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From Noble Rot to Liquid Gold – the key to Dolce’s sweetness begins in the vineyard. Our late-harvest wine comes from a delicate blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown in Coombsville and Oak Knoll. Inspired by the French Sauternes-style, the Dolce vineyard is gently tended to grow healthy and ripe fruit that will hang longer into the season, with hopes of growing Botrytis. The beneficial mold desiccates the clusters, concentrating sugars and flavors to produce our very special dessert wine.
Our Semillon grapes are grown in Coombsville, at the base of the Vaca Mountains. The crescent-shaped embrace of these mountains protects the vines from wind, allowing the morning mist to linger into midday – a necessity to any vineyard attempting to develop Noble Rot. Large canopies are also grown to cover the fruiting zone, trapping humidity and creating the right conditions for Noble Rot to prosper. To grow these unique grapes for Dolce wine, healthy vines and healthy soils will not suffice; the vineyard requires meticulous care and the cool touch of Mother Nature to take mere grapes and turn them into delightful nectar.
We’ve finally begun bottling the 2010 Dolce! After nearly two-and-a-half years of barrel aging (about 922 days, but who’s counting?) this vintage of Dolce is ready for the bottle.
It’s been a long journey, but it’s not over yet. This wine was harvested over several vineyard passes in the first two weeks of November – three years ago, that is. We pressed to all hours of the night, clarifying the juice after cold settling over several days in tank. After a little blending – to create unique batches of juice with a sugar concentration in the 34-35°Brix range – we sent fifteen batches of wine to barrel for fermentation. Primary fermentation lasted from three weeks (super-active yeasts) to six months (slow-fermenting yeasts).
Shortly after fermentation these batches were pale in color, almost straw-like, and had aromas of pineapple. After the first year of aging in 100% French oak, the pineapple aromas disappeared and were replaced with notes of apricot and orange rind. The subtle oxidation that occurs with oak aging allowed for this transformation of flavor, aroma and color – from pale to richly golden.
I’m not accustomed to making quick decisions with regard to Dolce winemaking: I tasted every batch, every month, and made dozens of trial blends to finally arrive at the right combination of lots for this vintage. I waited just before bottling to empty the barrels and created the blend from the best possible combination of the individual batches. It’s very subjective, but my primary goal is to the find the blend that coats the palate with a lively, oily texture that persists well into the finish … and I found it for this vintage!
After bottling, the wine will rest in a temperature controlled environment for two years before we release it for sale. By then it will be ready for consumption – but rest assured it could be aged for another twenty years to promote the development of its perfume and bottle bouquet, or rather, its unique personality amongst the vertical lineup of other great Dolce vintages. Cheers!
Excuse me, that’s a provocative title for a wine seminar! Earlier this month I had the pleasure of defending just that concept in the context of Dolce. Pebble Beach Food & Wine afforded the opportunity for me to share the 2001 Dolce from three bottle sizes, ranging from 375ml, 750ml up to the magnum (1.5L), with about 80 guests.
The wines were fabulous! The 2001 vintage is rich with apricot flavors and honeyed, silky texture. And the expression proved true: the smaller bottles showed more of a perfume of stone fruits yet the magnum retained an earthy and mineral quality that was notably stronger.
Why? If I can put on my propeller-hat and make a scientific observation, I would suggest that the effects of oxidation were less noticeable in the larger bottle because subtle aroma notes were reductive in nature. I venture it’s all driven by oxygen ingress at bottling or over the lifetime in the bottle thereafter. It’s with some certainty that I feel the greatest oxygen insult to wine occurs on the bottling line – not afterward, but that’s the subject of a book, not blog.
I have two hunches: (1) each bottle, no matter the size, receives the same exposure to oxygen during the bottling process. And, (2) given that the 375ml, 750ml and magnum bottles all have roughly the same geometry in the neck and with the cork, it’s reasonable to assume that the factors which influence oxygen ingress over time are about the same for all three bottle sizes. (Hunch #2 can be forgotten if there are significant temperature fluctuations during storage … but that’s another story, too.)
The concept we should all remember is that the 750ml has twice as much volume as the 375ml, and that for the magnum is four-fold greater than the 375ml. If the same amount of oxygen is introduced to the bottle early in its lifetime, then it’s simply the increasing volumes which dilute the effects of oxygen over time. Simply put, I would expect the 750ml to age twice as slowly as the 375ml, and the magnum four times as slowly. Of course, I assume that the storage conditions are ideal and the differences from cork to cork are small.
Enough. The wines were lovely, and I was pleased to see that the 2001 is still youthful in its fruit expression. I am confident that it will continue to age gracefully for years to come.
The Dolce display at Far Niente shows wines in a variety of bottle sizes (375ml – 3L) and in a variety of vintages. As Dolce ages, the color turns from honey to a rich amber.
On Wednesday the Dolce winery celebrated the arrival of two concrete fermenters! Even though they are egg-shaped I will resist the temptation to paint them in festive pastel colors. In fact, I think I’ve been told explicitly not to. So, I’ll have to express my creativity with the winemaking and refrain from going nuts with the decorating. After all, it’s the opportunity to make Dolce within these eggs that has me very excited!
In the pursuit of crafting as many small batches of late-harvest wine from whatever the vineyard provides in terms of yields, I look forward to making about six barrels-worth of wine with these eggs – approximately 5% of Dolce’s harvest.
You ask: Why concrete? Why eggs? Why are you telling me?
I reply: Concrete affords an opportunity to ferment and age a wine in a controlled environment that differs considerably from that of a stainless steel tank or an oak barrel. Rest assured, the steel and oak fermentations are fabulous and will forever be a part of Dolce winemaking. The concrete promises to deliver entirely unique fermentation conditions due to the material and insulating properties of concrete, the absence of oak-derived compounds, the size of the tank, and the micro-aerophilic qualities of concrete that lie somewhere between that of steel and oak. Okay, the latter may be a guess, but I’m looking forward to learning about it.
The egg shape is intentional and functional and not merely the whimsical form that you might think. The symmetry of the egg, or ovoid, fermentation volume allows for the self-mixing of the fluid given the thermal (heat rises) and gaseous (CO2 does too) products of yeast metabolism. As the yeast metabolism heats up and the gas rises, one expects significant convection currents leading to efficient self-mixing. Indeed. A tank (i.e., cylindrical) fermentation vessel doesn’t quite promote the rotational fluid flow fields that one expects from the egg – there will be dead spots and eddy currents near the corners of the tank. A barrel fermentation might get closer to promoting rotational flows than a tank, but the barrel heads pose a hindrance to the all-encompassing turnover of the fluid.
Why is this important? I’m not completely sure, honestly, but I can imagine that thorough mixing leads to the uniform distribution of nutrients, yeast, yeast by-products, lees, etc., and that this might promote healthier yeasts and therefore more delicious wines. I note that malnourished yeasts produce the aromas of low-tide … anything we can do to maintain happy yeasts is a boon for wine quality. A tank fermentation may sufficiently keep most of its yeast happy, whereas a well-mixed (and continuously mixed) fermentation stands a better chance of keeping all the yeast happy, and therefore promoting a more refined, satisfactory and, hopefully, yummy wine.
Then again, perhaps a small amount of grumpy yeast is important for producing what we call “complexity.” I can’t wait to find out!
6 2012on February
at 9:06 am
Greg Allen is more than Dolce Winemaker, he also manages our solar arrays. Here he shares his enthusiasm for a very successful project.
Larry's recent mention of our infinitesimal, unbelievably insignificant yet wholly remarkable energy bill from PG&E has got me all charged up! (big pun intended) We are celebrating our fifth year of farming electrons from both our grid-connected solar-electric arrays at Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel. Our novel, floating arrays have performed magnificently with little need for maintenance other than an annual scrubbing to remove pollen and dust. We have real-time monitoring of all aspects of our system: we can see how much is being generated, how much is being used by the winery, what’s going to or coming from the utility company to balance the continuity equation, and, importantly, we can keep track of our performance over time.
Representing three-quarters of a megawatt of generation potential when the sun is in just the right spot, these systems have satisfied our primary goal every year since we first flipped the switch: 100% of our electricity is provided for completely and sufficiently.
To put it that simply, however, is as potentially misleading as is a single numerical score assigned to a wine as if to collapse its myriad complexities and openly interpretable qualities into one convenient, if nonlinear, index. What? I mean to say: it will take more words than I’m allotted to explain the various charges on a utility bill and how net-metered renewable energy generation is accounted for, let alone the greater regulatory issues related to it. Suffice it to say, our energy bill is assessed on an annual basis and it represents the net sum of energy charges and energy credits.
It’s true that our solar photovoltaic systems offset 100% of our electricity charges on an annual basis, with the exception of a small fee for the privilege of having a meter (that’s what Larry was referring to). However, we generate only about 90% of the energy we need to run our business, meaning that we still need to import about 10% of our energy. So why didn’t we build a bigger system to satisfy our noble goal? Because size (the number of solar panels) of our system was limited by the California Public Utilities Commission to zero our charges, not our usage… and that is a subject of a another blog.
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