Making a Statement with Nine Barrels
As the harvest continues and pristine grape clusters arrive on the crushpad, our winemaker is keeping a watchful eye out for the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay fruit to create an ultimate expression of the 2014 Russian River vintage. Think you’ve tried La Crema? Wait until you take a sip of our Nine Barrel Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
For La Crema’s winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, the winery’s Nine Barrel bottlings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir represent “the best wines, from the best vineyards, in the most artistic way we can reflect the vintage.”
They are, in other words, true reserve-style wines: made in ultra-small production (about 200 cases each year), and selected by Grant-Douglas and her team from dozens of individual lots, each blind-tasted over months before the final selection is made.
It was in 1999—two years before Grant-Douglas came to La Crema—that the decision was made to take the winery’s Pinots and Chards “to the next level.” At that time, the Russian River Valley was home to La Crema’s best wines (the winery now also accesses fruit from the Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, Carneros, Willamette Valley and Monterey), and Russian River Valley remains the appellation for Nine Barrel today” says Grant-Douglas.
But it’s not always sourced from the same vineyards. “The blend changes from year to year,” Grant-Douglas points out. “It’s not about the wines being the exact same every year. The idea of Nine Barrel is to be more reflective of the vintage.”
For example, she notes that a vintage like 2007 had “perfectly even ripening, mature, rich flavors, an opulent year” that the winemaking team captured in opulent wines.
On the other hand, there was 2011, “a late-ripening, cool year” that had more acidity and was consequently more elegant than the lush ‘07s.
“Our winemaking style with Nine Barrel doesn’t change,” Grant-Douglas says. “It’s more about what the vintage gives us. It’s a very precise instrument; it always tells the story of the vintage.”
Grant-Douglas and her team will taste through at least 40 separate lots of Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—some 80 in all–in order to determine the final Nine Barrel blends. These tastings—blind, to eliminate bias–begin almost as soon as the wines have finished fermentation, in late October. The team will keep re-tasting through the winter and spring, to winnow out “the potential superstars,” in Grant-Douglas’s words, that will comprise the new vintage’s Nine Barrel wines.
Of course, those first eight months or so in barrel are a challenging time to taste young wines. “Pinot Noir in particular doesn’t age in a linear manner,” Grant-Douglas says. “It goes through periods, and sometimes (the wine) isn’t talking to you.”
Both the Pinots and the Chardonnays are undergoing the malolactic fermentation; they’re changing from day to day, slowly breathing, and in many cases they’re mute—closed and hard to appreciate, as young wines can be.
“You have to wait for them to come back,” which is why the selection process can carry over almost until summer. Grant-Douglas describes the team’s technique: “We’ll comment on aromas, flavors, textures, and intensity, concentration,” while pointing out this important fact: “It isn’t always about the wine as a complete Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. It’s about what it brings to the final Nine Barrel blend.”
By late May or June, each of the tasters will be acquainted enough with the lots to assemble his or her own potential Nine Barrel blend of both varieties. These, they bring to the table, for an additional round of reviewing. People don’t necessarily agree with each other, at first, says Grant-Douglas, “but we keep going until we find something we all love.”
When agreement is achieved across the board, the wines are blended, then put back into one-year old barrels just before the following harvest for an additional 5 month of aging. The wines are bottled the following January and released the following year.
“People marvel at how long we take on these Nine Barrel wines,” Grant-Douglas says,” but it’s a statement wine for us. And so it’s important to get it right.”