Pinot Gris in the Finger Lakes

Winemakers discuss their methods and equipment for producing the aromatic white wine

by Ray Pompilio
Three juice samples of Pinot Gris grapes. The dark one (left sample) was on the skins for two to three days and will be used for their skin-fermented wine. The sample in the center was juice from machine-picked Pinot Gris that got to the press after a few hours. The light sample (right) was machine-picked fruit that arrived at the winery minutes after picking. (courtesy of Anthony Road Wine Company)

Penn Yan, N.Y.—This article is a companion to the report in the September 2018 issue of Wine East in Wines & Vines on growing Pinot Gris in New York’s Finger Lakes wine region. It will present winemaking techniques used by two winemakers, Phil Arras of Damiani Wine Cellars in Burdett and Peter Becraft of Anthony Road Wine Co., just across Seneca Lake in Penn Yan. Combined, the two wineries produce about 1,600 cases of Pinot Gris annually.

Damiani Wine Cellars Pinot Grigio
Damiani Wine Cellars is co-owned by Lou Damiani, Phil Davis and Glenn Allen. Damiani originally studied food science before changing to engineering, but he maintained a serious interest in wine. He and longtime grower Davis partnered to plant their first vinifera grapes in 1997 and released their first wines in 2004, with 1,200 cases. Today, they have approximately 40 acres of vineyards and produce about 8,000 cases a year.

Damiani was the winemaker from 2003 until 2012, when he handed over his duties to Phil Arras. Arras came to the region in 2003 to study philosophy and political science at Cornell University. While there, he took the popular wine appreciation course and decided wine would become his vocation. “I was always a science nerd,” he said. He began working for Cayuga Lake’s Sheldrake Point Vineyards in 2008. 

He intended to study winemaking at the University of California, Davis and was accepted into its program. Fate in the name of Lou Damiani intervened, and Arras took a full-time job assisting him in January 2009. After serving as the assistant winemaker for three years, he was named head winemaker in 2012. In addition, Arras now operates a small mobile wine-bottling business for Damiani and several local wineries. 

Damiani’s Pinot Grigio is so named because of its style and his family heritage. Arras looks to make the wine in a lighter, crisper style, with alcohol limited to about 12%. With that in mind, he chooses to use fruit with Brix levels that are not too high (19°-20° Brix) in order to maintain a bright acidity. 

Whether the purchased from longtime supplier Chris Verril or sourced from the winery’s own vineyards, he said, “I want to pick on flavor, but I use numbers as a good indicator of ripeness, as well.” 

He did stress, however, that with Pinot Gris, acidity can drop precipitously, with pH skyrocketing if the fruit hangs too long.

When the hand-picked fruit arrives at the winery, it is put into a refrigerated tractor-trailer and stored overnight, set at 35° F, so it is at 38-40° F for processing the next morning. The grapes are removed from their 30-pound lugs onto the sorting table, where gross MOG, if any, is removed before the grapes are put into half-ton MacroBins, which are dumped into a CMA Lugana 1R destemmer, sourced from Prospero Equipment.

The grapes are pressed with an older Bucher RPM 25-hectoliter press that was obtained from Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars about five years ago. The sidewall bladder tank press holds 5 tons of crushed and destemmed fruit and operates without a programmable logic control, utilizing timers and contacts throughout the process. The Pinot Gris is divided into two loads to process about 9 tons of the purchased and estate-grown fruit. Arras did say that he plans to press whole clusters in the future for his white wines, seeking a cleaner and finer phenolic structure in the juice. The press cycle runs about two hours, starting at 0.2 bar, roughly equivalent to 3 psi, and will gently press the fruit eight to nine times before reaching a maximum pressure of 2.5 bar.

He monitors the pressing via sight and taste, and when he determines a change in the juice quality, he separates the press fraction and possibly fines that juice before blending it back into the whole. He does not add any SO2 at crushing or pressing, choosing to determine his pressed gallons of cold juice, to which he initially adds about 30 parts per million (ppm) of potassium metabisulfite (K2S2O5) if the fruit is very clean and uncompromised, and up to 50 ppm if the need arises.

During the last few vintages, Arras put the Pinot Gris juice into two 1,000-gallon jacketed stainless-steel tanks, one for free-run only and the other a blend of free-run and press fractions. Prior to inoculation, he added bentonite for protein stability and to soften the phenolics. He fined the press fraction with gelatin for greater clarity.

When Arras inoculates the Pinot Gris, he chooses to use less yeast than the recommended amount, as he is leaning toward more natural yeast fermentation in his wines. In 2016, he used Alchemy II yeast from Scott Laboratories, which emphasizes ester production. “I wanted to make a tropical fruit bomb,” he said. 

Although he liked the results, the next vintage he changed to ELIXIR yeast, also from Scott Labs, which was developed by the yeast hybridization program at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. Scott recommends the yeast to enhance floral and fruity aromas and greater complexity in aromatic white wines.

The fermentation occurs at temperatures from the low to high 50s and finishes in a maximum of 40 days. The lees are stirred between once a week and every two weeks. He commented that after the wine has had one “hard settle” in the original tanks, “I like to rack early and often, as Pinot Gris tends toward reduction if left on the gross lees too long.” Malolactic fermentation is not used for the Pinot Grigio, so that the fresh, crisp style Arras likes is maintained. 

The young wine is tested for heat stability, and bentonite is added if necessary. He then cold-stabilizes the wine at about 28° F for up to a month. Once the wine is cold-stable, he racks once more prior to blending trials. If any other wine is added to the Pinot Gris, it is agitated, and the filtering and bottling follow in about a month. The wine is first rough-filtered with 2.5-micron Becopads in a plate and frame, and has its final, sterile filtration with a membrane filter.

Arras determines his final free sulfur amount depending upon how long it will sit before release and after looking at the pH curve, and he has found the free sulfur to average 40 ppm in the Pinot Gris. He uses his mobile bottling line, which is steam-sterilized prior to bottling. The line uses a GAI 12-spout filler and corker, sourced from Prospero Equipment, which can fill about 160 cases per hour. The 750-ml bottles are stoppered with DIAM 5 corks made by G3 Enterprises and sourced from Hauser Packaging. 

Because of its fresh, crisp style and relatively low free sulfur, the Pinot Grigio doesn’t get a lot of bottle age. Arras prefers no more than two months. The 2016 vintage was bottled early, in February, to fill the supply needs that followed a relatively small production from the 2015 vintage. The 2017 vintage was bottled in mid-May of this year and was scheduled for release by midsummer. 

The wine retails for $16 per bottle, and Arras said, “We’re known for our dry red wines, but this is one of our biggest sellers.” 

He views the wine as an effective entry-level product at Damiani and is pleased that its freshness and overall simplicity make it the perfect “summer sipper.”

Winemaking at Anthony Road Wine Co.
Peter Becraft is currently the winemaker at Anthony Road Wine Co., where he oversees average annual production of approximately 16,000 cases. His education and work background were in fine arts in the New York city area. Like a number of people in the business, his wine career began with a visit to a Finger Lakes winery tasting room — in his case, at Anthony Road in 2006. There he met winemaker Johannes Reinhardt, who took a liking to Becraft and invited him to work the crush that year. 

Becraft and his wife moved to the area following the crush, and he spent the next two years working April to September in the vineyards with Peter Martini, and October to March in the winery with Reinhardt. He was made assistant winemaker when Reinhardt was transitioning to establish his own winery. Reinhardt left Anthony Road in 2014, and co-owner John Martini named Becraft head winemaker.

After harvest, the grapes move into the press via a Bucher Vaslin conveyor, with no destemming, crushing or sulfur addition. The press is a Willmes WPP 6000, which can handle about 7-8 tons of grapes at one time and was sourced from Scott Labs. The press cycle is two hours, with the first hour primarily gently rolling low pressure (up to 0.2 bar), and in the second hour the pressure is eventually increased to 1.7 bar. Becraft tastes the juice during the cycles to determine “at what point is the juice losing its vibrancy, or becoming a bit stemmy,” he said. 

The regular bottling of Pinot Gris contains only free-run and lightly pressed juice, while the higher press fractions are separated into another tank and are used in the winery’s Devonian White blend.

The wine is put into 2,000-gallon jacketed stainless-steel tanks made by Vance Metal, in Geneva, N.Y. The juice then settles and clarifies for one to two nights. If the grapes contain any botrytis, Becraft doesn’t add bentonite. He does add KS enzyme (from Scott Labs) to get a “tight clarification” and also 30 ppm of potassium metabisulfite (K2S2O5) while it settles at 54° F. The settled juice is then racked into another jacketed tank(s) for fermentation. 

While he does use ambient fermentation for a number of his wines, Becraft inoculates the Pinot Gris with Epernay II and/or BA11, both from Scott Labs. The Epernay II accentuates the lush, ripe fruit character and will slow down as the fermentation approaches dryness, allowing for a small amount of residual sugar, which Becraft likes in his Pinot Gris.

The BA11, however, accents a leaner mineral character, and “I find it bordering on some spice aromatics and smoke, which tends to round out the acidity,” he said. “I believe there is power in blending, and I like to have different components to play with.” 

He aims at a fermentation temperature of 57-59° F, especially early in the fermentation, and the duration can range from 10 to 17 days. He allows the temperature to increase to ambient toward the end, usually about 65° F.

He regularly tastes the fermenting wine as it decreases in Brix, and once he determines it has reached a balanced spot, he stops the fermentation by chilling the wine to 39-43° F. “It’s really balance — that’s what I always shoot for,” Becraft said. The residual sugar left in the wine averages 5 to 7 grams per liter. Following fermentation, the wine is racked off the gross lees into one or more smaller tanks to facilitate topping off. Once the top begins to clarify, he applies “the hammer,” as he described it — 90 ppm of K2S2O5, much of which will become bound, and ensures protection for the wine into the beginning of the next year. 

He leaves the wine on the lees in the tank until he needs to evaluate it for blending, a bentonite addition and bottling. He likes the complexity added to the wine from the lees and added, ”I would like to have it on the lees for up to six months, but I usually can’t.” 

The 2017 vintage, however, will not be bottled before August, allowing the wine to rest on the lees for 10 months. This is because of the good supply of the 2016 vintage, when 900 cases were produced. 

The blending evaluation takes place in the lab, and the quantity of the bentonite addition is determined. The amount is vintage-dependent but has averaged about 30 grams per hectoliter. The wine is checked for cold stability and then passed through a Becopad rough filter pad (about 2 microns), made in Germany and sourced from Aftek Filters in Rochester, N,Y. Finally, the wine is sterile-filtered at 0.45 microns, with a Padovan plate-and-frame unit, also from Aftek. Becraft makes one last SO2 check before bottling and, if needed, adds sulfur according to a pH-based molecular formula. Bottling is done with a Costral Comet 2000NG Monobloc filler, sourced from Vance Metal Fabricators, in Geneva, N.Y., which decided not to continue to offer such equipment shortly after selling this unit to Anthony Road. It has an 11-spout filler, which the winery utilizes at 1,900-2,000 bottles per hour, with a maximum capacity of 2,400 bottles per hour. 

The winery bottles its Pinot Gris with twist-off closures, matching colors of the cap with the specific labels. Since each supplier has its own color schemes, Becraft uses closures from several suppliers, including Amcor Stelvin from Waterloo Container, of Waterloo, N.Y., Scott Laboratories and the Guala Closures Group. “The main similarity between all of them is the liner. The ones I use have the Saranex liner. That is the most reductive, tightest cap,” he noted.

Currently, Anthony Road offers three wines made with Pinot Gris. The regular estate wine, which retails for $15.99; a barrel-fermented version for $26.99 (available at the winery only); and as a major component of the Devonian White, a $12.99 wine utilizing Pinot Gris press fractions and any of the other wine not included in the final estate blend. The estate wine is stainless-steel fermented, with no malolactic fermentation, while the small quantities of barrel-fermented wine do undergo malolactic. Total Pinot Gris production has averaged 850 cases for the last two vintages.

Becraft has experimented with used French oak barrels and a puncheon for the fermentation, and for the first time, in 2017, skin-fermented Pinot Gris in a one-ton bin, punched down once a day, and fermented dry on the skins. He transferred the new wine into stainless steel, and then into two older barrels for aging. The resulting rosé has not yet been released. The puncheon is a 500-liter Hungarian oak vessel made by François Frères, and the used barrels, which have only been once or twice, come from California wineries and are made by Canton Cooperage and Tonnellerie Mercier. Becraft likes to utilize the used oak both for the economy and for the more subtle oak influences on his Pinot Gris. 

While he believes the 15-plus-year-old Pinot Gris vines are beginning to offer fruit of some complexity, he is not afraid to blend in small amounts of Riesling if a riper vintage requires some acidity.

When asked if he had a particular style of winemaking, he answered, “My job at Anthony Road is to express our estate site on the western shore of Seneca Lake and, conversely, that of the Finger Lakes.” He describes his methods as minimal intervention — not hands off, but as a parent might guide his children. “It’s worked well for me,” he added. 

We ended the interview with a tasting of six examples of the winery’s Pinot Gris, ranging from 2012 to 2016. They included the regular stainless-steel wine as well as two of the barrel-fermented vintages, and the 2017 skin-fermented rosé, which showed a spicy texture with modest tannins, complemented by a nice acid structure. It was interesting that the oldest wine tasted (2012) was still very much fruit-driven, with good balance and great acidic finish. This was something of a surprise, since the growing season that year was long and hot and produced some of the Finger Lakes’ best red wines in recent memory. I believe this is a testament to the quality of Anthony Road’s Pinot Gris fruit and the winemaking techniques used to express it.

When well-sited and carefully tended to, Pinot Gris appears to have a bright future in New York’s Finger Lakes.

Ray Pompilio is a wine writer based in Ithaca, N.Y., and a regular contributor to the Wine East section of Wines & Vines.


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