My assessment of any winemaker’s talent is always enhanced tenfold when I discover that she or he can create a beautiful white wine. Creating a luscious, nuanced white is a thin cord balancing act built on both science and art. The natural delicacy of a white wine quickly reveals flaws that cannot be camouflaged by time in oak, enhanced by oak sugars or softened with age. Guiding a white wine to maturity requires a refined approach, constant vigilance to retain the delicate flavors, the fruit and floral nose that are the hallmark of a great white wine. And when the flavors are layered and complex, with each sip revealing yet another hue, then I am in white wine heaven.
I have the great fortune to work primarily with viognier, also known as the winemaker’s grape for its elusive qualities. A great viognier should reveal layers of stone fruit including apricot, white and yellow peach, perhaps lychee nut and honey, heightened by a hint of lemon. The characteristic viognier nose is floral, perhaps honeysuckle or white flowers. My favorite wine writer, Karen MacNeil describes viognier as “chardonnay’s ravishing exotic sister.” Ahhhhh, so true. But viognier grapes, allowed to ripen on the vine too long can produce a wine that is oily, with high alcohol and insufficient acid to balance the rich flavors. Harvest too early and the resulting wine shows more citrus and acid, resembling a crisp sauvignon blanc from California’s Monterey County. A delicious flavor perhaps, but not viognier. That precise harvest moment seems to arrive and depart very quickly, and missing that perfect balance of flavors and acid can leave the winemaker with less than ideal fruit and dreaming about the next vintage, another chance for the dream wine.
Frankly, I work harder and spend more capital on our whites. I think about them more, I worry about them more, I love them more. I ferment our whites in huge French oak puncheons in a cold environment and then age the wine on the “lees” that is, on the spent yeast cells. While the wine is aging in barrel, I stir the lees three times a week to enhance the body and mouthfeel of the wine, hoping to again capture that creamy mid palate that has become a hallmark of Shadow Run whites.
Our family has put precious capital toward my addiction, equipping the winery with state of the art equipment for producing white wines. If you have spent time in our barrel room, you may have noticed the pattern of pipes that run across the ceiling and down to our stainless steel tanks. Those pipes are filled with glycol (think anti-freeze) that flows into the “jackets” on our tanks and allows me to achieve below freezing temperatures to cold stabilize our white wines. Our stainless steel bladder press (The Beast) is an engineering marvel which envelopes the grapes in an enclosed cylinder, allowing us to gently press whole grape clusters while protecting the delicate juice from oxygen which in the early stages can destroy aromas and flavors. Nail biting in the winery isn’t related to chemistry equations, but to programming The Beast to achieve exactly the pressure and rotations that will achieve the ideal results.
White wines are my passion. And the search for the best, from me and from other winemakers never ends. And each year I have the chance to try yet again to create that wine that will satisfy my ambitions of perfection. Happily I will never make the perfect white, so I am driven to try again and again.