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CP: (con'd) And so, as far as the riper style is concerned, I've personally not gone much with that trend. I'm picking at higher potential alcohols only because I feel I have to; otherwise I'll have green flavors. At 14.6% potential alcohol, chances are that I'll still have unripe flavors, so I'm going to wait and edge closer to 15% — but without letting it get away; you're always walking a tightrope. As soon as those green impressions are gone and the tannins taste ripe, I'm going to pick; I'm not going to go take a week's vacation and give that fruit hang time. It feels wrong to me to let the fruit hang just because you can — that gets more into the raisiny/pruney end of the ripeness spectrum, which to me obscures the fruit. I believe in varietal honesty; I don't want the Merlot to taste like Cabernet!
NM: How do you judge the 'sweet spot,' pardon the pun, in the ripeness of a particular variety? I understand that it's not as simple as arbitrarily deciding the level of ripeness you want in your wine and then using that to base picking decisions — we see countless examples of that mindset resulting in imbalanced, frankly pretentious wines. Further complicating the picture is that the exact same variety in another vineyard can have an altogether different trajectory of ripening.
CP: That gets back to intuition. Because there are increasingly more sophisticated analyses that you can have done by commercial laboratories in order to make decisions on picking. But it really comes down to intuition and it's a decision often best made by the seat of your pants. And this might sound very industrial, but the moment you pick, you're getting a chemical soup that's the birthing of the entire wine. So, you're correct to put a lot of weight on that decision. But as long as I've been doing this, I've had virtually no conversations about style, per se — I know that sounds funny and isn't what you were expecting to hear. I've been mentored and have since trained myself to visualize what the outcome is going to be at a certain point in the ripening process. Though it's actually a bit presumptuous for any winemaker to think he knows exactly what's going to happen. But when you're working with sources of grapes year after year, you do develop an ability to visualize how a wine is likely to be, based on when you pick.
"The moment you pick, you're getting a chemical soup that's the birthing of the entire wine."
NM: Apropos, let's talk about the wines themselves, starting with the Swanson Pinot Grigio. What was it about working with this grape — a new one for you, coming from red Bordeaux varieties — that really expanded your winemaking knowledge?
CP: When I arrived at Swanson, the 2002 vintage of Pinot Grigio has already been made, and I thought it was good. But there were two things I wanted to change. First, the alcohol level had been over 14% and I felt it needed to be under that. Secondly, it was barrel fermented in neutral oak. But to me, aromatic whites in general — Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and particularly Pinot Gris/Grigio — really shouldn't be in oak barrels at all; they're too sensitive to oxidation. Whereas the Chardonnay, when we tried to keep it in stainless steel, it turned bitter. So, with the next vintage of the Pinot Grigio, we decided on an earlier picking point, putting the potential alcohol at around 13.5%, and kept it completely out of barrels so it was 100% in stainless steel. Then, to give it body, which before had come from the higher alcohol, we stirred the lees weekly.
Now, truth be told, this was the first white wine I had to contend with… ever! The biggest thing I discovered in making it was through working with the lees. With red wines, once you rack them, you're getting rid of the lees. But with many white wines, as long as the lees are healthy and smell good, they're your friends — the homoepathic, holistic answer to all your problems. [And that's important because] aromatic white wines can be very sensitive to reduction. Plus, as I said, they add texture to the wine. Thankfully, our assistant winemaker, Tony, is very adept with white wines and has been a huge help with them. In fact, he's one reason we've been so successful with the white wines being as good as they are.
NM: Yes, the Pinot Grigio is a beautifully balanced white wine that demonstrates excellent varietal typicity. But the real excitement, I feel, lies with the Merlot — the lynchpin to Swanson's brand identity. Tell me about the Swanson Merlot, starting with its origins in Oakville. And what is it about Swanson's style that you feel best exemplifies Merlot from Oakville?