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NM: That's great that you have the resources to do all that research! It obviously allows you to make better wines that reflect this place. What would you say is your greatest pleasure in making those wines?
JF: I love the fact that the wines really speak of where they're from. My goal in winemaking is to make wines that are very unique and truly express the estate, especially being that they're coming from such an exciting place, a place that has such an amazing story! To have the wines express that story is constantly my goal, so I'm always doing a lot of proprietary research to try to figure out how to bring the flavors of the vineyard out in the wines.
NM: On the flip-side, what would you say is the more challenging aspect of working with the vineyards on this estate?
JF: I think the biggest challenge is the cooler vintages, especially for the reds. In those vintages, we've had to really manage tannins because a lot of our vineyards are on hillsides, and that's meant watching tannin extraction during fermentation. In cool vintages what we'll do is pick in November, if we have to, because even once the days get shorter [and cooler] and the vine leaves start to fall, the tannins will still polymerize just with sunshine alone — even after sugar accumulation has stopped. But it's definitely tricky; it's a waiting game with the reds here. To put things in perspective of what's really challenging, though, there was a time I worked with Sangiovese in Tuscany during a very rainy season — now, that was difficult!
NM: What are some of the things you do to maximize finesse in the wines? And might the cooler climate invite longer hangtime, risking higher alcohol levels?
"My goal in winemaking is to make wines that are very unique and truly express the estate, especially being that they're coming from such an exciting place, a place that has such an amazing story!"
JF: We're purists because we try to bring out the vineyard in every wine that we make. We use almost 100% native yeasts in our fermentations, and we do a lot of lees inclusion in our Chardonnay, which would be almost as if we didn't settle the juice. We don't fine, we don't filter. And these are things we're already married to. In terms of other manipulations that would decrease alcohol — whether it be water addition or de-alcoholizing — that's against everything that we stand for! I think that people who are tied up [with the high alcohol issue], "Oh, California wines are so high in alcohol, and European wines aren't" — they don't understand that we simply cannot pick our fruit at a level of sugar to have a comparably low level of alcohol and still have a ripe wine! At that alcohol, the wines would have super green flavors and tons of acid, because the fruit won't have had that much hang time. I think people need to understand that, and just taste the wine and not be so concerned with what the alcohol level is. I'm concerned with it only if it's going to show through [and make the wine imbalanced]. But if it doesn't show through because the fruit is ripe, rich, and complex, then it's just part of the wine being from California.
NM: Let's talk about the wines themselves, starting with the Sauvignon Blanc. It's made in a rounder, creamier style, similar to the other white wines in Chalk Hill's portfolio. Tell me about that choice of style and what you do to achieve it.
JF: All of our whites are 100% barrel fermented; they're not tank-fermented. Normally with whites, you'd go directly to press in order to get the freshest possible fruit flavors, but we actually do a little bit of skin contact on our Sauvignon Blanc to get some more of those flavors out of the skins. After sitting in the closed-tank overnight, we press it out the next morning, at which point the glycocides that are bound in the skins are released into, and then become part of, the aromatics of the wine during fermentation. But we do that on just a small percentage of our Sauvignon Blanc because with all those aromatics, we're also getting textural and phenolic components. To have that much texture in a wine that's undergone 100% skin contact might be great for some people, but not everyone, especially with a Sauvignon Blanc.