on a classic wine
If you have visited the Castello on a guided tour, you may have noticed our concrete fermentation eggs in the Grand Barrel Room, our 12,000 sq ft cross vaulted room three levels underground. We have been using these concrete eggs for the past several years to craft select single vineyard white wines like our Ferrington Vineyard Dry Gewurztraminer and Tyla’s Point Pinot Bianco, and beginning with the 2013 vintage we are also fermenting and aging a select amount of our Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay in one of these eggs. We have named this unique, limited-release wine “La Rocca,” which means “The Fortress” in Italian. The egg shape allows for a natural suspension of the lees (sediment) compared to aging in traditional stainless steel tanks, without imparting any flavors or aromas found in oak barrel aging, and the higher acidity and tropical fruit characteristics of the Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay made this fruit a perfect choice for aging in these unique vessels.
Cellar Master JoseMaria Delgado sampling our Napa Valley and La Rocca Chardonnays at The Grand Barrel Party
We are excited to make two Chardonnays from this historic vineyard in both French oak and concrete, as these two differing styles help to show the versatility of the varietal as well as the vineyard. Our 2013 La Rocca Chardonnay from Bien Nacido Vineyard will be released later this year, and we are looking forward to showing off the versatility of this beautiful Burgundian grape with our trio of California Chardonnays!
Our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay harvest for sparkling wine is now complete, and early Pinot Grigio grapes have also been pressed and are now cold-settling in tank. Predictions of an early harvest have proved to be true, so we are preparing for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Muscat and dry-farmed Zinfandel to follow quickly into the winery.
Quality is very high, and we expect a stellar vintage in Napa Valley in 2014. Some varieties are yielding a bit light while others may come in a bit heavy. Cabernet Sauvignon (pictured above) looks great; Chardonnay and Pinot Noir yields are expected to be average, while Syrah and Merlot clusters are sizing up and will be at or above expectations. The cool weather over the last two weeks have given the vines a chance to recover from the summer drought conditions, and I am really excited about flavor development and acid profiles in the grapes. We want to extend the “hang-time” a bit for reds, so that the skin and phenolic maturity reaches its peak before harvest. Given our current weather everything looks really good, and 2014 should be another excellent year!
If you have been lucky enough to explore our Grand Barrel Room on a tour and tasting recently at the Castello, you may have noticed a few new additions to the stunning 12,000 square foot room. Right next to where our guests have the chance to taste wine straight from the barrel, there sit several large, concrete, egg-shaped containers. These are fermentation tanks, and they are used to ferment a special selection of the Castello’s award-winning wines.
Concrete? You might ask. What can concrete do for wine? Well as it turns out, concrete is a fantastic alternative to oak or stainless steel in winemaking. Without the “oaky” impact on a wine from barrel aging, the concrete allows the wine to retain its fruity characteristics and the inherent characteristics of the grapes are allowed to shine, making it an especially useful fermentation method for showcasing the terroir of single vineyard wines.
Concrete eggs are an interesting mix of ancient and ultra-modern winemaking techniques, since the first wines were actually fermented in pottery jars called amphorae. The egg shape is a newer modification, which allows the wines inside to have a natural convection current as the carbon dioxide released during fermentation helps to naturally stir the wine and mix in the sediment, or lees.
“Graeco-Italic” Wine Amphora, 2nd century B.C.
We originally had two concrete eggs in our Grand Barrel Room, and focused on several single vineyard wines, including our Ferrington Vineyard Dry Gewürztraminer and Tyla’s Point Pinot Bianco. These aromatic varietals work especially well with this fermentation method, because the concrete enhances the floral aromas and even increases the mineral characteristics in these wines. The elegant complexity of these wines from their fermentation in the eggs has led to them both winning high praise from tasting panels and our guests.
Our 2011 Ferrington Dry Gewurztraminer
This past year we have also produced a limited amount of Chardonnay, called “La Rocca” or “the fortress.” Our Winemaker, Peter Velleno, explains that “the reason for the Chardonnay is that the use of concrete (or more specifically the lack of oak barrels) allows the flavor of the vineyard to be the star. Chardonnay needs to have a rich mouthfeel, so it makes sense to try it in concrete, where there will be no oak flavors or aroma, but still the benefits of aging on the lees.” Aging wine on the lees, or the yeast and sediment that settles to the bottom of the barrel during fermentation, imparts a creaminess and complexity that can’t be found in stainless steel. This year we are excited to be fermenting some of the Chardonnay fruit from the Bien Nacido vineyard in one of our eggs.
So keep an eye out the next time you visit the Castello, and if you take a tour down into the Grand Barrel Room you’ll be able to check out this unique fermentation technique that helps to make our Italian-style wines even more incredible!
During the Harvest season, there are always exciting things going on around the Castello, and today on the Crush Pad was no exception. Today, for the first time at the Castello, our winemaking team reserved a small lot of our Don Thomas Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon for fermentation directly in French Oak Barrels.
Traditionally, the fermentation process takes place in stainless steel tanks, where the must (skins and seeds of the grapes) are cold soaked with the juice before yeast is added. The cap, or layer of skins and seeds that get pushed to the top of the tanks from the activity taking place during fermentation, is broken up by either the punch-down or pump-over method, both of which ensure an even distribution of the color and flavors we wish to impart into our red wines. After five to eight days in these fermentation tanks, the juice is pressed from the skins and seeds and pumped into French Oak barrels for aging in the Castello’s extensive underground cave and cellar system.
Barrel fermentation means that the freshly destemmed grapes and their juices are pumped directly into French Oak barrels whose heads have been removed. Dry ice is added to cool the berries before the barrel heads are secured to seal in the must. The barrels are then laid on a rack that allows them to be rolled back and forth daily to ensure the cap stays moist and the oak is evenly introduced to the fermenting must and juice. Typically, two full barrels of must and juice will amount to one barrel of wine. The process of fermenting the juice in oak barrels helps to impart an added silkiness to the tannins and a rounder, more lush mouthfeel, especially to Bordeaux varietals. This extremely labor-intensive method of fermentation is typically reserved for only the most exclusive of wines, and the highly-acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon from the Don Thomas Vineyard is an exceptional example of the quality of grapes deserving of such treatment.
The Don Thomas Cabernet Sauvinon clusters are conveyed into the berry sorter/ destemmer as a lucky tour group watches
The new French Oak barrels are filled directly from the destemmer
Our Cellar Supervisor, Chema, overseeing the juice and must being pumped into a special French Oak barrel that has a door in place to make filling and emptying easier
The deconstructed barrel waiting to be resealed with the juice and must inside
Dry ice is added to the must before the barrels are resealed to help cool off the berries
Resealing the barrel heads before they are sent into the cellars to begin the fermentation process
The barrels are stored in a special temperature-controlled room in the Castello's cellars during the fermentation process.
This is the time of year when winemakers and vineyard managers start paying close attention to weather patterns. Although long periods of extreme cold and sub-freezing temperatures can always cause distress in a vineyard; frost is particularly damaging in the early spring. Once bud break occurs, spring frosts can kill the young shoots potentially destroying a crop. If you visit wine country in early spring you may spot a few different methods utilized by vintners in attempts to combat frost damage. Most preventative measures are expensive and vary in effectiveness, but, the financial loss of frost damage is extreme.
The least utilized and possibly least effective is burning oil in a smudge pot. The smoke and heat generated is hopefully carried over the vineyard by the wind forming a warmer protective blanket. As the heavier cold air sinks, the warm blanket of air protects the shoots.
A solution that seems just as drastic but that has actually proven viable in some vineyard locales; spraying the vines with a fine mist of water. As the water freezes it forms a protective layer of ice insulating the young shoots by trapping the heat, (think of an igloo or an ice cave). Since Napa Valley’s Mediterranean climate doesn’t generally dip below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, this method shows promise as it is environmentally less invasive and more economically viable. A negative for using water is fairly obvious but worth noting: you are using water, which can be scarce or completely unavailable in remote vineyards.
The most common and visually the most obvious method in use can be viewed off Highway 29 and along the Silverado Trail. What looks like windmills are actually wind machines, which move air over vineyards to keep the coldest air from settling on vulnerable, young shoots. The heavier cold air mixes with the warmer air, being moved by the wind machine, creating a slight elevation in temperature which is often just enough to ward off frost as long as that temperature is above 28 degrees Fahrenheit. However, I live close to one such wind machine and I see it as only partially effective. While it prevents frost from developing in areas directly in the path of said turbulence, my personal observation is the outlying areas are often blanketed with frost. Another fact to consider…..wind machines are essentially propellers that run on fuel so they can be expensive to run and the noise level can be extreme – especially in the wee hours of the morning when they are typically used. *yawn*
Does a foolproof solution exist? Well, if you have an opportunity when driving in the valley, look to the hills. It is rare to find any method of frost control on sloped vineyard sites. Dense cold air naturally drains off the hillsides and settles onto the valley floor quite often rendering the hillsides unaffected by frost.
In this north end of the Napa Valley we are fortunate. With the Mayacamas Mountains to the West and the Vaca Mountains to the East, some of the most prestigious viticultural land in the world has been created. Castello di Amorosa’s Il Barone and La Castellana wines are crafted from Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards on Diamond Mountain, part of the famed Mayacamas range; above the fog line, drenched in sunshine and relatively unharmed by frost.
As we continue to progress in viticulture methodology one fact holds true – Mother Nature will always have the final word.
And with that my final word – Cheers!
Mary Davidek C.S., C.S.W.
Consulting winemaker Sebastiano Rosa has been here during harvest working with Brooks Painter, Director of Winemaking, and Peter Velleno, Associate Winemaker. We welcomed some friends to meet him on October 9, where he shared wines from his winery in Sardinia (Montessu and Barrua from Agricola Punica). It was also a chance to taste several vintages of La Castellana, Il Barone and Il Passito with him.
Napa Valley's Castello di Amorosa today announced that Sebastiano Rosa, winemaker at Tenuta San Guido- producer of Sassicaia- one of Italy's leading Bordeaux-style red wines has joined the winemaking team of Brooks Painter, Peter Velleno and Laura Orozco. Sebastiano will travel from his home in Bolgheri, Italy to consult with Painter's team on all aspects of Castello's Italian-style red wine program.
"From the vineyard to the glass, the addition of Sebastiano Rosa will bring an international perspective to our program," said Georg Salzner, President of Castello di Amorosa. "Our history is Italian; our winery is Italian style so it's natural that we partner with Sebastiano to create unique, Italian-style wines."
Rosa, the stepson of Nicolo Incisa della Rocchette whose family owns Sassicaia, brings an extensive wine background to the team. Upon graduating from U.C. Davis in 1990, Sebastiano participated in the 1991 harvest at the storied Chateau Lafite Rothschild.
From 1992 until 2002, he was General Manager at Tenuta di Argiano in Montalcino where he worked with legendary winemaker Giacomo Tachis, considered by some to be the father of the renaissance of Italian wine. While Sassacaia was the first wine in the renaissance, his other label, Solengo, was the number 8 wine in Wine Spectator's Top 100 and received 96 points in only it's second vintage.
"We are excited about Sebastiano's collaboration and contributions to our winemaking," said Brooks Painter, Castello's Director of Winemaking. "At Castello di Amorosa we are only interested in producing top quality wine. Sebastiano will help us continue to craft exceptional wines with distinct character and structure while respecting the unique Napa Valley terrior."
Rosa, the Technical Director of Tenuta San Guido from 2002 until 2011, managed the Sassicaia cellar where he started the second and third labels for Sassicaia- Guidalberto and Le Difese.
In many parts of the country, winter is still hanging around, but not in the Napa Valley and certainly not at Castello di Amorosa's vineyards where budbreak, the first emergence of shoots that will ultimately bear fruit, occurred earlier this week. Sangiovese showed it's buds first; Primitivo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon vines will budbreak next. Budbreak occurs when the vines wake from their winter dormancy and begin to show signs of life. Water drawn up through the extensive root system appears on the cuts made by pruning. This is followed by the emergence of tiny buds. Leaves eventually unfold- a fresh start to a new growing season.
Working in the vineyard is a labor of love. Pictured below is Mario Martinez, Vineyard Crew Leader. His gentle hands prepare the Primitivo vines for the growing season.
Mario Martinez tends to the Primitivo vines.