Blanc Follows on the Heels of Noir
The sheer number of wine grape varietals must be overwhelming for most wine drinkers to contemplate. Even an experienced winemaker can be stumped when you ask them about Italian varietals, which in some regions can number in the hundreds of obscure clones that are only known regionally. And let's not even start talking about Hungary or Croatia. Consumers are more used to choosing between a few flavors of soft drink, not the multitude of options available in the wine section of their grocery store. So with that in mind, here we go again.
Lumen brought in its very first load of Grenache Blanc this morning (pictured above in the vineyard before it was picked). Grenache Blanc is a close relative of Grenache (or Grenache Noir as it is known in France), and like its cousin, originated in Spain but found more fame across the Pyrennees in France. Here in California, it seems to have found a suitable home on the Central Coast, most notably in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. The varietal produces a rich, full-bodied white wine with crisp acidity and bright fruit flavors.
Lane and I fell in love with Grenache Noir last year with the 2013 harvest. This was the first time that Lane had ever worked with Grenache, and its subtlety and mysterious qualities intrigued her. Lane loves a challenge, and Grenache has provided her with one. Grenache Blanc seemed like an obvious next step. It's a great Chardonnay alternative, just like Grenache Noir is a great Pinot alternative.
The first good Californian Grenache Blanc that I ever tasted was in the early 1990's, when my father and I visited Tablas Creek in Paso Robles. Tablas had made a small amount of 100% GB as an experiment, and we thought it was the best wine of the tasting. Later on I had the pleasure of swirling Kris Curran's Grenache Blanc and realized what potential the varietal has here in Santa Barbara County. I was hooked.
Grenache Blanc is a slight genetic variation on its red counterpart, much like Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are variations on their famous cousin Pinot Noir. Lane and I sourced our grapes from the same vineyard that Curran produced many of her famous vintages: Camp Four in Los Olivos. The vineyard site has perfect conditions for growing this grape, with warm days and cool nights, allowing us to pick with lower sugars than is normally characteristic of this varietal, along with bright acidity.
We know that wine can sometimes be confusing, because there is so much to learn and so much to choose from. It's not always black-and-white. Just trust that Lumen will provide your senses with a pleasurable experience. We will most likely release our new white in the spring of 2015, so don't miss out!
- Will Henry
Introducing California's First Pinot Alternative
Grenache is a very interesting and challenging grape. A wine made from 100% Grenache can have the weight of a Pinot Noir: a medium to light bodied red. I t doesn't normally lend itself to making big, tannic wines. (Side note: a lot of the Grenache that you see in stores is blended with Syrah or Mourvedre in order to fatten it up). This is what attracted me originally to the varietal: it has a lot of the food versatility and grace of a good Pinot, but possesses a completely different flavor profile. A Pinot alternative, if you will.
The first eye-opening California Grenache I had was made by Angela Osborne under her Tribute to Grace label. I tasted the wine on a tasting menu at Cyrus in Healdsburg and it floored me. Hence in 2013 Lane and I set out to make our own version from this fickle grape. The result of our labor - 2013 Lumen Grenache - will be available in January 2015.
2014 marks our second vintage of working with Grenache. We have sourced fruit from two prominent SB County vineyards. Our first load came in a few days ago, from Martian Ranch in Los Alamos. The fruit was beautiful, showing about 24 degrees brix sugar (perfect sugar level for ripe fruit), and beautiful, small, red berries.
Grenache is one of the most widely planted wine varietals in the world. It originated in Spain (under the title Garnacha), where it typically produces a big, rich red wine. Grenache (pronounced gren-ah-sh) is also very popular in Southern France, particularly in the Rhone, where it makes its way into many blends (most prominently in Chateauneuf-du-Pape). There seems to be a growing interest in this varietal in California these days - and we hope to be riding the first wave.
When Grenache goes through the de-stemmer, the differences between this grape and Pinot Noir become instantly noticeable. Grenache has a much thicker skin (unlike some humans), but when the skin breaks, the juice is very light in color. The big challenge is that its skin really doesn't like to break. When we pour it into our bins, they drop like a ton of ball bearings and yield almost no juice. This presents a huge challenge, because our winemaking technique depends on the presence of some juice to punch-down and to inoculate with yeast. What this means for me specifically is that I do a lot of grunting and sweating on top of our open fermentation vats, punching down the cap and hoping to break a few berries.
The Martian Ranch Grenache will certainly be a beauty. The property is located just above the town of Los Alamos, in a site that is relatively cool for Grenache, but warm enough to adequately ripen the fruit. The site is biodynamically farmed and the yields kept very low. 2014 will mark our first from this vineyard, so stay tuned for more notes from harvest!
Why Smaller Can Sometimes Be Better
The quality of a wine is not always dictated by the sweetness of the juice. Many winemakers make decisions on when to pick by simply measuring the degrees brix (percentage of sugar) in their grapes, and generally pick when the sugars are at their highest possible level. Lane and I, however, pick when the flavors of the grape are at their peak, regardless of sugar content. That's not to say that we ignore sugar - we do test for it, as well as acidity - but our main decision to pull the trigger is based mostly on what our palates tell us.
The 2014 Chardonnay has now gone from vineyard through the crusher to barrel, and has completed its fermentation. As I mentioned in our last newsletter, we brought in two clones of Chardonnay from Sierra Madre Vineyard this year: Robert Young and Wente 15. Robert Young looked as he always has - handsome, debonaire, and a bit plump - but the Wente 15 clone behaved completely differently. What was most striking was how small the berries were. And small berries make for better wine.
Why, you may ask? Because more skin means more flavor. So many flavors are locked up in those crunchy little grape skins. If the skin-to-juice ratio is high, so will the concentration of flavors in the wine be. Wente 15 has such small berries this year, the skin-to-juice ratio is off the charts.
We expect a rocking good year for the 2014 harvest. All of our Sierra Madre Pinot came in over the last two weeks as well, and is fermenting away in open-top bins. Needless to say, it looks (and smells) awesome, but more on that later. The 2013 vintage is almost ready for release as well, so look for stellar new Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as a few new surprises! Stay tuned…. more harvest stories to come!
- Will Henry
Lumen Crush is On!
The first fruit of the season came roiling into the winery on August 19, when we picked Chardonnay Wente Clone 15 from Sierra Madre Vineyard in Santa Maria. Following it this week were both Dijon clones of Pinot Noir, 667 and 777, also from Sierra Madre - marking one of our earliest harvests ever here in the valley. This morning was cool and foggy, and looked like normal harvest weather. But for most of the year, the weather was far from typical. What has been fun is how it has illustrated the variances between clones of viits vinifera.
Vines come in all shapes and sizes. Each varietal of wine, such as Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, has numerous different clones that behave uniquely according to soil type, climate, and rootstock. The origin of some of these clones is as muddled as the family tree of a mutt at the pound. There's no telling who its parents were, or how it got here. Some clones came over in vintner's suitcases - others came in through the front door (i.e. legally), or were brought over long before the USDA was even an agency. Differences in clones can range from subtle to drastic. We usually pick and ferment our clones of Pinot Noir separately, because they yield such different wines. They can be next to one another in the same exact vineyard, yet taste as different as two wines from across the world.
Last year we brought in both clones of Chardonnay - Wente 15 and Robert Young - at exactly the same time. Yet this year we left the Robert Young clone hanging for an additional two weeks. The clones ripened very differently from each other this time around. No one is exactly sure why this year's harvest has been so different. One theory is that we have had unusually warm nights, which perhaps has caused acidity to drop in the fruit without a consequential lift in sugars. In a normal year, sugars will go up as acids drop. We try to pick when both are in good balance, and the fruit is super tasty. This year, the acid dropped out far too quickly, the sugars lagged behind, and we had to pick on flavor alone. Thankfully, our taste buds work pretty well!
Clone 15 Chardonnay had unusually small berries this year, which will certainly help, because the skin-to-juice ratio will be unusually high. This will mean super-concentrated flavors from Clone 15. Robert Young clone looked pretty much normal, however. Go figure. This is why we use a variety of clones every year; because in the end, we end up with a more consistently good bottle of wine.
We will send you more news as harvest progresses!
- Will Henry
SMV is Ripe on the Vine
When Lane puts on her magic yellow boot, we know it's almost time for harvest. Lane has donned this fine piece of footwear ever since 1982, early in her wine career, and damn near the infancy of Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. "I lost the other boot somewhere along the line," she says with a smile, "but thankfully I only need one." And what is the boot's purpose, other than the obvious fashion statement it makes? This boot crushes grapes. When it comes out of the closet, it means we are awfully close to pickin' time. Lane uses it to make juice from fruit samples in the vineyards, which we test for sugar content and acidity. It's a pre-crush crush of sorts.
The Sierra Madre Vineyard Chardonnay checked in at 21 degrees brix yesterday. What that means that is that we could see the earliest harvest on record in the Santa Maria Valley this year. "Clone 15 already has a gorgeous flavor profile," states Lane, "and I think we could be picking as early as this coming weekend." We thought last year's harvest was early - picking started on Labor Day Weekend - but this year is something else entirely. The grapes are sweet and ripe almost a month earlier than normal.
The most common question we hear is: why did the grapes ripen so early this year? Does it have anything to do with the drought?
The answer is really quite simple: harvest is early because we barely had a winter last year. The winter of 2013-14 was so dry and warm that bud break came a month early. (Bud break is when the vines come out of their winter dormancy and shoot buds out of their bark). The early bud break resulted in early flowering, and once flowering occurs, the vines basically are setting their clock for harvest, assuming there are no abnormalities with summer weather patterns. Given that the 2014 summer season has been warm and fairly normal, harvest is already upon us.
"The earliest I have ever picked is August 21," says Lane. "Unless something weird happens, that record is about to be broken."
The fruit looks healthy, and the crop slightly smaller than 2013. With our 2013 wines now in bottle, our barrels stand at the ready. Two new wines are in the mix for release this fall: 2013 Lumen Grenache, and the 2013 Lumen Sierra Madre Vineyard Pinot Noir, made from our best barrels from our favorite fruit source.
With Lane's boot leading the way, we will be bringing in new fruit from Camp 4 Vineyard and Martian Vineyard this year, so look for it down the road in our Grenache and Grenache Blanc.
Wish us well during the 2014 harvest, and thanks for putting Lumen in your glass! More updates to come...
- Will Henry