Scribbles from the winemaker

With the 2013 Catalina Sounds Pinot Gris going to bottle this week, I thought it might be a good idea to put into words what I’m looking for in the wine and how we go about producing it in the winery.

Pinot Gris is a variety that I’ve long been fond of. I believe that as a wine it can strike a balance between a variety that is often strictly about aromatics, precision and fruit purity (for example Riesling) with a variety that is renowned for the inclusion of secondary elements like oak and lees influence (for example Chardonnay). So while for me, retaining rich, enticing aromatics is very important for the Catalina Pinot Gris, so too is the need to build palate weight and texture into the wine.

The 2013 Pinot Gris is a single vineyard wine, 100% sourced from our home Waihopai Valley vineyard in Marlborough. Harvest 2012 was my first look at the fruit from this block and I could tell immediately that we were onto something special. Having worked with Pinot Gris from other vineyards around Marlborough previously, I had been accustomed to fruit that often required quite high sugar levels before hitting the right flavour profile for picking – resulting in juice with potential alcohols in the high 13% through to mid 14%. The beauty of our home vineyard is that I was seeing lovely flavours at much lower sugar levels, meaning the fruit and resultant wine would have naturally higher acid levels and also that the wine could afford to be much more dry in terms of residual sugar, while only achieving moderate, comfortable alcohol levels. At the same time, retaining some residual sugar aids mouth feel and richness – 2 important attributes – so without it, it would need to be built into the wine in other ways and that is where the style of fermentation and fermentation vessels play their role. Happily, the fruit in 2013 looked very similar to 2012, in no small way due to Fraser Brown, our vineyard manager who keeps an immaculate block and ensures the fruit is always top notch.

One of my favourite wine memories is the vintage I worked in Alsace, France in late 2007. It taught me a great many lessons, one of which was the benefit of long, even ferments. I’m convinced that long ferments contribute much in the way of texture to a wine, due I would suggest, to the extended natural lees stirring that the wine receives and the likely influence of a wider array of yeast species. I have never managed to conduct ferments lasting 3 to 12 months – often cited by some ‘old world’ winemakers – but I am at least starting to have success in drawing out ferments for 6 – 8 weeks before finishing dry (2 to 3 times longer than a standard ferment) simply by never allowing the yeast biomass to get too high. These ferments invariably are very well behaved, never get stressed nor display any off aromas and happily sit around 15-17C for the bulk of ferment. Their hallmark however is their palate weight – which I find much fuller than a regular ferment while at the same time not compromising the wine aromatically. In fact, I find the wine holds onto a ‘juicy’ character for longer when fermented slowly, only really starting to look vinous in the last fifth of ferment. 45% of the 2013 Catalina Sounds Pinot Gris was fermented in such a way – hand picked fruit and fermented with high solids juice.

Contrastingly, I like to run 15-20% of our juice to French oak puncheons for hot, fast fermentation (again, hand picked fruit and high solids juice). This parcel is purely about palate richness and interest. These ferments are often completed within 7 days and reach temperatures in the high 20sC and are milky white with their high yeast numbers. I then stir the heavy lees in the puncheons aggressively (twice a week) for a good month to 6 weeks. This parcel loses quite a bit of its fruit character, but introduces interesting savoury and oak and lees derived notes that, I hope, add to the allure and texture of the wine.

Finally this year, I chose to allow the balance 35% of the juice in the blend to ferment in a more conservative, text book way (hand pick and some machine pick fruit – clean, settled juice). What this parcel may lack in terms of palate weight, it more than makes up for with the contribution of fruit purity and line to the overall blend.

This year’s wine had to be blended up a little earlier than usual – in mid June. All parcels remained on full lees and unsulphured until blended, which I think aids flavour evolution. From my observations, I find that Pinot Gris is a variety that builds flavour in the bottle and will continue to improve for a number of years. The 2012 has really been hitting its mark over the last 6 months and I have high hopes that the 2013 will look equally as good. Heat and cold stability has just finished and the wine was filtered late last week.

So in summary, the 2013 Catalina Pinot Gris follows the style cues of the previous vintages – with very little residual sugar (2g/L) and a relatively low alcohol at 13.4%. I believe the way the wine is produced enables the wine to work well with a broad range of meals, offering a lovely mouth feel with still a cleansing, dry finish on the palate…hopefully leaving the consumer wanting more.

Until next time…