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New Innovations in White Wine Production

From oxidation trials to lees-stirring motors—Wine Business IQ panelists discussed recent and ongoing experiments

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Cara Morrison speaking at Wine Business IQ. Photo by Bob McClenahan. Photo courtesy of Wine Business Monthly.

Innovative processes and technologies in making white wine were discussed on the final day of Wine Business Monthly’s Innovation and Quality, or IQ, forum. The fifth annual event, held on May 22 and 23 at Silverado Resort in Napa, California, informed wine industry professionals about the innovations that are advancing wine quality; this panel on innovations especially looked to inspire attendees to get creative and try something new.

The panel featured white wine specialists Cara Morrison, the Chardonnay winemaker at Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards in Sonoma, California; Kristen Barnhisel, the winemaker for white wines at J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines in Paso Robles and San Jose, California; Cheryl Francis, the founder of and consulting winemaker for A to Z Wineworks in Dundee, Oregon; Donald Wirz, the winemaker for Alba Coast Winery, part of Delicato Family Wines, in Paicines, California; and Gina Hennen, the winemaker at Adelsheim Vineyard in Newburg, Oregon.

From oxidation trials to lees-stirring motors, speakers discussed recent and ongoing experiments they’ve performed at their respective wineries—and in some cases presented samples for tasting—with the overarching goal of encouraging the audience to brainstorm their own trial ideas for the upcoming vintage.

A Call for Experimentation

Morrison, who moderated the discussion, opened with a strong message to the audience: “No, you’re not special,” she said, explaining that all wineries are tight on staff and resources but that such conditions are not an excuse for shying away from experimentation. “You’ve just got to make it work and fit the experiments in when you can.”

To successfully plan experiments, the panel recommended varying just one element of production at a time and repeating the test over multiple vintages. “Replicate what you’re doing, not only with that vintage but with other vintages and other lots,” said Hennen. “If you see the same trend over time, then that’s something you can use as a reliable piece of data.”

Wine Business IQ
Cara Morrison of Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards speaking about white wine innovations. Photo by Bob McClenahan. Photo courtesy of Wine Business Monthly.

Both women said that the biggest challenge, yet the most critical part of experimentation, is to follow through and summarize the results in writing so that new processes can actually be implemented in the future. Francis—who uses a long list of phenolic analyses to collect data on tannins, color, sulfur, and more throughout all stages of winemaking at A to Z—echoed that sentiment. “Why get the numbers,” she asked, “if we’re not going to do anything about it?”

Is Brown Better?

Oxidation was a common theme of the panelists’ winery trials, as many have experimented with oxygen additions to determine how oxygen improves or diminishes wine color and quality. Oxygen is often added through a method called browning, in which the juice is intentionally exposed to oxygen before fermentation—this temporarily turns the color brown, though the finished wine is still white.

Six years into oxidation experiments with white wines at J. Lohr, Barnhisel presented findings from three trials that tested the impact of oxidation on Chardonnay and Riesling. While she noted that this process is varietally dependent—some grapes, like Riesling, benefit more from oxygen than others—she found in her trials of both Chardonnay and Riesling that oxygen resulted in wines with better flavor and color, with fresher, cleaner profiles.

Hennen has been running a similar experiment, comparing oxidized Chardonnay—her standard protocol—with a more reductive Chardonnay, to which she added sulfur and dry ice to the juice tray and gassed the lines in the tank. She liked the resulting crispness in the experimental wine and has since adjusted her winemaking practices to be more reductive.

Creating Opportunity from Dilemma

Wirz said he turned to an innovative technology out of necessity. With a small staff at a big winery, he was short on labor. “We needed to do a lot of processes,” he said, “and unfortunately [were not able to] rely on the same number of people we’ve had in the past.” In 2018, Wirz purchased a cutting-edge fermentation and aging setup called Scalya from Vivelys, a French research and development company specializing in precision enology and viticulture. The system enables him to change fermentations on the fly and allows him to monitor fermentations in real time, thanks to tools like carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors, used in place of Brix measurements, and lees-stirring motors, called batonneurs, installed in the bottom of the tanks. The batonneurs stir the lees quickly and less violently than traditional methods. Said Wirz, “I can stir lees in my sleep.”

Wine Business IQ
Panelists from Wine Business IQ panel. From left to right: Cara Morrison, Gina Hennen, Cheryl Francis, Kristen Barnhisel, and Donald Wirz. Photo by Bob McClenahan. Photo courtesy of Wine Business Monthly.

But Wirz wasn’t just after efficiency and control. He also wanted this tool to help him manipulate style, so he ran several experiments to test it. One trial compared Chardonnay made with standard lees stirring, using a hose, with Chardonnay stirred by the batonneur. The results: The batonneur-stirred Chardonnay was preferred—24 to 4—in a sensory analysis by the Delicato research and development department. The analysis also noted that the batonneur-stirred Chardonnay had a more viscous mouthfeel than the thin, watery one of the standard version.

Hennen turned a problem into an experiment when she ran out of fermentation space in 2016. While she typically ferments Chardonnay in the winery’s warm caves, she was forced to use space in its cooler warehouse that year. The situation inspired her to run a trial, comparing lots fermented in these different temperature environments. The warmer environment yielded a greater perception of ripeness, while the cooler setting led to crisper, more acid-driven wines.

“The result is more about characterizing the difference rather than what you do or don’t like,” said Hennen. “It’s important to understand what the effect of our decisions is so you can best utilize [these experiments].” Undertaking winemaking trials empowers the winemaker to make more nuanced decisions for each vintage of white wine.

Jess Lander is a writer based in Napa Valley, California, who covers wine, beer, food, and travel. Her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, the San Francisco Chronicle, AFAR, and other publications.

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