What's a winemaker to do during the depths of winter? Turn mad scientist, of course! Well, not mad, exactly, but--honestly--who else drinks wine out of a graduated cylinder?
Over the last week I joined Carl for two wine tasting sessions, each with a different purpose. For the first, we tasted samples of 3 different 2019 red vinifera barrel samples--Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot--from our Cadenza estate vineyards, with an aim toward figuring out the percentages of the 3 wines which will comprise the best 2019 estate blend.
The 2019 vintage was scarred by the deep freezes that hit our vineyards during December of 2018 and January of 2019. Because of the vine damage, the whole cycle of growth was delayed by a couple of weeks--an occurrence which can cause major effects on the grape quality. Other than this, 2019 was a "normal" year in the vineyards, in terms of the bud break timing, amount of summer heat, and the weather during the autumn. In average years like this, as in more exemplary years, the ability to imagine the right blend of grapes is an exercise in quality development.
During our tasting, first Carl made tasting notes about each of the reds on its own, like asking 3 singers at a choir audition to first sing solo. The Cabernet was light, with cherry notes; the Merlot had lovely body and wonderful raspberry character; the Petit Verdot was all blackberries and a more serious rustic voice.
Then he thought about which wine should comprise the backbone of a 2019 Cadenza blend: clearly, it was the Petit Verdot. We tried 5 different blends, sometimes just of 2 varietals, and sometimes with all 3. In the end, it was a 10% Cab / 30% Merlot / 60% PV blend which seemed to win the day, with the PV enhanced by the body of the Merlot and the brighter note of the Cabernet. There's definitely something to be said for the power of harmony!
During our second barrel sampling, we took on a different challenge: getting a sense of the 2020 flight of white wines, including Albariño, Semillon, Viognier, Chardonnay, and Rosé (bled from Cadenza estate vineyard red varietals). All came from grapevines in their fifth "leaf" (growing year), and all have been in neutral oak barrels since harvest time.
Interestingly, the standout from this tasting was definitely the Albariño. It has wonderful acidity, highlighting bright flavors of mandarin oranges and white peaches. Carl is currently eyeing a blend between it and either the Semillon or the Viognier. At this point in their development, the other wines are more subtle, not having quite found their voice.
It is interesting to be a part of these wine "auditions" and to watch Carl think through the ways that these estate-grown grapes will fit into our future wine lists. On some warm future summer day or some nicely chilled future autumn day, I can picture us sitting out on our benches, sipping the art and the craft of these, come to fruition.
Well, that was fun! Carl recently included me in a tasting of six barrel samples of 2020 red wines in process. The samples included two each of Allegro Merlot, Long Island Cabernet Sauvignon from RGNY (formerly Martha Clara) vineyards, and Merlot from Kamiak Vineyard in Washington's Columbia Valley. All of the wines came into the winery in October and have been in barrels for a few months, recently undergoing malolactic fermentation. For each wine, we had one sample which was processed our usual way and one sample which had been processed through Allegro's newest wine processing technology: the maceration accelerator which I wrote about in an earlier post, lovingly nicknamed "The Transmogrifier."
The new technology is designed to make more cut edges in the grapeskins during the crush process, which allows for more contact between skins and juice, and more amplified tannins. If the machine does its job well, we'd expect to encounter deeper color and more concentration of flavor in the wines. Did our tasting convince us of the efficacy of the technology? In a word: Yup.
With the Allegro Merlot samples, the differences between the two were the least noticeable. The control tasted a bit harder and thinner than the transmogrified wine, which had a bit more tannins overall and seemed just a tad smoother.
For the Long Island Cabs, the contrast between the control and the "accelerated" wine was quite a bit more noticeable. The second sample had a complete extra layer of flavor. Where the control sample tasted quite light, moving across my tongue in a rather straight shot, the flavor of the second sample made it all the way around my tongue. (It's the tannins binding with proteins in our mouths which gives us a "dry" feeling when we taste tannic wines or tea.)
And it was the Washington state Merlot samples which showed the clearest difference between the lesser-processed and more-processed wines. The control sample seemed tight and light compared to the blood-red second sample, whose tannins filled my whole mouth. It was an exciting final wine to taste, made from wonderful West Coast fruit and destined to be bottled under our new Pinnacle Ridge label.
I guess we can call this "proof of concept," seeing on a small scale the potential real benefits of our step forward in winemaking equipment and processes. Exciting times for Carl as a winemaker, aiming as always toward making the best wines possible. I feel lucky to be on his tasting team--not a bad job at all!
‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the winery
The elves were decked out with their pandemic finery:
All smiles were covered with double-ply masks
As they spoke not a word, but got straight to their tasks.
You customers waited, all snug in your houses,
Waiting with fur-babies, pod friends, and spouses:
Everyone waiting, worn out from the days
Of COVID and quarantine, this holidaze.
“There’s help on the way!” knew the winery elves,
Bottling and labeling and stocking the shelves.
To and fro from the cellar they flew single-file
(Socially distant and safe all the while).
The speed of their work was like Santa’s own team:
Diligent, skilled, the crop’s finest cream.
When, what did their cute pointy ears start to hear,
Starting so far, but then coming near?
One special sound, through the snow-laden boughs:
Dwayne with the pick-up truck, coming to plow!
As swift as a reindeer he came up the drive,
Clearing the way for UPS to arrive.
“Pack the Cabernet! Chardonnay! Chambourcin, do!
Bring Harmony, Fusion, and Dry Rosé too!
From this hamlet The Brogue, to the globe’s farthest places--
Let’s get them their wine! Let’s pack up these cases!!”
From The Brogue, and from Stewartstown, from Strasburg, too--
Those cases, those magical boxes—they flew
All around Pennsylvania: to Philly, to York,
And popping to thirty-eight states, like a cork.
To neighbors and far friends, through snow and sun:
Allegro wine arriving, to cheer everyone.
To good people waiting, from both near and far,
Our vintages followed their calls like a star.
Not a typical holiday, this one—we know,
Though there’s tinsel and jingles and cookies and snow.
Yes, the berries are red on the snow-covered holly,
But it’s not always easy to keep up the jolly.
But still—what still counts: being safe, being warm,
Counting the blessings, the lights in the storm.
Together in spirit, though perhaps far away,
Waiting together for those brighter days.
Breaking bread, raising toasts: the simplest pleasures
Worth just as much as all gold we could measure.
Among those bright blessings, we’re grateful for those
Who have worked with such grace: our Allegro pros.
Among those bright blessings, we’re grateful for you
Who keep sharing our wine. We will make it through.
With winks in their eyes and cheer in their hearts
The winery elves keep on doing their parts.
Shipments take time, but it’s Christmastime,
And this wine will get there; stars will align
And corks will start popping, and there’ll be no stopping
The parties from starting and cheering and hopping.
No matter the wild times, the wait, or the weather,
Let’s cherish the best things that bring us together.
From Allegro to you, in this strangest of years:
Cheers to your holidays, everyone! Cheers!
This past weekend marked the release of the first wine from our 2020 harvest: a traditional Beaujolais-style red Nouveau wine. Carl beat the worldwide release date (stemming from the Beaujolais region's long-held traditions) of the third Thursday in November, by quite a lot this time!
Carl and I agree that this year's Nouveau is our favorite, from all of the recent years that we've been producing it. (This is his 20th Allegro Nouveau.) This year's wine is the first one made from the grapes in our young Arandell vineyard, a block of vines within what we actually call "The Nouveau Vineyard" here in The Brogue. (Back in mid-August, this vineyard was featured in an article by Paul Vigna for PennLive.com.) These disease-resistant grapes have the perfect flavor characteristics for a bright Nouveau wine. A splash of Chancellor grapes from our Stewartstown vineyards complements the Arandell.
For Carl's early Nouveau vintages in the early 2000s, he took the grapes through a fermentation process called "carbonic maceration." This traditional Beaujolais technique involved fermenting the grapes whole, rather than after crushing them. The whole-berry fermentation leads to very fruity wines with few palpable tannins, since the juice hasn't been in contact with as much of the skins and stems as traditionally fermented juice. (It's also, he reports, an act of masochism in the cellar.) What ends up being most important is the light and celebratory flavor, reminiscent of cherries.
The best feature of Nouveau wines, apart from their heralding of the beginning of the release of a new vintage, is that they are so incredibly versatile when it comes to pairing with food. Hands down, Nouveau is my top recommended wine for pairing with holiday feasts. These feasts tend to contain so many different kinds of flavors--from meaty to herbal to spicy to sweet--that wine pairing can be quite challenging. Oaked wines tend to not pair well with sweeter or spicier dishes, but the unoaked Nouveau really shines on the table--and makes a wide variety of food shine, as well.
To celebrate the Nouveau release, we had an early-November feast (our second official Thanksgiving-ish meal of the season so far). This one included:
-Red Wine Vinegar Chicken (a traditional Beaujolais Nouveau companion)
-Squash Stuffing Bake: a yummy blend of veggies, torn bread, and herbs
-Charred Sweet Potatoes: This one Bon Appétit recipe alone would have been a challenge for pairing with any wine but fresh Nouveau. Its combination of sweetness, spice, citrus, and nuttiness provides a real flavor and texture explosion.
-Pear Tarte Tatin: fun to make, deliciously sophisticated in flavor
Allegro's Nouveau is available in limited quantities for select Wine Club members and visitors to our sales locations.
Cheers to the 2020 vintage!
Yesterday was our last day of grape-picking, but there are still quite a few days of the harvest season left to go, from the perspective of our crush pad and cellar crews.
These are busy times! We had a late and slow start to the grape harvest, which didn't start until September this year. Whereas harvest can last as long as ten weeks some years, this year everything is compacted into just seven. Right now, we're in the middle of that compressed "crunch time." Allegro staff who usually have weekends off are currently working six days a week, and they are...well, crushing it.
These, of course, are also strange times. Due to COVID-19, the work in the vineyard, winery, and crush pad is all socially distant this year. In the vineyard, that has meant pickers keeping their distance from each other, and more bins overall. On the crush pad, it has meant streamlining the processes so that no more than one person is on a particular task at a time. Whereas in the past there would have been several people at the sorting table, these days there is just one.
The compressed harvest has also presented logistical challenges, such as the juggling gyrations around tank usage. Sometimes a tank which has been emptied so that its contents can head to the press, gets refilled with other inhabitants just two hours later.
All of the hard work leads to a promising 2020 vintage. Carl's going to work on an estate-grown sparkling Chardonnay this year--we haven't made our own sparkling wine in years. There's also the potential for a Cadenza Vineyards Rosé from this vintage, and of course I am excited about that prospect.
Every part of this process--from the grapes to the bins to the tanks to the barrels to the bottles--provides us with an exercise in looking forward. Both of us have always appreciated that.
Cheers and thanks to our top-notch cellar and crush pad crews: Darcy, Amanda, Dwayne, Dave, and Chris!
"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!