To some degree, Merlot has been a victim of its own success. Naturally fruitier than Cab and quicker to ripen, Merlot has the added consumer advantage of being easy to pronounce. For these reasons, it became the "California Chablis" of red wines, if you will, in the 80's. The more popular it became, the more growers and winemakers began to produce it. Some were brand new to the varietal and some were from regions too warm to produce a complex Merlot. Many blended their Merlot with as much as 25 percent of non-Bordeaux varietals. As it became generally more generic, those of us who enjoy making a truly varietal Merlot had a harder time representing it.
Templeton and west Paso Robles are among the best locations in California for growing a Merlot with plum, fig and mocha characters, and the true richness inherent in the grape.
To maximize the varietal character, our winemaking tends toward closed-top primary fermentations and long post-fermentation maceration (contact with the grape skins) to get as much extraction as possible and to soften the tannins through their polymerization. Texture and flavor are of equal importance. We use Mazi injectors to infuse oxygen into the fermentation tanks and create a healthy environment for the yeast to do their job. That produces more fruity esters and plays down herbaciousness. Under-ripe and over-cropped Merlot can lean toward aromas of green beans and asparagus; we tend to pick Merlot at elevated maturities, and manage our fermentations to profile fruit and play down vegetative character. We accomplish this through long pre-fermentation cold soaks, juice aeration, and destalage rack-and-returns to remove jack stems and immature seeds.
At Kenneth Volk Vineyards, more isn't necessarily better in terms of extraction and tannins in Cab. We stay true to our fruit, which wants to taste like a Cabernet Sauvignon from the westernmost region of Paso Robles: dark fruit elements, ripe and polished. This isn't a Rutherford Cab. It is equally distinctive, but not the same.
As with our other wines, our approach to Cabernet Sauvignon focuses on its elegance. Our goal is to make a wine with excellent fruit tones and structure that is as tasty and enjoyable the first day it's released as it will be later on.
Ken is a huge fan of traditional vertical basket presses and did not use anything else until 1988 at his former winery. In 2004, Ken wanted to return to the use of a basket press for his red wine production; he likes the low solids and minimal shear that basket presses can create.
After reviewing the available lines of basket presses from around the world, Ken chose to go with the HYPAC press of Australia. He chose HYPAC because of the company's vast knowledge of hydraulic components and controls, for their being one of the world leaders in maritime hydraulic equipment, and for their track record in basket press fabrication in Australia. Hypac was the only supplier at the time who was willing to produce a unit in which all contact points to the must were stainless steel: an all stainless steel platum, press cage, and juice tray to make sanitation easier in comparison to traditionally difficult-to-clean wood slates and press blocking.
Hypac engineers also developed a microcomputer processor with sensors which allow for a fully automatic operation of the press during the press cycle. This revolutionary technology was the second in the world and the first in America. Ken was somewhat skeptical of press automation, having worked basket presses for years.
Ken was amazed at how the sensors set the optimum pressure to apply for efficient pressing without gushing through the whole press cycle, in comparison to his results operating the unit in manual mode; he feels strongly about the advantages of his Hypac basket press over other basket presses and bladder presses, and notes that it allows minimal handling of fermented pomace for pressing. After draining of juice must, one and one-half ton fermentors can be dumped directly into the press with a forklift or larger fermentors can be shoveled directly into the mobile press cage and pan. No must pumping, no press tumbling, and self-filtration of solids in the press cage make for exceptionally high quality press wine that is many times superior to free run juice.