Joe’s Winemaking Notes: April 2017

BUD BREAK
It’s been a full month since the last “Notes,” when I stated that we were about two weeks from seeing bud break. This statement held true, and we did see the first green leaves a few weeks ago. However, just as bud break was occurring, and the tiny leaves were emerging from their cocoons, wintry weather returned. This had the effect of stopping the vine growth in its tracks, and forcing us to wait a little longer, before we saw significant growth. Not an unusual occurrence, but one that tests our patience a bit! Looking at the photos below shows the vineyard this year (left photo), and in 2016 on the same date in late March (right photo).

A small delay, and we’re certainly not into abnormal vintage timing, yet; although, it seems so after the past years, with their very early starts. We have a full growing season ahead of us, with much time to catch up, so I’m not ready to predict the start date for harvest!

“FINAL” RAINFALL TOTALS FOR 2016-2017
Although the rain season in California extends until June 30, we’ve probably (fingers crossed!) seen the last major storm of the season. As of March 31, the estate vineyard has received a total of 63 inches of rainfall – over five feet of rain! In addition to near record quantities, the 2016-2017 rain year was extraordinary in the distribution of rainfall.

During the recent four-year drought we thirsted for more rain. Now, after the most recent storm system dropped 3.5 inches of rain on top of the season’s 60 inches, we’re officially cured of this desire! Now, we’re ready for clear skies, warming temps, and drying soils. The past four days gave us just what we wanted!

BOTTLING OUR SONOMA COUNTY CHARDONNAYS
In mid-March, we bottled our two Sonoma County Chardonnay blends: the 2016 River Road UN-OAKED Chardonnay, and the 2016 River Road Sonoma County Chardonnay. Aside from the obvious difference suggested by the “UN-OAKED” name for the first wine, what makes these wines different? First produced in the late 1970s, and refined into its current style in the 1990s, our Sonoma County Chardonnay has been our foundation wine for decades. When I became winemaker for River Road Vineyards and Winery in 2003, this hybrid approach of tank and barrel fermentation of Chardonnay had already developed a legion of fans. Fourteen years later, after seeing countless positive responses at consumer and trade tastings, I wouldn’t dream of altering the core personality of this wine. Great impression of ripe apples, lemon curd, pie spices, and toasted pastry dough make this wine too easy to love!

Our UN-OAKED Sonoma County Chardonnay is a newer member of the River Road family, having debuted after the 2011 vintage. This was a natural evolution for us, as we had a great deal of experience fermenting Chardonnay in stainless steel tanks. When I check the fermenting wines each morning during harvest, some of the Chardonnays showcase beautiful pear, lemon-lime, and floral aromatics. These showy wines are destined for our UN-OAKED blend, as they need no assistance from oak barrels to present themselves in high style.

The UN-OAKED Chardonnay blend bottles at a lower alcohol percentage than our Sonoma County blend. This is due to the selection of vineyard sites, which express ripeness at lower grape sugar levels. The UN-OAKED blend will also have a slightly perceptible residual (unfermented) grape sugar at bottling. If you have an opportunity to taste the wines side by side, you’ll gain an understanding of the impacts that oak and vineyard selection have on Chardonnay.

RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY WINEGROWERS’ NEIGHBORHOODS INITIATIVE
By now, you’re familiar with my love of the wines produced in the Green Valley of Russian River Valley, where our winery and estate vineyard are located. In order to further understand Green Valley, I’ve been participating, over the past three years, in a study of the “neighborhoods” of Russian River Valley. These neighborhoods consist of Middle Reach, Santa Rosa Plains, Laguna Ridge, Sebastopol Hills, and Green Valley (the only official sub-AVA of Russian River Valley). There’s been a general consensus among wineries and grape growers that each region expresses Pinot Noir in a unique way. However, the language to describe the differences was imprecise, and the borders between regions were fuzzy.

To define the neighborhoods more effectively, Russian River Valley Winegrowers has been collecting sensory data on hundreds of wine samples produced by dozens of wineries (ours included), to see if common traits existed in each region. In addition, UC Davis has analyzed the wines to see if there are any aromatic or flavor markers that distinguish each neighborhood. They’ve sent along word that there are some very intriguing results, and they’ll present the data to our group later this month. You’ll be sure to hear about it from me.

As a way of showcasing the defining sensory characteristics of each neighborhood, I was excited to be selected for a new collaborative venture. A twenty case auction lot will be offered at the Sonoma County Barrel Auction in late April, with the five neighborhoods donating four cases each. This will give the winning bidder (typically a restaurant or retailer) a chance to share this unique tasting experience with its customers. Along with winemakers from three other Green Valley wineries, we’ve completed blending a 2016 Pinot Noir that represents the best of our neighborhood. Four wineries, four vineyards, four winemakers, one wine. It’s a beauty!

Cheers!