"I may be getting too old for this shit." Carl evoked Danny Glover's iconic Lethal Weapon line when I asked him how punch-downs have been going. The guy is only fifty, but he definitely has noticed how much different this daily harvest ritual feels now, when compared to his first harvest at Allegro twenty years ago.
Our cellar master Darcy sent me these pix of Carl mid-punch-down, over a fermentation bin full of Cabernet Sauvignon.
It certainly is impressive to see a 6'4" person putting his full power into this task, while positioned in the carbon dioxide airspace over the red grapes. It takes quite a lot of force to break up the cap of grape skins, seeds, and stems which forms at the top of red grape fermentations, especially early in the fermentation process.
Punch-downs ("pigéage," in France) are a ritual performed on red fermentation bins three or four times daily during the two weeks of fermentation. When you multiply that across a dozen bins, it's quite a task. Breaking up the cap allows the juice to re-integrate with its former grape-mates. Since it is contact with skins and stems which brings the juice its color, tannins, and body, it's an essential part of Allegro's winemaking process for its dry red wines.
For years, Carl has used a homemade tool which he calls "Bigfoot" (below on the right, in Darcy's photo) when doing punch-downs. Made of stainless steel, that tool itself weighs about the same as a case of wine: nearly forty pounds. This year, they have created a much lighter version ("Littlefoot"), which is probably only five pounds.
Harvest is the busiest time of the winery year, and that means "all hands (and feet) on deck." Carl takes on this physical task to keep himself humbled by his aging process (just kidding), but also so that he has a better sense of the year's fruit. Punching down the reds means that all of his senses are attuned to the grapes' qualities: how they look, feel, smell. The more reduced, earthy style of the resulting wines is also what he looks for as a winemaker.
Late-season grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon (coming in as we speak) have the toughest skins, so this tasking is far from over. This old guy will be continuing to do the punch-downs until the last pressing, mid-November, when he'll pause for exactly one short moment before diving into the next task.
Cheers to the 2020 vintage!
It's actually called a "Maceration Accelerator." I know this, but whenever I meet a new machine that I don't quite understand yet, I tend to use the term Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbes fame) used for his cardboard box machine capable of causing all kinds of wonderful transformations.
This machine found its way to our crush pad yesterday and today thanks to Clark Smith. Clark Smith is a California-based winemaker, wine writer, philosopher, and educator whose 2013 book Postmodern Winemaking has been on Carl's reading shelf very often. Clark was at our winery in The Brogue for a couple of days, enabling Allegro to take part in a trial of this pioneering piece of Italian winemaking equipment.
What the Maceration Accelerator actually does is break up the grape skins more than a traditional crusher/destemmer does, enabling more contact between the skins and juice during the fermentation process, which becomes quicker and more efficient. It's inserted into the crush process between the crusher/destemmer and the fermentation tank.
Carl really enjoyed his time with Clark, whose interests include intersections between wine and music, certainly a fitting topic for our winery, aptly named by musician brothers back in 1980. Clark's work with the Postmodern Winemaking movement is really fascinating--here's a link to its website. Among other things, with his company Vinvention, Clark invented the use of reverse osmosis for alcohol reduction--a technology even I have heard of.
These have been exciting times on the crush pad for other reasons, too, now that harvest is in full swing. On Monday a huge tractor trailer found its way to The Brogue, bringing grapes from far-away Washington state for future Allegro wine projects. In this load were Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, Merlot, and Tempranillo grapes grown in Columbia Valley's beautiful Kamiak Vineyard, a 100-acre vineyard overlooking the Snake River. Kamiak is associated with Gordon Estate Winery, where Jeff Gordon (not the NASCAR Jeff Gordon) has been growing grapes since 1980.
A future delivery will include Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The grapes come in bags inside large carboard boxes and contain a little bit of extra West Coast flavor: a minor amount of what is called "smoke taint," resulting from the wildfires which have been so devastating to the wineries and vineyards out West this year. Guess what: Clark Smith even has a page of resources for how winemakers can deal with smoke taint! This guy thinks of everything.
The taste of wildfires won't be discernable in the wines, but I know I might imagine just a little bit of extra smokiness when I eventually get to taste them. 2020--how strange it will be to taste the wines from this vintage of this crazy year!
Now that Allegro is producing wine out of two facilities, and because our production is still increasing every year, Carl has gotten the chance to purchase new and bigger equipment. Yesterday we went over to the Stewartstown location so that he could check out installation of the new bottling line and check sugar levels on grapes.
A month ago I wrote a short blog post about this year's "Great Tank Swap," during which Carl is moving fermentation tanks for red wines to The Brogue and fermentation tanks for white wines to Stewartstown. That work continues. At Stewartstown I got to see these four huge tanks for white wines, as well as some of the smaller tanks destined for their future homecoming.
In the soon-to-be-bottling area of the winery, two impressive new purchases were gleaming. The first is a cross-flow filtration system, quite an advanced technology compared to the plate and frame filters he's used for years. The cross-flow system has only been used by wineries for about three decades. In one filtration, the wine becomes clarified and stabilized, without having to pass through (and possibly clog up) multiple filler sheets.
This new system will filter the wines much more quickly and easily, and was a necessary companion purchase to the real star: the new (to us--it's a 2001 model) 16-spout Gai bottling line.
The bottling line is a machine that accepts empty bottles in on the left, fills them, corks them, and applies and melts the capsules on. The wine bottles coming off the right side are ready to be put in cases. Allegro's machine at The Brogue is an 8-spout line, capable of bottling 15 bottles per minute. During the biggest bottling day ever at The Brogue, they bottled 440 cases of wine. With this new machine, Allegro's winery crew at Stewartstown should be able to bottle 50 bottles per minute, and as many as 800 cases on a regular bottling day.
I watched as Dwayne and Carl plugged in the bottling line and worked out some of its kinks in its new home.
During the bottling line's first few minutes coming to life, there was an accompanying smell that reminded me of our family's O-gauge trains, which we bring out to run at Christmas-time. I have to say that there was sort of an air of Christmas around these new machines. These guys have made do with the equipment that we have (thanks in large part to Dwayne's wide-ranging mechanical expertise), but I know that it's exciting for them to get a version of "Bigger. Better. Faster. More."
Cheers to expansion, new equipment, and the excitement of Christmas come early this year!
Tomorrow's the day--the release date for Allegro's first estate-grown (Cadenza) Sauvignon Blanc: the 2019 Cadenza Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc.
I don't have much influence on the decision-making which goes into the winegrowing and winemaking at Allegro, but I do feel quite pleased with myself for having inspired Carl to try his hand at growing this wine.
Sauvignon Blanc has long been a favorite white wine of mine, even though there can be so much of a wide range of styles and flavor profiles among Sauvignon Blancs that purchasing one blind can feel like some weird kind of roulette--it may taste crisp and delicious; it may smell like cat pee. Despite the many disappointing wines I've tasted, my affinity for the lighter style has kept me trying.
Carl planted Sauvignon Blanc here in the vineyards in The Brogue in 2016, so this 2019 was the first year that the vines produced enough fruit for a wine vintage. It wasn't the first Sauvignon Blanc vines growing here, however--there were enough rogue Sauvignon Blanc vines among the 1973 and/or 1980 plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon that Carl knew the variety would grow well here. ("Proof of concept," he notes.) He likes focusing on Bordeaux vinifera varieties.
Allegro has also previously produced Sauvignon Blanc wines from fruit grown by Kris Kane at 21 Brix Winery. But the 2019 vintage is our first Cadenza (estate-grown) wine.
This is a richer style of Sauvignon Blanc. Carl blended the fruit with some Chardonnay for balance and body and then fermented and aged the wine in neutral French oak barrels. (He explains this process in his winemaker notes.)
The resulting wine is a nice marriage between Sauvignon Blanc's brightness and "zip" and the Cadenza line's tendency toward more complex and ageable wines.
Tonight, on the eve of the wine's release, we enjoyed it with a creamy lemon pasta which worked really well as a companion. The wine's own lemon characteristics were front and center and the two together made for a really nice late summer pairing.
So--happy release day to a wonderful new Cadenza wine!
This week it's officially upon us: the start of the harvest of our 2020 vintage. This is Allegro's 40th commercial vintage and Carl's 20th at Allegro. While it hasn't been a stellar year in the vineyards (cold damage, lower-than-usual yields), there is still tons of promise and anticipation for the grapes coming in and those still on the vines.
This week included harvest of the sweet white native varietal Niagara from our vineyards at Stewartstown (the familiar grape in our Suite wine) and harvest of the Arandell grapes from our small Nouveau vineyard block here in The Brogue. (Here's a link to Paul Vigna's recent Penn Live article about this new grape variety at Allegro.)
This afternoon, the action was on the crush pad here behind the winery in The Brogue, where Carl and Dave were working to unload Niagara fruit brought over in the truck from Stewartstown and to run it through the crusher/destemmer and the press. (The distinctive scent of this grape nectar is a definite presence in the air.)
Harvest season is definitely a "marathon, not a sprint" situation, and it takes an enormous amount of effort to do the work and to meet all of the inevitable challenges--today it was an overheating forklift. But Carl has become quite seasoned in dealing with it all. I've heard him express several times over the years the sentiment that winegrowers and winemakers have a finite number of vintages in their lives, a finite number of opportunities to make great wine. We'll keep you posted about the vintage as harvest progresses, and will look forward to reporting about the estate-grown grapes which will (in the best growing seasons) become our flagship Cadenza wines.
Cheers to the 2020 harvest!
It was early September in 2002 when Carl got an unexpected call from Jan Waltz of Waltz Vineyards: Can I bring you your Merlot? Tonight? The reason this was so unexpected was because this variety, in a normal year, wouldn't be picked until early October. The 2002 growing season was a hot one, and these young vines (then in 4th leaf) had gained sugar quickly. During the second week of September they were measuring 24.8 Brix, which would ferment to 13.8% alcohol. In a normal year, young-vine Merlot would be picked at 22 or 23 Brix. This was not a normal year.
Carl got the grapes. In mid-2003, tasting the wine in barrels, he was very aware of the wine's potential. The 3.25 barrels of 2002 Reserve Merlot were bottled in 2004. The wine is a blend of 11% Cabernet Franc and 89% of that luscious Waltz Merlot.
We released the wine in August of 2004 at $25 per bottle. The labels (which I designed and now make me cringe a bit) were hand-printed. We had about 80 cases of the wine. It started to sell so quickly that we raised the price to $35 per bottle. And, just like that, it sold out. Gone.
Except...for the 2002 Reserve Merlot reserved for the Allegro wine library. Every once in a while Carl turns a regular day into a special day by opening a special wine. Recently, we had one of those days, popping the cork on this now-18-year-old wine.
Wow. This wine still holds its fruit core: What used to be a 100% raspberry quality has darkened a bit, but it still super-present. Time has added some bottle bouquet and earthiness, accompanying the wine's notes of cocoa and coffee. The wine has nice structure and tannins and is a perfect fit for an American palate: likeable, complex, still fruit-forward. Really outstanding.
This wine is the same age as our son Dylan. Reflecting on this, Carl noted that it "makes me feel old, but not in a bad way." It definitely gives some perspective, to know that our son and this wine have both been alive for 18 years, developing and changing. (Carl notes that Dylan is still more complex than the wine.)
So cheers to being able to enjoy some perspective, and to be able to capture and share the very best grapes from the very best vintages. Thanks to the magic of wine, we can literally taste time.
On the hunt for a wine to pair with my mac 'n cheese recipe, I realized that Allegro currently has four Chardonnays on our roster. Here are a few notes on each, and on the differences among them:
Blanc de Blanc: This wine is from Brad Knapp at Pinnacle Ridge Winery in Kutztown. He's a master of bubblies, and this light and crisp wine is wonderful with seafood.
2017 Cadenza Vineyards Chardonnay: Grown in the "Crouch Block" (the original Chardonnay planting) of our estate vineyards in The Brogue, this is a special wine. The wine was barrel fermented with stirred lees for 6 months, contributing to its full mouthfeel and what Carl calls its "supple richness with a complementary raciness." It has a definite oak character which is well balanced with its fruit. Definitely still young, this wine still has years of in-bottle flavor development in its future.
Skin Chardonnay: This wine is a blend from Allegro's young vine Chardonnay grapes in 2017 and 2018. In the cellar, the wine was left in contact with its skins for a week. This is a process usually reserved for red wines, but in this instance it helps provide the young-vine fruit with more interest and complexity. The wine was aged in neutral oak barrels, giving it structure and balance. Carl says, "It's still Chardonnay, just turned up to eleven."
2019 Steel Chardonnay: This fruit was grown by Kris Kane of 21 Brix Winery in the Lake Erie region. Fermented in steel tanks rather than oak barrels, the wine is pretty straightforward, light and smooth. Unoaked Chardonnay doesn't usually have a ton of varietal character, just a nice soft peachy fruitiness.
So...I found in the end that the Skin Chardonnay was the best companion to my mac 'n cheese dinner, but all of the Chardonnays in the family definitely have their place on the roster of summer food wines.
In February, when Allegro purchased the land, buildings, and equipment of the former Naylor Wine Cellars in Stewartstown, we knew that we were on the cusp of big changes. Little could we have known how much the whole world would change over the course of the next months, as the pandemic hit the world and we all hunkered down. It felt strange to have put so much energy into ideas of expansion, only then to contract for a little while.
Fortunately, we have managed to keep ourselves and the business safe, thanks to Carl's diligence with details large and small.
One thing which hasn't changed, amid all of the upheaval in the world, is the fact that the vines have still grown and the grapes are still ripening. Harvest is coming, and in a world ripe with "Ready or Not"s, Carl would certainly rather be ready.
As Allegro's wine production continues to increase, our fermentation will now be split, with red wines to all be fermented at our crush pad at the winery in The Brogue and whites at the Stewartstown facility. That has meant a colossal shift in the tank inventories, as four 1500-gallon and two 800-gallon tanks from Stewartstown have come to The Brogue, while four 2000-gallon tanks have been moved in the other direction.
One by one, the tanks have been moved, put upright, and are currently in the process of being put into place at their respective locations. This has meant lots of work for Dwayne with the forklift, and welding taking place before the tanks are moved to their pre-harvest crush pad destinations.
So...it's a time of flux amid a greater time of flux, but it does feel good to see purposeful change and know that, accompanying the beginning of the change of seasons, we are readying ourselves for the coming harvest. It's a year unlike any other year, for Allegro as well as for the world, and the 2020 vintage will certainly always have a kind of asterisk by its notation. How strange it will be, years from now, to open a bottle of Allegro's 2020 red wine and remember all of this.
Yesterday afternoon, after the thunderstorm passed, I took a walk to the field and looked back to the winery and crush pad. Look what I saw...
I've heard it said many times that "Wines are made in the vineyard." While I understand the truth of this--that that winegrowing has a huge impact on the wines--I have also heard Carl say that, in some vintages, wine can be salvaged or lost, depending on what goes on in the cellar. He cites the 2018 Duet as a prime example of this.
Some of our very worst years at Allegro, in terms of the growing season, were 2003, 2009, 2011, and 2018. 2018 was cold and wet from the beginning of the growing season to the end of harvest in October. It rained and rained and rained, even during harvest. The constant wetness can contribute to rot, low yields, and dilution of the grapes' juice. Care of the vintage in the vineyard was overseen by Allegro's vineyard manager, Nelson. Carl's care during the winemaking was also essential to the creation of a good wine, even in such a poor season. He notes that, a few years before 2018, we wouldn't have had the knowledge and skill to pull off such a good wine in such a challenging year. The fact that they succeeded with the 2018 Duet is something that he and Nelson can really be proud of.
When our home ("estate") vineyard produces vinifera grapes, Carl considers whether the resulting wines will be of a quality level good enough to be bottled as a Cadenza wine. (Cadenza is the wine label which we only use for our best estate-grown wines.) From the 2018 vintage, the only decent estate-grown red grapes which we grew were the Petit Verdot (4 barrels) and Merlot (2 barrels). The Cabernet Sauvignon was a disappointment that year, unable to ripen adequately. While the Petit Verdot and Merlot weren't quite Cadenza-caliber quality, Carl did choose them to bring together in a nice "Duet," and the 2018 Duet is a testament to his winemaking skills.
In the cellar, Carl treated the Petit Verdot and Merlot royally, putting all 6 in expensive new French oak barrels. Their coming together as Duet married two wines with quite different characters, neither of them subtle. The 4 barrels of PV were marked with what Carl calls "brash fruitiness," with a rustic quality and definite tannins and acidity. The 2 barrels of Merlot were a "fruit bomb," with enough body to bring that fruit forward and round out the flavor of the blend. Together in Duet (64% PV and 36% Merlot in the finished wine), the two grape varieties definitely found harmony.
So, with the backstory in mind, when I drink Allegro's 2018 Duet I can't help but admire all of the hard work--the "duet" of winegrowing and winemaking skill sets--which went into making a quite fine "lemonade" out of a real lemon of a year.