The last decade has seen huge changes for Pinot Noir. Prominent critics have favored highly extracted red wines with bold fruit - leading to a "cabernetization" of all red varietals that promoted bigger and blacker as better.
At the same time, newer Dijon clones of Pinot Noir have been selected for their ability to reach maturity in cooler climates. These create riper wines with more color extraction than the old standard clones, like Martini and Pommard, leading to the increased availability of big Pinots.
These factors, combined with the "Sideways" effect, have boosted consumer interest in Pinot, which is great. However, consumers are not being availed of as many wines made in the lovely, delicate, less-extracted style of Pinot Noir that many of us enjoy making and drinking.
In this environment of homogenization of wine styles, the divisions between the varietals and growing areas are blurred. Winemakers face a choice, doing whatever is necessary to create a Pinot in the style consumers and critics have come to expect or making a terrific wine that highlights the natural characteristics of the grapes from the given terroir.
We choose the latter, emphasizing the most attractive elements in each wine that are naturally present because of vintage and vineyard variations.
We showcase the variability of the growing season and the winery's response to it, rather than trying for continuity from vintage to vintage. Recent vintages present a good example. 2004 was a small vintage with big, bold wines that can stand up to a bit of oak. 2005 was a bountiful vintage, and the wines aren't as bold. So we used less aggressive coopering in 2005 to accentuate but not obscure the more delicate fruit.
In Pinot Noir more than any other variety the style of the wine is dictated by the vineyard. Our Sierra Madre Pinot Noir, from Pommard Clone 4 is floral and delicate, whereas our Garey Vineyard Pinot Noir is more extracted and tannic with bold, dark red fruit. Same vintage, different vineyards.
As a grape that produces high yields of acceptable wine in a variety of locations, Chardonnay has enjoyed wide popularity - as well as some consumer burnout. This is a shame. The understated elegance and richness of Chardonnay can, when done well, be quite exquisite.
At Kenneth Volk Vineyards, we especially enjoy producing and drinking Chardonnay from cool climate vineyards, like Santa Maria Valley. We're not alone. The valley consistently ranks as one of the top AVAs (link) for Chardonnay in California. The combination of an extremely long growing season, cool climate, and infertile soils produces flavorful Chardonnays with high acidity and low pH, making them lovely food wines.
The many biological dynamics that all occur simultaneously during the process of barrel-fermenting Chardonnay are mind-boggling. Lees contact, which occurs after the yeast is spent, and remains in the barrel, is extremely important in reducing oxidation, creating mouthfeel and marrying the wine and oak with maximum finesse. A special tool we use to encourage and retain lees suspension is the OXO barrel racking system. This results are uniquely fresh Chardonnays with high-toned fruit and a creamy texture that traditional battonage lees stirring cannot achieve.
We're also big believers in minimal handling. In short, we don't touch the grapes any more than we have to in order to get the good stuff out of them. We splash air into the juice before fermentation. We gently whole-cluster press the grapes, then they cold settle for 48-72 hours to let gravity drop out much of the solids early in the game. The juice is then fed into barrels in our OXO racking system. All together, that produces a wine with superior flavors.