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Sleeping Beauties - The Vineyard in Winter

You might think that Chandon’s sparkling winemaker Tom Tiburzi could spend his winter days curled up with a book and a glass of Pinot Noir. But it turns out that the “off-season” for Napa Valley winemakers is anything but relaxing...

Tom Tiburzi - Domaine Chandon Winemaker

You might think that Chandon’s sparkling winemaker Tom Tiburzi could spend his winter days curled up with a book and a glass of Pinot Noir. But it turns out that the “off-season” for Napa Valley winemakers is anything but relaxing...

The rain is coming down in intermittent sheets as Tom parks his SUV along the muddy shoulder of a dirt road that borders some of Napa Valley’s finest real estate.

We pull on our boots, open our umbrellas and step out into a world of gray and green, with row upon row of geometrically trimmed vines stretching into the distance. Suddenly, a break in the clouds brings the California sun pouring down.

Tom Tiburzi laughs. “Welcome to Northern California!”

Long naps make for better grapes.

Tom Tiburzi describes the scene with the precision of a practiced tour guide. “These vines are dormant now, sleeping through the winter rain and cold. The canes that bore the fruit from last year’s harvest have been pruned away, leaving only these vine trunks and cordons.”

Tom points to the green cover crops growing in the vineyard rows. “These friendly vineyard plants help stabilize the soil while adding nutrients, which is better than using fertilizers. Also it gives a place for ‘good bugs’ to spend the winter. They’ll abandon the vines after the leaves fall away.”

On closer inspection, we notice that some of the vines have been trimmed all the way down to the main stalk (which Tom refers to as “the cordon.”).

“Where our vines have a very low risk of frost damage, like the vineyard we’re touring now, we trim the canes all the way down to the cordon,” Tom explains. “This helps to prepare the vines for new shoots to sprout up in the spring. However, in low-lying areas where the coldest air will sink and collect, there can be a risk of frost damage to the young shoots if they sprout too soon. There, we need to prevent the shoots from sprouting until the risk of frost has passed, usually until mid-April.”

Noticing the blank look on our face, Tom continues his explanation, and we try our best to follow.

The kindest cut produces killer wines.

“As daytime temperatures warm in the spring, pressure builds up in the vines, pushing the buds out to send up the tender shoots. By leaving several inches of cane still on the cordon, we can trim the end of the cane, allowing the sap to bleed out, lowering the sap pressure within the vine. This lowers the internal vine pressure and prevents the buds from being pushed out. A fresh cut allows a couple of weeks delay in the shoots coming out. After that, if the frost risk hasn’t passed, a bit more cane will be trimmed to offer another couple of weeks’ grace, preventing frost damage. The final cane pruning can take place after the last frost has passed.”

OK, we say, this is all good in theory. But what does it have to do with making great wine? Ever the patient tour guide, Tom obliges with an explanation.

“Depending on whether the grapes will be used for sparkling wine or still wine, the number of desired shoots and the resulting canopy is managed differently. For example, vines to produce sparkling wine will have a more shaded canopy as opposed to a more open and exposed fruit zone for still wine, especially Pinot Noir.”

Now we’re onto something. It turns out that some vines are used for Chandon bubbly, like the great etoile wines, and some for still wines, like Chandon’s popular Pinot Meunier. We ask Tom to clarify.

Clones are the key to varietal selection.

First, it depends on the individual Pinot Noir or Chardonnay clone. Some clones are preferred for making either sparkling or still wine and cannot be switched from one program to the other. However, if a clone can be used for either sparkling or still wine, then we’ll work with our still winemaker colleagues to decide which program will get which vineyard blocks. The third sparkling variety is Pinot Noir’s cousin, Pinot Meunier; the single clone of this varietal produces both sparkling and still wine at Domaine Chandon.”

The clouds have lifted now and a patchwork of blue sky appears to the west as we walk back to Tom’s SUV, over the well-drained Yountville soil.

“We’ll open some bottles when we get back to the winery,” Tom says,and you’ll see how this all plays out in the final product. Our sparkling wines are made from blending base wines, which use fruit picked at lower sugar and higher acid than for still wines. We can’t use these base wines for blending into still wines. However, when we make a sparkling rosé, we still need to add some Pinot Noir to add the pink color and richer flavors to the straw colored, delicately flavored base wine blend. So yes, still wine fruit does cross over into sparkling wine. Making rosé sparkling wine with fruit from the upcoming 2010 harvest is top-line thinking right now as we decide which vineyard blocks will be pruned to make still wine for the sparkling program.”

With the heater in the SUV on full blast, and the winery buildings looming in sight through the Napa Valley mist, we’re ready for a taste of the wines that Tom has been describing. “What will we be tasting today?” we ask.

Blending: the winemaker’s secret weapon.

In the classic tier, we have Chandon Rosé, where vibrant pink color joins bold fruit flavors to make a lively, fun sparkling rosé. I’ll also open a bottle of etoile Rosé from our prestige tier, which is blended to an elegant style and aged five years “sur lees.” Our Reserve tier has been without a Rosé for some months now, but the wait is over; our Chandon Reserve Pinot Noir Rosé will be in this February’s Club Chandon shipment. The Reserve Pinot Noir Rosé is blended to a robust, full structured style and will pair great with grilled vegetables or salmon, and even lighter meats like pork.”

As Tom’s SUV rolls into the parking lot of the winery, we’re glad to be back... and ready for a taste of the wines that have braved this Napa Valley weather to wear the Chandon label.