What happens when winemakers leave it to chance.
So much about winemaking is unpredictable. It starts in the vineyard; there could be rain (or not), bugs, birds, Botrytis. The unpredictability follows the grapes into the winery, where fermentation does not always go well. The temperature has to be just right. Too cold and the conversion of sugar to alcohol will stop. Same with too hot. Sometimes it just gets stuck, and you end up with no wine, or a lot less wine than planned.
It’s for this reason that commercial yeast was developed. In the old days, grape juice just used to ferment seemingly by itself. What caused it was the ambient yeast present in every winery, floating around looking for some sugar to land on and eat up. Winemakers can now choose different strains of yeast that virtually guarantee successful fermentation and purportedly affect the taste of the finished wine.
But there’s always that urge to go back to the basics, to introduce an element of chance and produce something a little wild.
Like the 2007 Onabay Wild Ferment Chardonnay, which was made without the addition of yeast.
“By definition, you can go off in a direction you don’t like,” says Onabay’s winemaker Bruce Schneider. “That’s why people won’t touch it.”
In 2008, Schneider didn’t like the direction; no wild ferment chardonnay was made that year.
The wine is one of two chardonnays made from fruit from the Southold vineyard owned by the Anderson family. The 20-year-old vineyard, bought by Brad Anderson and his wife, Francesca, in 2006, has been going through renovation supervised by Schneider and vineyard manager Bill Ackerman of North Fork Viticultural Services.
Schneider is already well known in the Long Island wine world for his cabernet franc, produced under his own label from fruit from his own vineyard, which he has since sold.
For the Andersons, he advised ripping out four acres of vines, all of which produced red grapes. His experience showed there are certain clones of grapes that perform better in the maritime climate of the North Fork, and it was worth it to start over.
The result has provided Schneider with a diversity of grapes and vines of varying ages that will enable him to make the kind of wine he believes the North Fork is capable of. Wines that are balanced, have expansive ripe fruit and a texture that covers the palate and lasts long after the wine is swallowed. He also wants to make wine that admits to the vagaries of vintage. Grapes will not ripen the same way each year, and the diversity is all part of what he calls “handcrafted wine.”
“We want the vintage to show through,” he says.
For the 2007, it was almost easy. The growing season that year was nearly ideal for chardonnay. It was an evenly warm, long summer that resulted in ripe grapes with very few of the problems that a wet fall can cause.
For the Wild Ferment, Schneider used only fruit from one of the two clones of chardonnay planted on the property, the Dijon 96, which produces small clusters and less fruit than the Kolmar clones also grown. The juice was then fermented in two- to threeyear-old French oak barrels. Next it underwent malolactic fermentation, which converts the malic (think apple) acid in wine into lactic acid (think milk). Together the wood and the malo add to the wine’s complexity, not only in flavor, but also in a manner Schneider finds most important, texture.
“It’s crisp up front and creamy on finish,” he says. “If it’s too creamy, it loses tension with the acid.”
His goal is to make the texture consistent from start to finish, to make the wine feel good in the mouth without jarring changes as the different elements of the wine show up on the palate. That’s the balance winemakers talk about.
All of these decisions have produced a wine that tastes like Fuji apples with still some pear flavors. There are mineral elements, an earthiness that could (or not) be attributable to the ambient yeast and toffee flavors from the oak. It’s wine for winter and stews and sit-down dinners. It’s nowhere near the super oaky California chardonnays of old, and it’s inching toward the renowned chardonnays of Burgundy.
But such comparisons are not what Schneider is looking for. He wants to produce Long Island chardonnay amid what he says are wines that are improving every year.
“We’re at a point where the differences among the wines out here are getting smaller,” he says, “and the average quality is getting higher. Now it’s the most minute things that make a difference.”