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Making the Cut for Hall Wines Napa Cabernet
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St. Helena, Calif.—Just a few days after Hall Wines had hosted about 2,000 people for the barrel auction of Auction Napa Valley, I visited the winery in St. Helena, Calif., to taste through a flight of Hall Cabernet Sauvignons with the director of winemaking Steve Leveque. Before joining Hall in 2008, Leveque had spent five years as executive vice president and winemaker at Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards & Winery and more than a decade as winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery.

As we tasted through the lineup we had a conversation that touched on many topics from drone-assisted agriculture to the nuances of blending. I found Leveque’s thoughts on fermentation management, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon, compelling in part because of insights gained from working with experts David Ramey and Michel Rolland.

In 2013, Leveque oversaw the completion of Hall’s gravity-fed winery that he says has greatly improved the overall quality of the wine program. In 2014, Leveque said the winery could have produced more than 120,000 cases of Hall branded wines. Yet the winery doesn’t, because Leveque can be very selective in the wines that are bottled with the Hall label.

The first cut is press wine. Leveque said he uses almost no press wine because when everything is balanced in the vineyard a good fermentation can draw out all the best flavor and aroma compounds from the grapes. He said he starts with an extensive cold soak of four to 10 days followed by a gradual warming that allows the native yeast to initiate fermentation.

Once fermentation begins in earnest, Leveque said he’ll perform delestage to really help extraction and give the yeast a shot of “macro-oxygenation” once or twice a day during pump overs. After fermentation is complete, Leveque will often seal up the tank, warm it and run a few pump overs to provide further maceration. He said he tastes regularly to hit that point of pulling everything out of the skins without extracting too much from the seeds.

On the crush pad, Leveque said another major step forward for quality and efficiency was purchasing a Bucher Vaslin Vistalys R2 optical sorter in 2011. The larger of Bucher’s two optical sorters, the R2 is a belt-fed machine that can sort up to 12 tons per hour. Leveque said for Hall’s program the machine works best at 8 tons per hour, but he estimated it’s saved the winery the equivalent of 70 people working the sorting line through the course of a typical harvest.

The machine is particularly useful for supporting the base Hall Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with a suggested retail of $55. The machine has eliminated variability to ensure a rate of quality at an equally high rate of throughput. “I’m very happy with the performance,” he said.

The typical parameters will generate a rejection rate of 2% Leveque said. He added he takes the rejected fruit and ferments it. The resulting wine is not good, but Leveque said he can still find a buyer for it on the bulk market.

Hall produces 32,000 cases of the Napa Valley Cabernet and for its quality the wine is quite the bargain at $55. The vineyard designate wines move up the scale in complexity, flavor and price culminating with the flagship “Kathryn Hall” Cabernet Sauvignon that retails for $155 and is a dense, fully extracted wine that has the tannic structure from the Hall’s mountain vineyards combined with other sources to round out the texture.

Leveque said part of his goal in assembling the blend is to bring some of that Napa “wow factor.” He said the 2008 Halls taste excellent and he’s employed the extractive style of Cabernet making since his Mondavi days and those wines are holding up as well. Getting the right kind of extraction pulls finer tannins out which gives the wine enough structure to age. “I’m trying to create a situation where it’s approachable tannin,” Leveque said of the wines “There’s gobs of tannin in there.”


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