We were honored this past week to host Gordy Venneri, owner/winemaker at Walla Walla Vintners, for a winemaker dinner at Scratch and a tasting the following day here at the shop. As always, Gordy did a great job - he is an entertaining speaker and possesses passion-driven knowledge that spans over 15 vintages. The dinner at Scratch was fabulous, with chef/owner Jason Rex putting out some wonderful and innovative new dishes that were delicious and perfectly paired.
With Gordy on hand, with his easy-going style and welcoming manner, we received some great questions from those who attended - most of whom are also regular readers of the wine column - so thought it would be appropriate to share some of those.
Gordy, in talking about his Dolcetto, mentioned that he used a higher portion of used oak on this lighter-bodied varietal as it allows the fruit quality to come out more on the wine. The question was, "How do older oak barrels influence the oak profile of wine versus new barrels?" Each vintage that an oak barrel is used to age wine, it imparts less and less oak flavor and tannin on the wine. After three to four "fills" or vintages, the barrel is termed "neutral," meaning it no longer imparts any oak characteristics on the wine, but will still add textural notes. So by using more old barrels and fewer new ones, a winemaker has the ability to limit how much oak flavor is imparted on the wine, which in turn allows the fruit to show more prominently.
Gordy's wines, especially the current vintages, show lovely long finishes. The question came up, "Is the length of finish due to the grapes, or oak barreling, or some other factor?" Length of finish is partially due to good-quality fruit and very much due to winemaking, including the choices of barrel and the time the wine spends in them. Having the best quality fruit and picking when the "chemistry" of the grape is exactly what the winemaker is looking for is a great place to start. Once superior fruit is selected, though, a number of decisions the winemaker makes along the way will also help establish the finish characteristics s/he is looking for.
Gordy's Dolcetto was showing much layering of flavors. When I tasted the wine to write the tasting notes, I referred to the wine as extracted. What does extracted mean? If you squeeze a red wine grape, the juice actually runs clear; it is only from time in contact with the skins and other grape solids during fermentation that the wine takes color. The longer the wine is in contact with the skins and other solids, the more color and flavor the fermenting wine extracts, leading to a more complex and robust wine. So, a wine that is extracted has been left in contact with the skins and has pulled more character from them.
Another question involved age worthiness. "In general, are domestically-produced wines less age worthy than those made in Europe?" How well a wine ages is primarily due to winemaking, and specifically is enhanced by higher acid in the wine as well as more tannin.
Acid, as well as other grape chemistry, is determined at harvest. Since winemakers control when their growers harvest the fruit, it is one of the many winemaking decisions. As a grapevine approaches harvest and the fruit ripens, the sugar level starts to increase; a winemaker will have in his/her mind the sugar level at which s/he would like to pick the fruit based on flavor, characteristics of the vintage and other factors.
Grape acids will also change as the fruit matures. One of the most important parts of having good grape-growing weather is the spread between daytime highs and nighttime lows. During the heat of the day sugars elevate and acids drop; during the cool nighttime hours acids elevate and sugars drop. So, in order to have more acid in the grapes, a winemaker will have the grapes harvested very early in the morning, and sometimes even during the night. While in Europe, more winemakers tend to harvest with higher acid when the fruit is less ripe. It is a winemaking decision, and we know many domestically produced wines that age every bit as well as those made in Europe.
For wine consumers, there is great benefit to attending dinners and tastings with winemakers - it is the best way to get answers to your wine questions. With a full line-up of monthly tasting and dinners scheduled into 2014, the opportunities will be there for this kind of great interaction.
If there is a topic you would like to read about or if you have questions on wine, you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d'Alene Press.
George Balling is co-owner with his wife Mary Lancaster of the dinner party, a wine and table top decor shop in Coeur d'Alene by Costco. George is also the managing judge of The North Idaho Wine Rodeo and is the wine editor for Coeur d'Alene Magazine (www.cdamagazine.com). You can learn more about the dinner party at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com. You can get all of these articles, as well as other great wine tips, by friending us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.