Wine 101: What’s the Deal with Vintage?

“Vintage” means one thing when you’re talking about dresses from the forties or that cool thrift shop you’ve always meant to visit, but it means something entirely different when it comes to wine. I’ve always been vaguely aware of this, but unsure of how what exactly it means or, more importantly, how significant it is to making and choosing the perfect wine.

What makes a wine a vintage?

“Vintage” comes from the French “vin,” meaning simply wine. A wine’s vintage refers to the year its grapes were harvested. In France, the USA, and Canada, to be labeled as a vintage, a wine must be made from 95% of grapes harvested that year. Wines from other parts of the world sometimes have up to 15-25% of grapes from other years in their “vintages.”

Why does the vintage change the quality of the wine so much?

“Vintage variation” is the difference in taste between same wines from different years. Sometimes it is barely noticeable and others it can be very striking! This variation all depends on the way the weather influences the grapes during a given growing season.

A good vintage means the weather was well-balanced throughout the entire year. Not too much rain, not too cold or too hot, no unexpectedly harsh hailstorms… This type of balance allows the grapes to ripen evenly and slowly. Too much rain can cause the grapes to rot, while too much intense heat makes them overripe and increases the taste of alcohol in the wine. Lots of rain right around the harvest can leave grapes flavorless and watery. Even the smallest imbalance of weather, be it “too much” or “too little” of any factor, changes the wine.

Interestingly, a bad year for reds could be a good year for whites. A “cooler vintage,” meaning a year growing season with colder temperatures and perhaps more precipitation, can be a death wish for full, spicy red wines but create whites that are pleasantly crisp and acidic.

a quick look at vintages in the last ten years from www.winefolly.com

A quick look at vintages in the last ten years, from www.winefolly.com

Likewise, as this “overly simplified” vintage chart from Wine Folly illustrates, a bad year in France could be a good year in Washington, since weather varies so much between regions.

Does the vintage always matter?

To some extent, yes—wine is an agricultural, not an industrial product, and thus the climate and weather will always influence the way grapes turn out.

However, very decent wines can be made from not-so-decent vintage years, which is often where the skill and craftsmanship of winemakers comes in.

Wines that aren’t from the best vintage years often benefit from aging and can turn out great if they are cellared and stored for a few more years!

Further, some regions have less volatile climates than others. California, for example, is one of the biggest producers of wine in the world, but the weather is so dependably, consistently good that the vintages do not change much from year to year. For California wines, the vintage is not always important.

On the other hand, the famous Bordeaux and Burgundy regions in France are places where the vintage matters very much—and their good vintages are so well known that wine merchants often find it difficult to sell Bordeaux wine from an “off” year, even if it is quite good!

Here in the Pacific Northwest, vintage also matters. While the weather is a little easier to count on in the Walla Walla Valley than in the western part of the state, Washington in a place with lots of variation in our weather. Sometimes it snows in the winter and sometimes it doesn’t, and spring doesn’t have an arrival date—it pretty much comes whenever it feels like it!

While it is definitely not the only factor that makes a wine “good,” vintage is a great thing to know about when tasting or buying wine in Walla Walla!

The Tale of Our Rosé

Spring Release 2014 will be an exciting event at Walla Faces for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the release of our very first rosé! We recently sat down and spoke to winemakers Rick Johnson and Victor de la Luz about the creation of this one-of-a-kind wine.

Choosing the Grapes

Our grapes glowing in the summer sun

Rick and Victor worked hard to find the perfect grapes for our first rosé.

Our rosé is a blend of three grapes: Counoise, Syrah, and Mourvedre. As Rick explained, the rosé was first modeled after the classic ‘GSM’ blend from the Rhône region of France, which uses Grenache instead of Counoise. But when it came time to buy grapes, all the vineyards he approached were out of Grenache! Instead, Rick and Victor sampled Counoise grapes, and fell in love, deciding to use them in place of Grenache. “In fact, next year, we’re contracting in advance for all of their Counoise!” he laughed.

Counoise (pronounced “coon-wahz”) is a rare grape in the United States. Typically grown in Provence, France, the Counoise grape was only recently brought to the U.S. from France—in 1990, California’s Tablas Creek Vineyard brought cuttings of the vine from Château de Beaucastel. Those Counoise vines had to stay in quarantine for three years before they could be used to produce new American Counoise grapes! Even after the first Counoise vines cleared quarantine, it wasn’t until 2000 that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms approved the new wine. Thankfully, by the time we were ready to make our rosé, all that hassle was behind us, and Counoise grapes were readily available in the United States.

This unique combination of grapes means our rosé has a one-of-a-kind flavor. The Counoise grape lends the wine a unique, spicy quality, but the Mourvèdre grapes temper that and create a smooth, velvety texture. Finally, the Syrah increases the wine’s savory notes and balances the wine’s flavor profile. And of course, the wine’s gorgeous grapefruit color absolutely sparkles inside a wine glass. It’s definitely not a wine to miss!

Making the Wine

Rick was more than happy to share with us the process of making the rosé.

Once the grapes were picked, their juice was extracted by using a free run process; we allowed the weight of the piled-up grapes to determine what juice came out. This juice went straight to the fermenters, where it had to be “pumped over,” or circulated, two times a day! Victor sure got tired doing pump-overs again and again.

Victor de la Luz pumping wine

Victor got exhausted pumping the wine over and over and over again!

After the free-run, the remainder of the grapes were crushed for a red wine. Meanwhile, the rosé-in-progress was fermenting away, and once it reached a sugar content of 1.25%, the fermentation was stopped.

The next step was stabilization, which helps give the wine its clarity. At this step, wines are often cold-stabilized—supercooled via expensive equipment. Rick and Victor, however, had a flash of inspiration, and dragged the tanks of rosé out into the frigid Walla Walla winter! “It was so cold,” Rick said, “that Mother Nature did the job for us.” Mother Nature was so eager to do her job, in fact, that they had to bring the wine back indoors before it froze!

From there, it was just a few more steps. The wine was heat-stabilized, filtered with Bentonite clay for three to four weeks, and then racked. Rick and Victor adjusted the sulfur, and then it was bottling time!

Clear glass bottles being filled with rosé

Bottling the rosé was an all-day process.

The Perfect Blend of Talent

Rick and Victor worked together on Walla Faces’ first rosé. “Rick’s much more about the science, and getting the right numbers, while I brought the experience,” Victor said. “It was always nice to have Rick behind me, pointing out the things I didn’t see.”

Both are pleased with the result. “We fell in love with Counoise because of its flavor and floral aromas,” Rick said. “The rosé highlights that.”

“I’m happy with it,” Victor said, taking a sip. “It has a dry, long finish, with a very good balance between the residual sugar and acidity.”

“It’s a sophisticated rosé,” he added. “I can’t wait to start working on next year’s.”

We’re excited to add this striking new wine to our lineup. Once it’s released in May, visit one of our Walla Walla tasting rooms or check out our online store to give it a try!  You’ll be glad you did!

The Season for Pink

Pink wine?  What?

This May, Walla Faces is adding a new wine to its lineup: the 2013 rosé.  This wine was co-produced by winemakers Rick Johnson and Victor de la Luz.  It is the color of a beautiful Charlotte Armstrong rose— bright, pink and fresh—and it absolutely sparkles inside a wine glass.  With fragrant notes of cinnamon and strawberry, this beautiful beverage will give you a whole new appreciation for pink!

We are certainly embracing pink ourselves here at the winery! In honor of the rosé, we have replanted the gardens, which are now blooming bright with fresh new flowers and roses celebrating our new favorite color.

What makes wine pink?

You’ve heard of red wine and white wine. But how did we make a rosé such a bright color of grapefruit pink? No, we didn’t just blend red and white wines together, as I might have guessed a year ago! The answer has to do with where a wine’s color come from. I once assumed that green grapes made white wine and red grapes made red wine. But this is only partially true. You do need red or black grapes for red wine.  But as it turns out, you can use dark-colored grapes for white wines too!

Well, how does that work?

The color of a wine is actually determined during the winemaking process. After grapes have been harvested, they’re crushed to release their juice.  Left in the juice are the grape skins and seeds, called pomace. For white wines, the pomace is quickly removed from the juice, but for darker wines, the pomace is allowed to soak in the juice.

To make a rosé, as you might have guessed, you take the middle road. Rather than immediately removing the pomace, and rather than letting it soak in the juice until it turns deep red, you allow the pomace to soak for a short amount of time—usually a day or less. The result is a wine that isn’t as pale as a white or as dark as a red, but somewhere between the two.

Why else are we excited about rosé?

Rosé isn’t from a specific grape or region; it’s just a genre of wine, like red or white. The biggest producers by volume are France, Spain (where it’s “rosado”), Italy (“rosato”), and the United States. Most rosé wines are blends of multiple grapes. Some of the most common grape varieties used in dry/European-style rosé are Grenache, Sangiovese, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Cinsault, and Pinot Noir. The grapes that make up our rosé blend are typical of the rosés of the Provence region in France, but we’ve selected entirely North American grapes for the wine.

A rosé can represent the best characteristics of both red and white wines. For instance, some cheeses go better with white wine, some with red; yet almost all pair well with dry rosé, which has the acidity of white wine and the fruit character of red. Our rosé, which is a blend of Couinoise, Mourvedre, and Syrah grapes, is at once spicy and velvety smooth, with both savory and fruity notes. We think it will make a scrumptious pairing with a spicy barbecue sauce, making it perfect for spring and summer parties.

We’re excited to add this striking new wine to our lineup. Once it’s released in May, visit one of our Walla Walla tasting rooms or check out our online store to give it a try!  You’ll be glad you did. Long live pink!

Want to learn more about the creation of our rosé? Read about the winemaking process here.

Winemaker Profile: Victor De La Luz

Drop by the Walla Faces winery during the week and you’re almost sure to see Walla Faces Assistant Winemaker Victor de la Luz hard at work. He’s the man responsible for the day-to-day operations at the winery and is equal parts cellar master, crisis manager, and barrel-top acrobat.

Victor de la Luz was born Pueblo Mexico, where he had no idea that he would end up in the wine industry. Indeed, he had a completely different talent. “I was a professional folk music dancer,” he laughs.

De la Luz immigrated to the United States in 2004 at age 24, where he went right into the restaurant industry, starting work at the Bonefish Grill. It was during this time that he met winemaker Matthew Loso, who let him work at Matthews Cellars in Woodinville, Washington. Victor was hired as the ‘cleaning guy’, tending to the barrels and tanks. However, his enthusiasm and hard work resulted in a quick promotion! A mere six months later he was already working with the wine, managing the pumps, taking part during “crush”, and driving the forklift. He worked at Matthews for four years.

Walla Faces Assistant Winemaker Victor De La Luz

Walla Faces Assistant Winemaker: Victor De La Luz

While working at Matthews, de la Luz met Hillary Sjolund, the winemaker at DiStefano Winery. Eager to expand his horizons, he took a part time job at DiStefano. Within one week, has passion and dedication was so clear that he was hired as a full-time employee. There, he worked in the winery’s chemistry lab. “I was allowed to do some practice in the lab and written analysis… I made so many mistakes!” he recalls.

In 2011, de la Luz made his first wine that was done all by himself: four gorgeous barrels of Petit Verdot Rosé. “I didn’t kill anybody, anyway,” he laughs. Despite his modesty, the wine showcased a natural talent for winemaking. Its combination of New World and Old World flavors, its minty notes, and its long, spicy finish showcased the best of Petit Verdot. The beautiful balance of sweetness and acidity showed that Victor had a gift.

Last year, in 2012, Walla Faces hired Victor as our new assistant winemaker. He has already contributed to the winery significantly, bringing a fresh perspective to our 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. Victor asserts, “I was following instructions before. Now, with [the 2007], I get to make the decisions.”

Why Concrete Eggs for Riesling?

The Walla Faces 2010 Riesling is “Concrete Egg Vinted”. The futuristic appearance may be snazzy, but the real benefit is its myriad of effects on the wine.

Like oak, concrete is porous. Thus, the wine is able to breathe, facilitating richness and complexity without leaving an oaky flavor behind. Like barrel aging, the porous nature of the concrete allows the wine to slowly aerate, providing layers and softness. Concrete-fermented wines also typically maintain a lot of fruitiness.

Additionally, the tank imparts a minerality that lingers on the palate. Because Walla Faces used both concrete and stainless steel for our 2010 Riesling, it took on the characteristics of both stainless steel- and concrete-vinted wines. Like stainless steel-vinted wines, this vintage has a crisp, refreshing effect, without sacrificing its rich complexity.

The Walla Faces Concrete Egg Fermenter, produced by Marc Nomblot.

The Walla Faces Concrete Egg Fermenter, nestled in some barrels!

Concrete has been used in winemaking since the early 19th century, when some wines were fermented in huge, rectangular concrete vats. Although the material is a classic, the egg shape is an innovation! The first concrete egg fermenter was commissioned in 2001 by Maison M. Chapoutier, a winery in the Rhone region of France. French manufacturer Nomblot, who has been producing concrete tanks since they opened in 1922.

Nomblot’s tanks are produced using washed sand from the French river Loire, gravel, non-chlorinated spring water and cement. They are treated with tartaric acid before use. Because the tanks are unlined, they are able to provide an effervescent mineral flavor to the wines they contain.

The egg shape provides in important function: it facilitates circulation. Because there is a one degree temperature difference between the top and the bottom of the egg, the wine slowly circulates through the tank. Since there are no corners, the wine won’t get stuck in every nook and cranny. The result? The wine stays more uniform throughout the fermentation process. As a result, the finished product will be more structured. No one wants a flabby Riesling!

Because the wine is slowly moving through the tank, it also has more contact with the lees, the dead yeast. As the lees break down, they release many compounds such as amino acids, polysaccharides and fatty acids. This so-called “lees aging” helps create additional complexity, as well as an appealing mouthfeel and aroma.

Given the benefits of the concrete egg fermenters, why are they still so rare in the United States? Concrete egg fermenters are a lot of work! For starters, winemakers must take special precautions to prevent the acidic wine from corroding the concrete tank. The length of fermentation is also longer in concrete, as opposed to stainless steel. Finally, with Nomblot as the exclusive maker of concrete egg fermenters, it can be difficult to access them. We had to import the tank from France. As Walla Faces co-owner Debbie put it, “[It] cost a fortune to get it here.”

The concrete egg may add some additional work, but the best things in life are worth working for! The best wines in life? Doubly so.

Winemaker Profile: Chris Camarda

Joining as consulting winemaker, Chris Camarda may be the newest member of the Walla Faces team, but he’s hardly an industry novice. Camarda opened Andrew Will Winery in 1989. “I’d worked in the restaurant industry a long time,” he says. “I always ordered the wine!” Andew Will was named for his nephew, Andrew, and his son, Will. Will is currently working at Andrew Will Winery, making it a family affair.

Camarda was mentored by Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon Winery, and Alex Golitzin of Quilceda Creek Vintners, all of whom were founding figures in the Washington wine scene. Camarda recalls, “At first, I was copying them. They looked at my wines and gave me some critiques.” He quickly learned, however, to integrate their lessons into a style that was all his own. “They were three very different people and I got different ideas from each of them.”

Chris Camarda

Chris Camarda

His first vintage, sixteen barrels of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, was an instant success. “People liked the wine and that was a big help! Making wine is one thing but selling it is another.” His first cases were snatched up by Seattle Wine Shops, allowing Camarda a foot in the door of the wine industry.

From 2000-2003, Camarda put his methodological mind to work, testing vineyards to find the perfect grape source. “The weather and the vineyard are everything”, he asserts. Camarda looks critically at vineyards for detail work and other signs of a quality grape source. “It’s not like a vineyard, it’s like a garden,” he says. His work on these vineyards transformed his winemaking. He moved from making single-varietal wines to single-vineyard blends. By highlighting the unique attributes of the vineyard itself, Camarda was able to capture the essence of the location.

Andrew Will is still a small operation, making 5,000 cases a year that are quickly snatched up by wine lovers.

Although his vineyard-focused approach was revolutionary, Camarda has a classical eye for winemaking. “I have a lot of respect for tradition,” he says. “I think that although Washington was not a part of that tradition ninety years ago; now we are.” Using his unique blend of traditional methods and off-the-wall ideas, Camarda is able to create something truly unique. “There is a tendency for people to want to make their wines the same and I want mine to be different”, he says. “People just copy what wine critics have liked. In the end, it all ends up being the same. You have one wine and it’s all 100-point wine… It’s the depth, focus, layers, and complexity that makes the great wines, and that’s what I focus on.”

Given Camarda’s dedication to offering unconventional, high-quality wines, it’s no wonder that Into Wine named him as the 33rd most influential winemaker. The 2013 vintage will be his first wines for Walla Faces.

The Story of the Noble Rot

Pourriture noble (in English: ‘the Noble Rot’) is a parasitic infection of a grey fungus called Botrytis cinerea. Botrytis affects over 80 different types of plants in the Pacific Northwest, including strawberries, tomatoes, and bulb plants. On most plants, botrytis will rot the stems, fruit, and crowns. The plant tissue will begin to collapse in on itself.

Even in wine grapes, botrytis can pose a major hazard. In extremely damp conditions, botrytis will fester, leading to unusable grapes that have been destroyed by ‘the Gray Rot’. Botrytis qualifies as ‘the Noble Rot’ when wet conditions bring botrytis spores, but subsequent dryness leads to a partial raisining process. As the mold enters the skin of the grapes, its spores begin to germinate. The water inside the grape evaporates, leading to a concentrated sugar content.

The Noble Rot is important for several distinctive dessert wines, including ice wine. For the Walla Faces 2008 Riesling Ice Wine, the cultivation of botrytis added to the sweetness of the finished product. The use of botrytis also increased depth and complexity, especially for Riesling varietals. The deep golden color of the Walla Faces Ice Wine epitomizes the complex beauty of a botrytized wine.

Botrytis, the Noble Rot, growing on Riesling grapes.

Botrytis growing on Riesling grapes.

It’s not exactly clear when botrytis was first used in winemaking. Historical documents show that botrytis showed up in Hungarian literature as early as 1576. By 1730, botrytis was so integral to Hungarian winemaking that vineyards were rates based on the proclivities for cultivating the fungus.

The Germans, however, have a special legend about its origin. They say that the Noble Rot was discovered independently in Germany in 1775. According to the myth, the Riesling farmers were required to wait for their estate owner’s go-ahead in order to harvest. When the messenger delivering the order to harvest was robbed en-route, the farmers were forced to watch the grapes slowly begin to rot. Assuming the grapes to be worthless, the vineyard owner, Heinrich von Bibra, gave the grapes to the German peasants, who used it to make the first late-harvest Riesling.

Now, the use of botrytis is hardly an accident, with many winemaker intentionally infecting their vineyards in order to achieve the complexity and sweetness that proper use of botrytis ensures. (In the Pacific Northwest, however, botrytis is usually introduced naturally.)

How Did the Walla Walla Incubators Come to Be?

The Walla Walla Incubators are the home of some of the most innovative boutique wineries in the Walla Walla Valley. Stop by and you can both taste wines and meet winery owners and winemakers in their domain. I sat down with Jennifer Skoglund, the Airport Manager at the Walla Walla Regional Airport, to talk about the history of the Incubator project. Jennifer has been a part of the project since they built the original three buildings.

The idea came in the mid-2000s, when the Walla Walla Community College was just getting started. Students were graduating from the program, and there was increasing demand for new wineries to accommodate the influx of bright, aspiring winemakers.

Walla Walla Incubators at the airport.

Walla Walla Incubators at the airport

The money for the Incubator Project was appropriated within the State Capital by representative Bill Grant. Grant sadly passed away in 2009 after serving 22 years in the state House of Representatives. He represented the 16th legislative district, which Walla Walla County, Columbia County, southern Benton County and Pasco.

In 2006, with a simple line in the capital budget, the state set aside $1 million to build the original three Incubators. In 2008, the state appropriated another$500,000 for the second two buildings. In addition, the Port of Walla Walla put in an additional $400,000 for the project. The investment of the State and the Port allows the blossoming winery tenants the flexibility to focus their funds on the best equipment available.

The six year limit for the lease was built into the original project. To choose the six year maximum, the Port worked with Dr. Myles Anderson, founder of Walla Walla Vintners and the Interim Director of the Walla Walla Community College Viticulture Program, who initially helped launch the program in 2000. They also worked with Norm McKibben, managing partner in Seven Hills Vineyard, Les Collines Vineyard, Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars. Anderson and McKibben helped design the size and the layout of the incubators. The incubators were built with the expectation that each winery would be making about 2,000 cases a year; This was based on Anderson and McKibben’s calculations that this production was the threshold for a startup to be successful. They also determined the length of “incubation”, determining that six years was enough time to “become profitable enough to move out into their own project”, Jennifer recalls.

The Incubators offer an escalated rental term. As the six years progress, the property becomes increasingly expensive to lease. Jennifer says that this ensures that wineries “do not become stagnant and feel that they can stay here too long”.

The initial three wineries were Adamant Cellars, Lodmell Cellars, and Trio Vintners. Trio was comprised of the Walla Walla Community College Viticulture Program grads. CAVU Cellars and Kontos Cellars moved in next. Trio’s old building is now occupied by Corvus Cellars, and Lodmell’s old building is the site of the Walla Faces winery!

The incubator project continues to support new, blossoming wineries. “I think it’s been very successful,” Jennifer asserted. “It gives people an avenue to start their dreams.”

Chris Camarda Joins Walla Faces

Walla Faces is proud to welcome Chris Camarda as our new consulting winemaker. His passion, methodological nature, and uniqueness are the perfect pairing for Walla Faces wines. With the opening of our new winery and the introduction of Camarda, Walla Faces is evolving into a new, more sophisticated vintage.

Camarda is a seasoned winemaker who built his prestige on both single-varietal wines and blends that allowed the vineyard to truly shine through. By processing grapes from different locations identically, he was able to distinguish the unique characteristics of Washington vineyards. As a result, he the perfect person to showcase the rich Cabernet and Syrah grapes at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard. As owner of Andrew Will cellars, he has also established his ability to create beautifully balanced Bordeaux-style blends that are absolute stand-outs.

Walla Faces Owner Rick Johnson, Winemaker Chris Camarda, and Assistant Winemaker Victor De La Luz

Walla Faces Owner Rick Johnson, Consultant Winemaker Chris Camarda, and Assistant Winemaker Victor De La Luz

In addition to Camarda, we are happy to announce that Victor De La Luz will be serving as our full-time Assistant Winemaker. Victor has been an essential part of our transition to the new winery, and has cared for our gorgeous barrels like a loving parent. His diligence, flair for winemaking, and contagious smile create the perfect storm out at the winery.

These new faces are the next step in developing a distinct identity in our wine. We are already known for our smooth Fusion red, approachable Syrah, luscious Cabernets, and unconventional Rieslings. This will give us even more opportunities for innovation and refinement. The 2013 wines are sure to be our most exciting vintage yet!

What’s In A Color?

When doing a wine tasting, the first characteristic that we examine is the color of the wine. Although mere appearances can only tell you so much about a wine’s flavor, these visual cues can hold important and interesting information.

Here are some things to look for on three of our favorite reds: the 2008 Fusion, the 2008 Syrah, and the 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Can you spot the differences between these three gorgeous wines?