Sonoma and Napa Counties are known for its fine wines. The golden sun and the abundant soil yield luscious, flavorful grapes. These are then carefully fermented and blended with closely guarded secrets that have been passed on from generation to generation, and perfected—like wine itself—through time.
Visitors to Sonoma and nearby Napa County can arrange wine tours where they can visit different vineyards and learn at least some of the techniques and technology that goes into each bottle. Each label has its own secret, and its own philosophy.
For example, wines can use different kinds of grapes, and vineyards can hold as many as 20 different kinds, each baptized with very poetic names: Petite Syrah, Grenache, Bouschet.
Winemakers study the flavor, acidity, color, fruit intensity, and tannin structure of each grape—which all contribute to a blend’s appearance, complexity and taste. The winemaker’s skill is seen in the delicate orchestra of flavors, as unique to the winery and to the harvest year as a fingerprint.
Some wineries will maintain “genetic libraries” of grapes, which contain different cross-breeding of varieties that allow the experts to experiment with the flavors. This also allows them to employ a technique called micro-vinification. Essentially, the property is divided into vineyard blocks, each planted with a different kind of grape to yield a greater diversity of flavors, aromas, colors and textures.
Soil, fertilization, irrigation and time of planting and harvest can also yield different flavors from a single variety of grape. For example, some vineyards believe that it’s better to minimize irrigation, since it dilutes the intensity of the fruit. This is called “dry farming.” This must be balanced, of course, with the plant’s need for moisture—hence the need to choose an area where the roots can mine the water efficiently.
The flavor can also change according to when the grapes are picked, and the wine experts carefully study the optimum time of harvest. For example, the Zinfandel grape is an early ripener, and must be fermented two weeks before the other grapes that go into what wine aficionados call “Mixed Blacks.”
The grapes must be hand-picked and then put through a special pressing process that preserves the skins and phenolic bitterness. Then, experts must gauge the length of the fermentation process based on the grape’s ripeness and inherent amount of sugar. These are then put into barrels. Many wineries boast of using only the finest containers, such as 100% French oak, which carry the wines for several months before they are bottled by hand.
The bottling itself must be done with great precision and gentleness, and the challenge is to minimize the amount of sulfites and other foreign matter. Some of the wineries use century old techniques, with delicate tools that tap gravity.
These are just some of the secrets of Sonoma and Napa wines. However, to truly understand the science and art of winemaking, it’s best to arrange a tour of the different vineyards. Many of the tours include a “palate class” where experts will point out what flavors to watch out for in each glass, and how to pair a wine with different kinds of food.
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