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NM: How much room do you have for experimentation? Are you able to take some lots of wine, throw caution to the wind, and try different things — knowing full well that a particular test lot might never make it to the market as a commercially sold wine?
SF: That's the great thing about having the different tiers that we do — the Starmont, the Merryvale, and the Profile. It allows us to take little bits of fruit, little bits of wine, and experiment, knowing, of course, that we're not going to do anything so crazy as to ruin the wine. But we'll push the boundaries in different ways. If it turns out great, then we could always put that into one of the Merryvale-labeled wines, but if not, we've got other wines in which a small test amount is going to wash out into the larger blends and won't negatively impact the larger quantity. We might test various kinds of oak or different types of treatments, leave wines unracked for a period of time, stir the Merlots and Cabernets on the lees…
NM: Stirring red wines on the lees, really? In my experience, that's not commonly talked about in winemaking. We hear more about that technique with white wines, especially Chardonnay.
SF: Just as with Chardonnay, in stirring the lees of a Merlot or Cabernet you might lose a little color but you can definitely build more mouthfeel.
NM: Would you say that a lot of the techniques that began with efforts to improve white wines are being applied now more frequently to red wines?
"Fermenting a Cabernet in barrel helps make the wine a little softer, because it rounds out the tannins a little earlier and minimizes the need for tinkering later on."
SF: Either they're now being applied more to red wines, or we've come full circle again if they were done in the past. It's a big box to unpack. There's been dogma, for example, with Cabernet that after its fermented and you press off, you need to get it relatively clean and then put it in barrel clean, because otherwise the wine can become reductive. Most people followed that dogma across the board. But we've since learned that there's both good and bad types of reduction in red wine. A good type of reduction puts the wine in a state that actually changes the way it ages, perhaps slows it down just a bit and alters it in a way that adds different elements of depth to the wine. Furthermore, we can use that to create part of a blend to add even more complexity. So, let's say we were to take the same lot of Cabernet, and put half in barrel with a little bit of lees and the other half in a completely clean barrel. The half on the lees will become reductive, but in a good way — barrel reductive — that will give some smokey, campfirey notes and push the profile more towards black fruits. The half in the clean barrels will have a brighter, redder fruit profile. Well, now, if you take those two wines and put them together, you'll have a single wine that has both brighter fruit aromatics as well as some deeper, darker qualities — all of which ultimately will give you more complexity in the final product.
So, this sort of technique [commonly used for white wines], by being applied to reds allows for earlier fruit integration and helps stabilize the wine's color and soften its tannins. The reason why Chardonnay is often fermented in barrel — versus fermenting in a stainless steel tank and then putting into barrel only for aging — is that it creates a little bit of heat, metabolizing the wood and releasing wood components earlier into the wine. That can be important for a white wine that would otherwise be aged in barrel for only 8-10 months; it helps to get that early integration [with barrel fermentation]. Cabernets are traditionally are aged in barrel for 18-24 months, so if you do ferment in an inert tank and then put the wine in barrel, it has plenty of time to integrate those wood components. Even so, barrel fermenting a Cabernet still helps make the wine a little softer, because it rounds out the tannins a little earlier and minimizes the need for tinkering later on. Otherwise, we'd have to fine the wine and work it hard right before it goes to bottle. Barrel fermentation can help us avoid all that harsher handling late in the game. Plus, just as with white wines, it helps to build mouthfeel.