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September 2015

News Highlights

 Harvest Update: a dry winter, an early spring, difficult pollination, but soon we begin harvesting!
 Visiting Montemaggiore: 7x24 confirmed appointments, and three types of experiences.
 Seasonal Recipe: fresh chestnut pasta is worth the extra effort.
 Vendemmia: October 24th marks our harvest party for Wine Club Members.
 Wine Aromas, Syrah, and Rotundone: an in-depth look at Syrah’s signature “pepper” aroma.

Sicilians say "Walk with your slippers until you find your shoes", whereas Americans would say "Do your best with what you have”. Here at Montemaggiore, we’re adopting that same philosophical view regarding this year’s grapes, which are presenting some challenges. Of course, as Sonoma County grapegrowers we have little cause for complaint because our weather is fairly moderate and predictable, rarely raining (and certainly not hailing) during the growing season. But this year has had its difficulties.

Harvest Update: a challenging year

Harvest is right around the corner at Montemaggiore. We expect to pick our first grapes from our Hilltop Syrah block in the next few weeks, but let's reflect on the vintage thus far. As noted in our prior newsletter, the drought caused our grapevines to emerge from winter dormancy sooner, but then a very cold spring slowed things down. The critical pollination stage was excruciatingly slow, extended, and even interrupted this year. Ultimately this caused unwanted variability in the maturity and ripeness of the clusters. Thus during verasion in July and August, when the grapes turn from green to red, we dropped even more underripe clusters than usual during green thinning. We want all the grapes within a particular block to be roughly the same level of ripeness at harvest, thus this year required an extra sacrifice of quantity, all in the name of high quality.

Northern California vineyards experienced one of the slowest pollinations on record in 2015. This vital flowering and fruit-set stage occurs when fertilized flowers begin to develop seeds and grape berries, ultimately dictating the quantity and quality of the crop. We’ve seen two problems due to pollination this year:

Coulure: the grapes don’t develop after flowering, thus reducing the overall crop. Also called “shatter,” coulure occurs when the flowers stay closed and are not pollinated, thus fail to develop and eventually fall off. Coulure can affect entire bunches, or just a few berries on the bunch. Some amount of coulure occurs in most vineyards every year, but the occurrence this year was exceptionally high.

Millerandage: the same grape bunch contains berries of vastly different size, hence maturity. Also called “hen and chicks” or “peas and pumpkins”, millerandge occurs when partially fertilized grapes do not develop any seeds, leaving small, seedless berries in a cluster of larger, normal berries (or the entire cluster can be composed of these small berries). Since the different types of berries mature at different rates, this causes headaches for the winemaker!

Neither of these issues means a death knell for the 2015 vintage, but it has caused more work in the vineyard and will mean lower yields overall. Thus far, other vineyards in our area are experiencing ~20% lower yields. We expect only a minor effect on quality, although only time will tell.

New Options for visiting Montemaggiore

Harvest is a fabulous time to visit Wine Country with lots to see and smell in the winery!  We encourage you to visit us, and now offer confirmed appointments on-line. Even if you are doing your planning late at night, you don’t have to wait until morning to call us or receive an email response. We also introduced three different visit options, so we can tailor the visit to your particular interests.

As you probably know, Montemaggiore is not open to the public, but we do offer tours and sales by appointment. Our website is integrated with VinoVisit, providing you with confirmed appointments 7x24. To make an appointment online, go to Contact  > Visit Us on our website.  If you are planning to visit several Sonoma County wineries, you might find the Vino Visit website to be more convenient. Of course, you can always contact us directly, especially when you have special requests, prefer times not offered, or have questions. 

On your first visit to Montemaggiore, you are most likely interested in the big picture: our vineyard & winemaking philosophy, our personal history with wine, and of course tasting the full range of our wines. For subsequent visits, you might prefer a more in-depth view. Thus we now offer three different options for visits:

Seasonal Recipe: Chestnut Pasta

Chestnut trees are found everywhere in northern Italy. In more difficult times, Italians used to stretch their white four by adding some chestnut flour. Today Italians make chestnut pasta often during the fall and winter, serving it simply with parmesan and pine nuts to highlight its delicate flavors, or with a hearty ragù as a main course.

In our cooking classes, everyone loves getting their hands “white” to make Chestnut Pasta. The addition of chestnut flour gives this pasta a wonderful nutty flavor while maintaining its smooth texture. We encourage you to make this, since you are unlikely to find chestnut pasta in your grocery store. Your extra effort to make fresh pasta will be handsomely rewarded! (Psst: try it with Wild Boar Ragù)

Vendemmia on Saturday, October 24

Harvest seems like a roller coaster to this winemaker and winegrower: the highs of seeing our beautiful grapes go into wine, and the lows of much physical labor and fretful sleep. At the end of harvest, we breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to sharing a lively afternoon with Wine Club members. In recent years we feasted a whole roasted pig or barbequed tri-tip, but this year’s harvest celebration will featuring the always-spectacular paella! 

Members will be receiving their official Vendemmia invitation in the next few weeks along with the details of the Fall Wine Club selection. If you want to get a head start, you can reserve your Vendemmia tickets now (remember you will want to log in to the website using your email address as your username). We hope you can make it!

Wine Aromas, Syrah, and Rotundone

“Pepper”, “leathery”, “hints of cocoa”... do you find wine descriptors to be helpful? Or just intimidating and mystifying? Wine aromas are wonderfully complex, which is the main reason most of us enjoy wine. At the same time they are frustratingly complex—aromas can appear and then disappear, and you may not smell the same aromas as someone else... ever! We’d like to explore that magical, mystical world of wine aromas by focusing in on the “pepper” aroma commonly found in Syrah, the varietal we specialize in here at Montemaggiore.

Aromas are complex, especially wine aromas

Part of the reason wine aromas are complex is that different varietals have different aromas (cabernet smells much different from pinot noir)—but even the same varietal can have different aromas depending on the climate in which it's grown (syrah from a warm region of Australia smells different than syrah from the cool northern Rhône). Perhaps most intriguingly, the aromas in a single wine change, over years spent in the bottle and even over several minutes in your glass. All this makes it difficult to pin down aromas.

Another part of the complexity stems from the fact that humans are not very good at detecting and describing aromas. Humans can easily identify and describe most things we see with our eyes: “pink”, “round”, “fuzzy”, “3 inches in diameter”—a good visual description of a peach, but how would you describe what a peach smells or tastes like? Hmmm... much more difficult! Humans brains are just not wired for smell, probably because our lives rarely depend on the smell of something. Bears’ brains are one third the size of ours, yet the part specializing in smell is five times larger—they can smell food over 2 miles away. The good news is that with practice, you can get better at identifying and describing aromas—assuming you want to!

Did you know that all humans don’t necessarily even smell the same things? Each of us have different thresholds for detecting individual aromas, and some people are very sensitive to certain scents. On the other hand, some people don’t smell certain individual aromas at all! Wine can exhibit more than 700 different aromatic compounds—all with different concentrations. Most aromas don't originate from a single aromatic compound, but instead come from different combinations. So what one person smells and tastes in a wine could be completely different than what you do.

The defining aromas of Syrah

Many varietals have distinctive sets of aromas, which provides an interesting recognition exercise to wine tasters. Typical Syrah aromas include pepper, spice, blackberry, blueberry, cocoa, cured meat, bacon fat. Contrast this with typical Cabernet Sauvignon aromas of black cherry, tobacco, and bell pepper. Despite the commonalities, aromas of Syrah from a cool climate will lean toward the spice, pepper, cured meats while those from a warm climate will lean toward the blackberry, blueberry, cocoa. In an older Syrah, the aromas will tend less towards the fruit and more towards the spice. And what can happen to a Syrah that sits in your glass for 15 minutes? Lots of wonderful things!

Perhaps the single most defining aroma for Syrah is “pepper”, and by this we mean black and white peppercorns (not sweet, bell or hot pepper). [FYI: white pepper is the inner seed of black pepper.] Many critics describe high quality Syrahs as having peppery aromas, especially those from cool climates. This aroma doesn’t come from the winemaker steeping the wine in peppercorns, rather from the grapes themselves. The chemical compound responsible for the pepper aroma is called Rotundone, which was isolated in grapes and wine only recently, in 2008.

Rotundone is found not just in wine, but in the grapes themselves

Rotundone (ro tun DUN) is a particular type of chemical compound called a sesquiterpene. Syrah is the varietal richest in sesquiterpenes, which tend to have woody, spicy characteristics (their cousins, monoterpenes tend to have floral, herbal characteristics). Not surprisingly, Rotundone is the key aroma compound of peppercorns, and also found in marjoram, oregano, rosemary, basil, thyme, and geranium. In the world of grapes, rotundone imparts a peppery and spicy aroma not only in Syrah, but also in Mourvèdre, Durif and the white Gruner Veltliner.

Rotundone originates from the grapes themselves, and in fact is one of the few aromatic compounds that can be found directly both in the grapes and in the resulting wine. Given their focus on Syrah (or Shiraz), its not surprising that Australians have been leading the charge on rotundone research. They have found that rotundone accumulates mostly on the skin of the grape, beginning at verasion (when the grapes turn from green to red) and continuing through even advanced stages of fruit maturity.

Rotundone levels are generally increased in cooler vineyard sites and during cooler vintages, thus both the vineyard terroir and the farmer’s viticultural practices affect its concentrations. Since Rotundone is found more in hillside grapes than in flat areas, Montemaggiore’s vineyards are prime candidates for “peppery” Syrahs—which has definitely been our experience. Given that 2015 is an earlier year and verasion happened earlier, the temperatures between verasion and harvest will be higher. Thus we would predict that 2015 would be a vintage of less rotundone in northern California syrahs.

You may also be interested to learn that:

Like many aroma and flavor compounds, some people aren’t able to detect rotundone at all. In one study, 20% of the subjects could not detect any rotundone even at very high concentrations. This proves that two people can completely disagree on what a wine smells like—and both be right! So certainly don’t worry if your impression of a wine differs greatly from a particular wine critic’s—although you might question the validity of wine descriptors in general. And as for those wine snobs who dissect a wine and spout off a litany of obscure adjectives, perhaps now you can quiet them by asking if they detect any Rotundone!

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Final Note: As always, we welcome your visit to our mountainside estate vineyards and winery in Sonoma County. Simply confirm an appointment on-line or give us a call (707.433.9499). If you have wine-loving friends who might be interested in learning about Montemaggiore, enjoy a glass of Montemaggiore wine with them or send them to our website!

We hope your fall months are as fulfilling and exciting as ours! But remember: when you encounter challenges, you can only do your best with what you have.