If you try a single new Sonoma Chardonnay this year, then how about one fermented with wild yeast for a full 12 months? Jane Anson reports on a visit to Arista Winery...
The Chardonnay was clearly exceptional but when I discovered the barrel ferment was drawn out for a full 12 months with all-native yeasts, I knew I had to meet the winemaker.
See Jane Anson’s Arista tasting notes below
I’ll just back up a little to explain why. Unsurprisingly it leads to Professor Denis Dubourdieu whose ability to make exceptional dry white wines made him internationally famous. Although his greatest influence on the world of wine, isolating and propagating strains of yeast that made fermentation easier, quicker and cleaner, is far less visible.
Attending his classes on the subject at the Bordeaux school of oenology has left me with a weird sense of kinship with the saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast responsible for turning grape sugars into alcohol, and an equally peculiar interest in wild yeasts that are left to do their job naturally.
Which is why, the morning after the tasting at Vinexpo Explorer in Sonoma County, California, I found myself staring into a microscope at Arista Winery in the Russian River Valley, watching yeast cells of the 2017 Chardonnay as they reached the end of their ferment. Yes, that’s the 2017 ferment, days after the 2018 grapes had made their final journey into the cellar.
Slow fermentations are in fact having something of a moment. Just a few weeks ago, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon of Roederer Champagne talked about its ‘slow food’ moment by using indigenous yeasts in its exceptional 2018 harvest, with the fermentation lasting more than two months for a superior complexity of taste. But Arista is taking the idea even further.
‘A year ferment sounds crazy,’ Arista’s winemaker Matt Courtney tells me, ‘and there’s no doubt that you’re never going to read about this in the textbooks. What it really involves is a lot of microscope work, following the yeast population and looking out for anything unusual. And being extremely careful to control any oxygen through topping up the barrels to ensure zero headspace, and keeping the temperature low at around 18 degrees centigrade. We never kick-start the process, and the first few months might be entirely wild yeasts in the microscope. It’s only right at the end that the saccharomyces fully take over. Clearly they are not strong fermenters, but they give complexity and we believe in them’.
As far as I can see, this means being a little bit creative and a lot obsessive. These wines – both Pinots and Chardonnays – are focused, full of flavour, bright, persistent and delicious. I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over by either of these varieties while in California, particularly as I spent half the week in Oregon, getting to taste through amazing examples from Drouhin, Evening Land, Eyrie Vineyards and Domaine Serene. But Arista matched them beat for beat.
It perhaps helps that Courtney is working with the same team from his former job at Marcassin, a label set up by Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer that established some of the most lauded Pinot and Chardonnays in the States, and where he worked for eight years before moving to Arista in 2013. Both the vineyard manager Cory Stewart and deputy winemaker Gordon Miller were at Marcassin, so they have a short cut to understanding the rigorous conditions required to be so relaxed about yeasts. ‘They also believed in slow ferments at Marcassin,’ says Miller, ‘but usually topped out at four months. Here we roll the dice and believe.’
It also helps that Courtney has always been a flavour obsessive. Before he became a winemaker he was studying for the Master Sommelier exam, and worked his way through college as a waiter at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. He was hired by the McWilliam family into Arista, which is now headed up by brothers Ben and Mark.
The family has been farming in Sonoma for 25 years, and for many years the vineyard used a local custom crush facility to make its wine from grapes that were sourced from all over the west coast, from Sonoma to Oregon and down to the Santa Rosa Hills, using a number of different grape varieties. In 2002 they bought Harper’s Rest ranch and built their own winery on site doing most of the work themselves. Ben and Mark’s father Al even made most of the furniture himself, and they now make everything in-house, alongside a full-time vineyard team. Arista has also narrowed its focus dramatically.
‘The idea is to keep concentrating on what we’re good at,’ explains Mark McWilliam. ‘We’re a Russian River Pinot and Chardonnay house, and we are looking to craft the very best examples we can. Before 2013, the winery was the focus of our attention, but today it’s the vineyard. We work with nine separate plots across three vineyard sites, all in Russian River. Everything we do in vineyard and cellar is about getting the best natural acidity, depth of flavour and complexity. The cost of Pinot and Chard fruit is higher in Russian River than many other parts of Sonoma, so winemakers tend to play it safe. We want to do more than that’.