We’ve had a number of questions about freshness:
- What is it in wine?
- How do you achieve freshness as a winemaker?
These are all great questions. At JL WOOD, we love fresh.
Freshness is a combination of factors, both in terms of the characteristics of the wine and its age after fermentation. Most importantly, it is the consumer’s overall experience of the wine that drives your opinion about freshness. Depending on the criteria you use, which is based upon your personal sensibility of freshness, a young wine may be considered fresh and an older wine may be considered fresh.
So, basically, it means different things to different people. Since we’re not scientists attempting to codify rules about consumer preferences, we made up our own criteria for freshness. We think freshness is critical to our customers, which we describe at a high level, as millennials and wine enthusiasts.
- Balance: There are many elements in a wine such as aroma, acidity, mouthfeel, sense of sweetness, and fruit. We’re looking to create wine that is drinkable. It has to be tasty. There needs to be nothing obnoxious about the wine; in fact, it is so pleasing that you want more. When the elements come together to create that feeling, that is balance. There may be high notes and low notes but overall, you like it and want more. How do you know if the wine is good: You order another glass or buy a bottle. We spend a lot of time tasting our product when it is being made to ensure that we are getting the balance that we want.
- Competitiveness: Drinkers have many choices when they choose a beverage. Beer, spirits, seltzers, cocktails, spritzers, other wines, coffee, tea, and, of course, soft drinks. In this list, freshness is important but in many cases, a drink being refreshing may be the key criteria for selection. Every consumer has their own criteria. In our case, we think our consumers, millennials and wine enthusiasts, and particularly millennials, want a beverage that is desirable against those other competitors. This is a crowd that grew up on sweetness, cold drinks and bold flavors. At JL WOOD, this means that we don’t our wine to taste muted. It needs a sense of strength and liveliness to the customer. And since Chardonnay is commonly served cold, it competes well with soft drinks and cocktails.
- Brightness or acidity: How often have you had a wine and quietly had the opinion that it was rather bland or flat. In that case, I suspect flavors of the fruit were probably muted as well. This is a problem relating to the level of acidity. You want enough acid to brighten the wine, the same way a squeeze of lemon preserves the colors of vegetables, and allows it to stand “mano-a-mano” with rich or fatty foods. What we don’t want is a wine that tastes tart, like we just sucked on a lemon drop. Many Chardonnay winemakers have evaluated the trade-off between “smooth” and “bright”. In the US, many, especially the larger winemakers, have opted to create rather bland products, with their choice being “smooth”. On the other hand sophisticated Chardonnay drinkers like acidity. In fact, if you read the reviews of many French products, such as Chablis and white burgundies, the writers carefully note the brightness and talk about it in the context of food pairings. We agree that a better Chardonnay has very crisp flavors and those flavors are enhanced by a bright acidity. (Without the tart lemon drop effect.)
- Chemistry: To do this in the winemaking process is actually fairly simple. The level of acid in fresh grape juice is easily measured. We look at strong “total acid” and also for a non-bland pH level. Having both ensures that a wine will achieve our acidity goals before and after bottling. Our target is pH 3.3 for good overall total acidity. Acidity, if properly done, is made in the vineyard, not with chemical additives. In our cool climate, pH 3.3 is also an optimal point of ripeness for our area. We monitor our ripening grapes every few days from 3.15 to 3.3. As soon as they are close to that metric, we immediately schedule a picking crew and harvest those grapes at night when both flavors and acidity are at their optimum level. The night harvest is very important as the metabolism of grape vines naturally reduces the natural acidity in the grapes in sunlight hours. At JL WOOD, what we don’t do is add chemical acid into the wine juice after pressing.
- Fruit flavors: After balance, fruit is our second highest priority. Balance and fruit flavors are the most ephemeral of wine characteristics. Like the evaluation of the ripening grapes for acidity, a very critical evaluation we make is the strength of the fruit flavors. We start first by closely monitoring the development of the fruit, which begins in earnest in the third quarter of each year. Our goal is to harvest when flavors meet our criteria. Our key criteria is the presence of fresh fruit flavors. Said another way, what don’t want are “baked” flavors. The former occurs when you harvest just before grapes reach the mid-point of their ripeness time-line (which can be a month to 6 weeks in some cases depending on weather conditions). You can also get baked flavors when the grapes are subject to too much direct sunlight when hanging on the vine. The particular grapes getting the excess sunlight expend energy and their internal stores of chemical compounds to maintain themselves in direct light and heat. Also, those grapes can become contaminated with fungi that you can’t see. This results from grape juices getting outside of the grapes through cracks that develop from sunburn.
- Mouthfeel: From a mouthfeel point of view, we want enough fruit that there is a big sense of fullness when the wine enters the mouth. While not tasting like it, we want the mouth to be excited as if you had just bitten into a ripe piece of fruit. For me personally, my “compare” for mouthfeel is trying to determine if the fruit and resulting wine give me the same sensations — not aroma or acidity — as biting into a crisp nectarine. For JL WOOD, we look to maximize fruit flavors in our Nouveau offering.
- Terroir: Yes, the grapes we harvest reflect the “terroir”, which we believe is the combination of soils and their nutrients, local weather, consistency of weather day-to-day , and sophistication of farming practices in the area. The pundits in the wine industry and academia love to debate terroir. I went through this in wine school. It’s a trick discussion — a false debate about whether location is important. It’s obviously important. But it makes for interesting conversation. At JL WOOD, we know we have a great piece of ground in the right location: Our challenge is simple, just maximizing what we have. And our focus is continuous, from land management, to farming practice, to winemaking, and to our targeted wine styles. Each component is interconnected and must consider the other components. And with every question, comes the analysis and searching conversations about whether what we contemplate or are doing is sustainable and has the appropriate impact or change on our carbon footprint.
- The picking decision: When I started in the business, the question I had was how would I know when fruit flavors were at the right point. There is no magical test or scientific measurement other than using your nose, tongue and mouth to evaluate a fruit sample. The good news is that when grapes are of very high quality, they let you know. In fact, they almost scream the news at you. Grape bunch flavors from a particular set of grapevines can be multiples of the strength of surrounding grapevines. It is almost a shock to experience the difference. When we find the flavors, we quickly determine the boundaries of the section of the vineyard with those flavors, check sugar and acid levels and then order a pick. Invariably, that pick is as immediate as we can make it. At JL WOOD, two of us make the decisions to harvest grapes. And we using third party laboratories to perform diagnostic tests on grape juice to ensure that planned picks are within targeted goals that link to our defined wine styles.
- The truth emerges during fermentation: Confirmation of the strength of grape flavors comes during fermentation. At that time, flavorful grapes will create a young wine that is just bursting with fruit flavors. A glass of partially fermented Chardonnay grapes will give the overwhelming aromas of fresh tropical fruit juice. It’s like a quick trip for breakfast out in Hawaii! In our case, given our soils and climate, those tropical fruit flavors are mango, passion fruit, and a hint of lime. Unfortunately, a lot of those aromas will dissipate a short time after fermentation. The aromas are from fruit esters, which easily pass through the surface of the wine and dissipate or are affected by contact with oxygen or sulfur dioxide, the latter a normal additive at the end of the fermentation process.
Nouveau is intentionally bottled early to capture as much of the fruit flavors and aromas that we can. Our only constraint, in this economy, is finding bottles and corks for that early bottling. For the remainder of our wines, we look for fruit from our vineyard with strong fruit flavors. Only those grapes are harvested for our wines.