As we hit the heat of summer (for our neck of the woods anyhow—it’s in the 100s), and getting everything ready for harvest, this is a great time to reflect on white wine. For enjoyment (quenching our thirst) and to gear up for the first wines that are brought in—usually white grape varietals (not always, though).
Throughout my winemaking career, I’ve heard many times some form of the phrase “making red wine is easy, it takes a good winemaker to make white wine”. I agree with this statement, for many reasons.
White wines are less forgiving than reds. Red wines typically benefit from aging in oak barrels for close to 2 years. The mouthfeel and aromatics of red wines change significantly over this 2-year period. White wines, on the other hand, what you have at harvest is pretty much what you get in the bottle. As the wine is fermenting, what you smell and taste is very close to the finished product. Therefore, there isn’t much room for error in white winemaking.
A few factors that a winemaker must pay close attention to with white winemaking are: 1) Acidity – acid is a very important component in both red and white wines, however if the acid is not balanced in a white wine, you notice it more than in a red wine. The key is to harvest the fruit when there is still plenty of acid, but also enough sugar and ripe fruit flavors to make a balanced wine; 2) Aromatics – we work very hard to preserve the aromatics of our white wines because, except for our Chardonnay, all our white wines are not influenced by oak. Fermenting or storing wine in oak barrels adds structure and aromatics to a wine. We choose to use this technique with our Chardonnay wines, but not any of our other whites. Therefore, we want to preserve all the aromatics that are produced during fermentation to create a wine with a great nose to go along with delicious flavors. Some techniques we use to preserve aromatics are – fermenting our whites at cool temperatures and very slowly to avoid “blowing off” the aromas. We also use some alternative fermentation vessels, such as a clay amphorae pot, which enables us to create white wines with great aromatics as well as a round, smooth mouthfeel.
Each white varietal brings its own challenge: Sauvignon blanc (acid), Pinot Gris (delicate bouquet), Chardonnay (barrel fermentation!), Viognier (high phenolics), Riesling (hard to press). We tackle each challenge at the winery and attempt to showcase the beautiful fruit of each varietal.