At Larkmead Vineyards we have a Tasting Room. But as our venerable, resident raconteur and Winery General Manager likes to say, we don't normally give tours to visitors because we don't have antique cars or a fancy art collection, we have wine that we believe speaks for itself. That being said, there are occasional groups of tasters that get a short tour through our cellar. I am welcoming of these visitors and when wine work is at a minimum, I'll direct the tour myself. I find this a great opportunity to interact, answer questions and add insight to the tasting experience. The visitors range in wine knowledge and appreciation, but I have found some consistent themes to their questions, even reading the questions on their face if they are too embarrassed to ask them. Since our portfolio of wines contains two Bordeaux style blends, the question of blending – the how and why – seems to almost always emerge. So, I thought it would be a great opportunity to dish our secrets to the wine drinking public who don't have the chance to taste at our winery in Napa Valley.
First and Foremost, the Vineyard.
Currently we have ten grape varieties planted on our vineyard estate. The five “noble Bordeaux” varietals: Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. And Sauvignon Blanc. As well as Zinfandel, Syrah, Viognier and Tocai.
Our vineyard is Cabernet dominated with 60% of the 113 acres planted. We produce wine from less than 50% of all the grapes we grow, selling the remainder to other wineries, the largest buyer being Duckhorn. Since our brand has been growing in popularity, we intend over the next couple of years to evaluate the opportunities that demand will afford us - consuming more of the vineyard's fruit for our own winemaking. However, at our current production levels (<10,000 cases annually) we are comfortable with the quality of our wines and will only hope to increase our production if we can maintain a high level of quality.
Our total case production is distributed amongst five dominant offerings and two small scale bottlings. The top five include a white wine, Sauvignon Blanc, and four reds. The red wines are split between two blended wines and two (wholly) Cabernet based wines. One blend, Firebelle, has Merlot at its core, while the other, Salon, Cabernet. Each year the focus remains the same with the blends, but the composition will change based on the quality of the fruit (i.e. different grape types) during the vintage year. Thus the question I am often asked: how do we decide on what goes in each bottle and why? A big part of the answer is in the previous sentence.
Harvest and Vinification Techniques.
Here's some insight. Our vineyard is designated to 40 parcels, one as small as half an acre and one as large as six and a half acres. Our vineyard has three distinct soil types - sand, clay and loam (a mixture of sand and clay). And in each of our parcels we employ different rootstocks as well as different clonal selections, different pruning and trellising. For Cabernet alone we have planted eight clones throughout the vineyard on three different rootstocks and employ two pruning and trellising methods. Last year during harvest, we (the Larkmead winery) completed 22 pick days and fermented 30 individual wines (seven of those wines were co-fermentations that including Cabernet-Cabernet, Cabernet-Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc-Petit Verdot). The free run from the fermentation is drained to barrel and the press wine (light and heavy) from the must is managed separately. Throughout primary alcoholic fermentation and post-Maloactive fermentation (in barrel) we taste the wines regularly. The goal of the tasting is to, for lack of a better word or phrase, rank the wines. Thankfully there is a winemaker, my boss, who has a ten-year history with the estate which affords him preconceived ideas as to where the wines will end up in our portfolio, but each year we see movement in the blends and Cabernet based wines. The reason for the movement in large part is based on the taste of the wine, and in a lesser degree the wine's chemistry.
When we are tasting the wines we are looking for three major components: the purity of the fruit (aromatics, mid-palate and finish), the texture (tannins and acidity) and the complexity (depth, nuance, et al). The chemistry of the wine (pH, acidity, residual sugar, alcohol, etc.) will play a role in balancing the wine for taste and stabilization. But the role of taste plays the most integral part in the final blend.
We are fortunate to have such a diverse vineyard site that allows us to make complex wines. On a macro level, our 40 parcels are broken down to three regions that are divided by a road (Larkmead Lane) and a river (Napa River). The block west of the Napa River, totally planted to Cabernet, produces very aromatic, bright fruit wines; while the block east of the River tends to produce wines with more depth, concentration and structure that provide a brooding character. For example, our Estate Cabernet which is the bulk of our production (almost 50%) will have in upwards of 10 to 12 of our fermented Cabernet wines blended into it, with the wines (almost) divided between the two distinct regions of the vineyard. We don't plan it this way before harvest; the decision is made with blending trials post-fermentation. For our Bordeaux Blends, knowing one is Merlot based we start there, from 2003 to 2007, the Merlot percentage has been as low as 48% and as high as 62%. Cabernet complements our Merlot and as mentioned above, based on the quality of the fruit during the vintage year, you will see a mix of other varietals – Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. 2003 and 2007 blends include Merlot, Cabernet and Malbec, while in 2005 and 2006 Cabernet Franc plays a significant supporting role to the Merlot and Cabernet. Again, we are fortunate to have these options to guide our winemaking decisions.
Behind harvesting, blending trials can be the most exciting winemaking activity. While the wine (producing) world of California proliferates single vineyard, single varietal/clonal wines, many of which I truly enjoy drinking, I have also stared down my nose at far too many one-dimensional wines that lack that excitement factor you wish for in every glass. I'd be curious to what wines you enjoy drinking – blends, single vineyard, single varietal. And how much do you know about these wines? If there is a wine that is a staple in your wine drinking diet, I hope you take a few minutes to check out the tasting and technical notes (on the winery's website) and dig a little deeper into the glass, it might surprise you.Dan Petroski is Assistant Winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards in Napa Valley. Dan has an MBA from New York University and worked as an Ad Exec in New York for several years, before switching it up and trading his suit for a move out west