Wild Ferments: Believing That A Wine Can Be So Much More

Artesa Pic 1It is not always necessary to meet the winemaker and/or owner of a winery to get a sense of what they are trying to do with their wines. But it does allow the opportunity to learn something about that person that one could never have the chance to learn by only reading up on them and tasting their wines. At a lunch almost a month ago, I learned something right off the bat when I met Ana Diogo-Draper, Director of Winemaking at Artesa Winery in Napa Valley – she has passion. You can see it in her eyes, hear it in her voice, and feel the energy that pulsates from her very being. Before I learned anything about her or her philosophy, I knew this to be true of her.

Passion

It is obvious when someone is driven by passion. For some, the need to fulfill one’s passion is so great it’s worth the risk of personal humiliation. Maybe that is, in part, what makes a person an artist. Artists take great personal risks because there is something greater then themselves driving them.

I admit that I enjoy watching America’s Got Talent (AGT). It is a guilty pleasure of mine. I love all the crazy acts and the various talents people want to show. But what I am waiting for – as I think all of us are waiting for – is that one person who has so much passion he or she is able to light up the stage and take us out of our own lives and transport us to another world, a better world.

A couple of nights ago, that is just what 12 year old Grace VanderWaal did. She sang a song that she wrote, only her on the stage with a little guitar, and she wowed everyone in the audience. Yes, she was talented, yes, she had a nice voice, yes, she was charming with such sweet humility, but most importantly, she was passionate. Passionate about being really seen and heard for the first time – as she said, most of her friends didn’t even know she sang – and this was a chance for her to finally share with the outside world who she is.

Artesa Pic 2Ana DiogoDraper

Originally from Lisbon, Portugal, Ana Diogo-Draper found herself in California in 2005 with a winery internship at Rutherford Hill Winery. She was pleasantly surprised how open California was at that time to potential female winemakers and she was able to find female mentors to give her advice. A few years ago, she found her way to Artesa, a boutique winery founded by the Spanish winemaking family Codorníu Raventós, in the Carneros area of Napa Valley, and she was promoted to Director of Winemaking in 2015.

Experimentation

One may say that Diogo-Draper has already achieved the ultimate success by becoming the Director of Winemaking at Artesa, but she still is striving to make better, more interesting wines. Whether it is skin contact Chardonnay, Pinot Noir fermenting in 500 liter Puncheon barrels or using an igloo in the middle of their Barrel Room, she is always pushing the envelope. But the experiment that got my attention was wild ferments – mainly because her eyes lit up when she talked about it. I could see this was something that truly excited her – this is what she was most passionate about, right here and now.

“Terroir to me is a wild ferment.” –Ana DiogoDraper

It is not the first time that I have heard a winemaker talk about wild ferments; and it is not the first time that I have heard a winemaker relating wild ferments to terroir. But it is interesting that a winery that has been using cultivated (inoculated) yeasts for around 30 years has decided, after all that time, to start experimenting with wild yeasts for some of their wines. Since Artesa is already successful, with one of the largest wine clubs in Napa (around 6500 people), one would wonder why they would try to alter an already working formula.

Diogo-Draper said that part of Artesa’s success is that they are constantly experimenting with different varieties and wines to such a point that they can have anywhere from 28 different wines offered at one time. Even though we will only see a couple of their wines out on the market, they do offer many of these wines for direct sale at their winery.

Despite the fact that they are currently making interesting wines from Tempranillo and Albariño grape varieties, paying tribute to their Spanish heritage, Diogo-Draper thought it was time that they started experimenting more with how they make their wines. She also wanted their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to show more of a sense of place.

Cultivated (Inoculated) Yeasts vs Wild (Indigenous) Yeasts

Here’s a quick, and I mean quick, overview of yeasts and why this is such a hot topic for some wine lovers. The yeasts that naturally live in the vineyards and in the winery are called wild (indigenous); the ones a producer can buy from a lab are called cultivated (inoculated). Now it would make sense that the ones living around the producer are the ones that are going to show the most sense of place – “terroir”. Right? That may not always be the case.

When a producer buys cultured yeasts, they know what they are getting – how well they will perform (important when wanting to avoid stuck ferments), and what esters will be created by the yeasts in relationship to the variety (which determine smell/flavor characteristics). Some yeasts (wild, not cultured) can create disgusting aromas that can be associated with manure; others can create more pleasing savory aromas associated with meaty notes. Bacon anyone? Yes please!

So a wine’s terroir could be overshadowed by these “faults” created by the wild yeasts – but maybe one could argue that those “faults” are part of the terroir. Well, we could go back and forth all day; there were people at that lunch who brought up this topic and Diogo-Draper nodded her head knowingly because, obviously, someone who has been working at modern wineries since 2005 already knows all the potential problems.

When Passion Drives You

She explained that when you have a winery that has been using cultured yeasts for a long time some of those cultured yeasts become part of the environment, just like how Diogo-Draper herself has become part of the Napa Valley wine industry. She did not grow up there but it doesn’t mean she is not just as important a part as someone who did.

So now the “indigenous” yeasts are probably a combination of long existing cultivated and wild. They are planning to have UC Davis come in to take samples to see exactly which yeasts are living in their winery but even though she is interested in the results, it seems she already sees the proof in the pudding.

Artesa Pic 3Her tasting trials with her team not only proved that the Pinot Noir significantly benefited from the wild yeast ferments, but the Chardonnay, which she had initial doubts about, became so much more wonderfully aromatic that she said she it completely convinced her to use indigenous yeasts with that variety as well. Her eyes lit up with excitement and joy as she talked about smelling and tasting these wild yeast ferment trials for the first time. She had never tasted such complexity and vibrancy in these wines and she knew that wild ferments were the only way to express their true potential.

I could not stop thinking about the passion in Ana Diogo-Draper’s eyes and voice when she talked about wild ferments. Hearing her speak about her personal experience with wild ferments, as well as tasting the wines, made me question my own belief about only using cultured yeasts as a means to make high quality wine. In some cases it does pay to take the risk.

And then I think back to that little 12 year old girl, Grace VanderWaal, on America’s Got Talent and the risk that she took. She was extremely fearful and overwhelmed but she had to take the chance of truly being heard, truly being known for the first time. She started out by singing, “I don’t know my name” and finished with “I now know my name”.

It was like tasting the Artesa wines. The 2014 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines were very nice, some having a small portion of the wine going through wild ferment, but the 2015 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir 100% wild ferment barrel samples, which were only components to a future wine, were singing. And singing with pristine, beautiful notes like that young lady did on that stage.

Many wild ferments can go wrong, but what happens if it is the one thing that will unlock the great potential of a wine, and without trying, a winemaker would never know. It is better to have failed a hundred times, never giving up trying to know who we are and what we have to offer, so we may finally know our name – like the revelation that young Grace was able to sing to the world.

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Wines Tasted at Winemaker Lunch with Ana DiogoDraper on May 19th, 2016

-2015 Artesa Carneros Albariño:

This wine had lovely aromatics and high acidity with peach and lime notes.

95% tank and 5% barrel. No MLF. Cold temperature ferment.

-2014 Artesa Estate Reserve Carneros, Napa Valley Chardonnay:

Good flesh on the body of this wine balanced with fresh acidity. Honeysuckle and juicy white nectarine makes this wine simply delicious.

A blend of different sites and clones. All barrel fermented in 100% French oak with 50% being new oak. She believes in component winemaking for these wines. She picks different vineyard blocks separately and she will use different winemaking techniques on various blocks depending on each fruit expression.

-2014 Artesa Single Vineyard Carneros, Napa Valley Chardonnay:

A very elegant wine with linear shape; incredibly floral nose of orange blossoms with an intense minerality note at the finish.

They harvest this vineyard at four different times, and fermented them differently. Some were wild ferments, some were pressed in basket press. She felt the plots within this single vineyard were very different from each other. And only three of the plots made it into this final blend.

-2014 Artesa Estate Reserve Carneros, Napa Valley Pinot Noir, Block92:

A spicy wine with cinnamon and cardamom aromatics and a touch of tarragon that has lots of black cherry on the palate. Body is soft yet texturally interesting.

25% wild ferment. In 2015, 100% of their Estate Reserve and their Single Vineyard Block 91D will be wild ferment and in 2016 all of their Single Vineyards and Estate Reserves will be 100% wild ferment. Another interesting point with the Pinot Noir is that she is fermenting some of the wine in 500 liter Puncheon barrels for 4 days. She seasons the oak first so it adds a textural element instead of flavor. She does not do all her Pinot Noir in Puncheon, some are fermented in stainless steel, because she thinks it is better done to some of the wines that will be components and not to all the wines that are going into the same blend.

-2014 Artesa Single Vineyard Carneros, Napa Valley Pinot Noir, Block 91D:

Much more terroir driven with an intense stony quality and tantalizing scent of wild strawberries. Silky tannins and overall vibrancy to this wine makes it addictively drinkable.

25% wild ferment as well.

-2012 Artesa Single Vineyard Rutherford, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli-Borges Vineyard:                                                                                            

This wine had lots of dusty earth and sweet blueberry and blackberry jam to balance it out. Plenty of structure to give it shape and drive. Even though it had a great, lush generosity about it, the layers of complexity and slight firmness in the tannins played with me and kept me guessing.

10% wild ferment. 86% Cabernet Sauvignon & 14% Petit Verdot. 100% new French oak. This is one of their two single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon wines they produce. They make several, small lot wines exclusively for their club members and one member favorite is the Morisoli-Borges Cabernet Sauvignon. Mike Morisoli, third generation grape grower, farms his vineyard in the heart of Rutherford. He picks the grapes with his team and delivers them himself. Ana Diogo-Draper always takes him out for lunch the day he delivers the grapes to thank him. He is an engineer by trade yet he has this little vineyard that he crafts with his heart. Also, they get a little bit of Petit Verdot from him that they sometimes blend into this wine and sometimes they don’t – it depends on the quality of the Petit Verdot.

Also, they brought two barrel samples, one Chardonnay and one Pinot Noir, that would each be used as a component for other wines. I will not issue a tasting note since they were only components, and unfiltered barrel samples to boot, yet I wanted to speak briefly about the quality of the components since they were 100% wild ferment.

The 2015 Block 92 Chardonnay component and Block 91D Pinot Noir component samples were not only complex and interesting, they were also clean – I would never guess that they were 100% wild ferment. Also, the skin maceration for the Chardonnay seems like a real success. The wines were delicious with their intoxicating aromatics – hope I get a chance to try the finish product.

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  • Misty

    Great post! I love the passion people have for all aspects of wine, including yeast! Cheers:)

  • very cool. Have to love the yeast. Without them, all of us winelovers would be in trouble!

  • @Misty Me too. I always know it is going to be a great experience when I’m sitting at a table with a passionate person.

  • @Lori-Michael Budd: Very true!