March 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines

Producing Sauvignon Blanc in New York

How two wineries grow and vinify an increasingly popular and vigorous variety

by Ray Pompilio

When one thinks of white vinifera wines made in New York state, Riesling and Chardonnay immediately come to mind. Other well-known cultivars that have been produced include Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. Now Sauvignon Blanc is becoming part of the mix. Thought to be improperly suited for New York’s cool-climate viticulture, Sauvignon Blanc initially found some success on Long Island, where the maritime influences favored Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Recently, however, the grape has found a home in parts of the Finger Lakes. The efforts of two producers of New York Sauvignon Blanc—Hosmer Winery of Ovid, in the Finger Lakes, and Bedell Cellars, in Cutchogue, on Long Island’s North Fork—are indicative of the variety’s budding future in the Empire State.

Hosmer Winery
The vineyard: Cameron Hosmer planted about 10 acres of grapes on the western side of Cayuga Lake in 1972. Currently there are 60 acres planted, with 45 acres of vinifera, including almost 2.5 acres of Sauvignon Blanc. The vineyards are now managed by Hosmer’s son, Tim Hosmer.

Three clones of Sauvignon Blanc (376, 530 and Musque) were purchased from Sunridge Nursery in California and planted at Hosmer in 2011. Tim Hosmer likes clone 376 because it is the most consistent, while the 530 seems to grow best on shallower soil. All the Sauvignon Blanc is planted on 101-14 rootstock to contain the vines’ vigor. Hosmer thinks Sauvignon Blanc’s propensity to stay green into November may not give the vines enough time to harden for the winter unless curtailed. To help limit growth, the vines were closely planted in rows 8.5 feet apart with 5 feet between plants. Another limiting technique is the use of more drainage tiles, which for this variety are set every other row, twice as often as the rest of the vineyard. Hosmer stated the need to limit moisture retention of the vines post-harvest to cut back growth. The soil is a fairly fine textured variation of silt-loam with clay subsoil.

Even with these efforts, the vines were hit hard by the severe winters of 2014 and 2015. This past winter they buried whole canes beneath hay, which ultimately proved unnecessary because of the mild weather. Although Hosmer loves the way his Sauvignon Blanc ripens and how the wine tastes, he doesn’t anticipate additional plantings. “From a grower’s standpoint of economics, it’s not the strongest choice,” he said. “It’s not the most reliable grape, it just doesn’t like the winter.”

For those interested in this cultivar, site selection becomes very important, as it is for another finicky grape in the Finger Lakes, Pinot Noir. Hosmer said that he believes the cold winter temperatures, while significant, are not the biggest problem. He attributes the lack of full lignification as the main culprit, which is why he puts effort into limiting vigor and late-season growth.

Additional techniques used to speed lignification take place during the year. The Sauvignon Blanc summer hedging is delayed until mid-August, so as to not encourage mid-season secondary shoot growth. Leaf pulling is somewhat minimized for the same reason. Right before harvest, they disc the soil to help dissipate the warmth in the surrounding soil and plant a cover crop of winter rye.

“All these practices are oriented for the vine, not the fruit,” Hosmer said. “There’s not going to be any fruit if the vine dies.”

The vines are trellised with four-cane vertical shoot positioning (VSP), and Hosmer leaves a fifth “kicker” cane as insurance against winter injury or late frost. If not required, that cane is quickly removed. The first spray for foliar diseases occurs when the shoots are 3 to 4 inches long. For the most part, machine spraying is then employed every two weeks.

The average bud break for Sauvignon Blanc is May 5, opening Hosmer vineyards to the possibility of late frost damage. Shoot positioning or “tucking” on movable catch wires is done when growth reaches 18 inches, usually by the end of June. Hosmer waits another four days or so and then employs a hydraulic Binger Leaf Remover from H & W Equipment in Ontario to remove leaves. Véraison occurs at the end of July or beginning of August, almost simultaneously with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

Hosmer collaborates with winemaker Aaron Roisen to determine when to harvest. He does the berry sampling and passes them onto the winemaker for testing. Sauvignon Blanc is “picked more on acid than on Brix,” Roisen said. He added that much of their collaboration occurs well before harvest, particularly during the winter, when they discuss prior experiences and strategize for the coming year. The aim is to grow and provide the best fruit composition for their wine styles.

The 2016 vintage marked the winery’s fourth commercial Sauvignon Blanc harvest. Roisen said the grapes went from very green to ripening on a huge curve, offering fruit concentrated with green aromatics but balanced by an under layer of tropical fruit. “The grapes are starting to express these aromatic and flavonoid compounds that are going to create this beautifully balanced wine,” Roisen said.

The winemaker’s preferred ballpark measures for these grapes at harvest is 21.5° Brix, pH of 3.15 and TA of 7.5-8 g/L. Regardless of exact numbers, Roisen is very enthused about the Hosmer Sauvignon Blanc. “We’ve kind of dialed it in, right out of the gate,” he said, citing the clonal selections planted, combined with the vineyard’s soil profiles. He likes the growth diversity of the vines, which is then reflected in the upfront aromatics of the wines, followed by great mouthfeel and texture.

Winemaking: Ideally the grapes are machine-picked when the fruit temperature is 60° to
65° F. The grapes are processed through a crusher-destemmer and must pump into an axial-feed EuroPress 6-ton membrane press. Two Scott Labs press enzymes are used, Cinn-Free and Scottzyme Pec5L, along with 50 pounds of rice hulls per 6 tons of grapes for elevated extraction. Roisen adds 50ppm of potassium metabisulfite. He separates into press fractions following free run, which reaches 0.2 bars, or 1.5-2 psi. He noted that typically all the fractions are blended in the end, but he likes to have options.

The juice is fermented in 1,000-gallon jacketed stainless-steel tanks, using a Saccharomyces bayanus yeast from Enartis. He uses this strain because the Sauvignon Blanc grapes usually have a large amount of yeast assimilable nitrogen (YAN), and the yeast handles this nutrient well. This enables Roisen to do, as he calls it, “a cooler fermentation that keeps all the esters. I’m not a reductive winemaker, and this offers a cool, healthy fermentation.”

He ferments at 51° F for 10-14 days. About two-thirds into the fermentation he checks to see how much titratable acidity has dropped out. Typically, he doesn’t have to add acidity. His preference is a racy style that holds onto the aromatics.

Roisen does not fine the juice prior to fermentation. The first few vintages haven’t shown a lot of protein instability, but he will add 2.5 pounds of bentonite per 1,000 gallons to the wine following fermentation to ensure protein stability. Hosmer’s cellars are cold enough in the winter to eliminate seeding for cold stabilization. Following the settling of the wine, it goes through a Begerow 1-micron cellulose pad depth filter, the K 10 from Aftek. Next it is filtered with a .45-micron pad, and finally, a .45-micron sterile cartridge. All the filters are from Aftek.

He adjusts the wine to 45-50 ppm free sulfur dioxide at bottling and expects it to exhibit a lot of effervescence, which calms down significantly after about two months. “I’d much rather have a wine that needs to sit for a couple months than a wine that doesn’t appear to have the legs for the long run,” Roisen said.

The wine is bottled directly after sterile filtration. A GAI 1000 unit from Prospero fills flint-colored, punted Bordeaux 65 bottles, which are finished with Gultig Carat micro-agglomerated corks supplied by Lakewood Cork. Sauvignon Blanc is usually bottled in March, and Roisen prefers a minimum of one-month bottle age before release (market supply and demand notwithstanding).

The wines from the first vintages have a very aromatic expression and develop tropical fruit characters if kept for two or three years. Roisen expects the 2016 vintage to be very expressive, in keeping with the Hosmer style. The wine retails for $16 per 750ml bottle, and annual production averages 400-600 cases.

Roisen offered a few observations about growing and making Sauvignon Blanc. “You have to understand the grape,” he said, referring to its propensity for aggressive growth, climactic limitations and harnessing the aromas and flavors it presents. He added, “Sauvignon Blanc keeps me correct,” referring to his need for exact, aware winemaking. “If I think I have it down, it will show my flaws,” he said.

Regarding its locale, Roisen was very adamant. He thinks the western side of Cayuga Lake offers the most potential for this cultivar. He cited the diversity of soil profiles, and the slope of the land leading away from the lake that offers a “flat spot” on the slope that balances morning and afternoon sun exposure.

“Flat out, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grow the best on Cayuga Lake,” Roisen said with a smile, which might very well attract the attention of growers on the east side of Seneca Lake, known as the “banana belt,” where most of the Finger Lakes Sauvignon Blanc is grown. Regardless of the exact site, his comments point to the need for the grape to ripen evenly and for the grower to be able to adapt trellising techniques to work within the vagaries of the climate.

Bedell Cellars
The vineyard: More than 250 miles southeast, Bedell Cellars is located near the tip of Long Island’s North Fork in Cutchogue. Founders Kip and Susan Bedell planted their first grapevines in 1980 and focused on Merlot, which became the wine that put Bedell on the map. The estate was purchased in 2000 by film impresario Michael Lynne, and Sauvignon Blanc was planted five years later.

Currently 75 acres of vinifera are grown at three 25-acre sites: the original Bedell vineyard, sister winery Corey Creek Vineyards several miles east, and another location in between. All three vineyards are managed by Erin Troxell, whose parents own Glen Galen Winery in Andreas, Pa.

Bedell’s vineyards are farmed with sustainable practices, and the winery is a member of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program, the first such program certified on the East Coast. The vineyards are primarily planted in sandy loam soil, interspersed with a few sandy outcroppings. Clone 1 (UC Davis FPMS 01, or Wente) was planted at the Corey Creek site in 2005 and supplemented by ENTAV-INRA 376 at the Bedell vineyard in 2011. Combined, they total 3 acres. Clone 1 is planted with 8-foot x 5-foot spacing on 3309 rootstock, and 376 is planted with 9-foot x 5-foot spacing on 101-14 rootstock to limit Sauvignon Blanc’s tendencies for aggressive growth. Troxell prefers the 376 clone, citing slightly smaller clusters and more aromatic character. The vines are trained with vertical shoot positioning (VSP), which allows for mechanical harvesting, although Bedell hand-picks its Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

Bud break in 2016 was at the end of April, and the beginning of the growing season is dedicated to canopy management. Once shoot growth is established, any secondary or tertiary shoots are removed. Troxell wants spacing of a hand’s width between shoots. The next task is to position the shoots, lifting catch wires and tucking the shoots between them. At the same time as shoot positioning, the first application of nitrogen is made, the source being peanut meal. Grape pomace, usually composted for two years, is added post-harvest.

Leaf removal in the cluster zone is done by hand at the beginning of bloom. Most of the vine maintenance for Sauvignon Blanc is shoot maintenance, particularly for vertical growth. They clip the catch wires between each vine to ensure that the shoots don’t cross over into the next vine’s area, which could cause unwanted shade for the growing zone. Troxell added that due to its more aggressive growth, Clone 1 usually requires more mechanical hedging to remove lateral growth than 376. In 2016, Clone 1 was hedged two more times than 376. The timing of the hedging is determined by the presence of birds. The vineyard is directly in the path of bird migrations, and the Sauvignon Blanc is completely netted over the entire vine as soon as some sweetness develops, and certainly by véraison, which ends hedging practices for the season.

Troxell and her crew roll up the netting as they hand-pick the fruit and let it drop to the ground; nets are mechanically removed all at once following harvest. Bedell usually hand-picks the white cultivars, since the winemaker, Richard Olsen-Harbich, likes to ferment that fruit as whole cluster. She estimated the soon-to-be-picked Sauvignon Blanc would yield 3-4 tons per acre, near or slightly above its normal yield.

As with a number of cool-climate white varieties, the biggest thing to watch for when growing Sauvignon Blanc in New York is the high potential for botrytis or any kind of bunch rot, according to Troxell. The tighter fruit clusters need more maintenance, such as leaf removal to encourage good air circulation and looser clusters. Beyond that, however, Troxell thinks that Sauvignon Blanc is well suited for Long Island. “It wants to grow very upright, which makes the canopy management easier, requiring less labor,” she said. Based on the time she has spent in vineyards in France and on Long Island, Troxell said she sees striking similarities from the maritime influences.

Winemaking: The winery, which produces about 12,000 cases annually, began producing Sauvignon Blanc as a varietal wine in 2013 (previously it was used only in blends). Olsen-Harbich has worked with this grape on Long Island since 1984, and said, “I felt like it needed its own voice here.” He emphasized that clonal selection is very important at Bedell, as they want to produce the highest quality fruit possible given their climate and terroir.

Olsen-Harbich mentioned that their blend of Sauvignon Blanc clones gives them both a green grass, more acidic character combined with a riper, more tropical fruit style, which he prefers. “My inspiration for Sauvignon Blanc here is more Sancerre-like, looking at those wines as what the quintessential result can be, growing it properly,” he said. He noted that his style is not overtly grassy but crisp, with lime and citrus tones leading to tropical character.

He looks for Brix levels of about 20° to 21° and TA of 8-9 g/L, although he has seen Brix as high as 23° and, in a very warm year like 2010, TA as low as 6.8-7 g/L. As harvest approaches, Olsen-Harbich and his cellar staff take berry samples and analyze them together. Their Sauvignon Blanc typically ripens in mid- to late-September. The fruit is hand-picked and whole-cluster pressed with a Europress from Euro Machines. He doesn’t add any SO2 unless the fruit exhibits noticeable damage, when he will limit the dosage to 20 ppm. Pressing doesn’t exceed 1.5 bars, as he aims for clean juice with very low solids that will settle overnight at about 48° to 50° F. The following day, temperature control is turned off and the juice is racked into one or two stainless steel fermentors ranging from 375 to 1,000 gallons. As the juice warms it is ready to ferment, as Olsen-Harbich uses only indigenous yeast.

Initially no temperature control is employed for the fermentation. The indigenous yeast tends to struggle below 65° F, so Olsen-Harbich allows it to reach 70°-72° F at its peak. The cooler temperatures can lead to a reductive character, which he does not like. The fermentation is steady and smooth and will require no more than 14 days to complete. He then adds 25-30 ppm of potassium metabisulfite, obtained from Presque Isle Wine Cellars, to protect the new wine, which will not be inoculated with a malolactic culture. The wine will be racked two or three times and is kept at 55°-60° F until late spring or early summer, when it will be filtered and bottled.

Filtration is done with a Della Toffola plate-and-frame filter from Prospero Equipment, using moderate-sized pads. From there it will be sterile filtered through a .45-micron Pall membrane filter just prior to bottling. “The more important part to me is to make the wine as a representation of what the terroir is,” Olsen-Harbich said. He doesn’t want to adjust things like sugar and acid, or change the chemistry to obtain a certain ideal target or benchmark.

“Following fermentation I want to preserve what we have and see that go through into the bottle,” he added. Not a believer in “benign neglect,” he said he uses SO2 and filtration to protect the character of the fruit. SO2 quantities average 28-32 ppm at bottling, depending upon pH levels.

Olsen-Harbich uses a GAI 3000 bottling line from Prospero to fill Bordeaux-shaped flint bottles from Hauser Packaging. All their wines are cork finished with Innocork natural cork from Cork Supply USA. (Innocork is a patented process using steam and ethyl alcohol to volatize potential TCA molecules.) Bottle age at release is often market driven, and Olsen-Harbich stated that the wine could be released relatively soon after bottling, but he knows from experience the wine will drink nicely for three to five years. He likes to release the wine during the summer following its harvest and thinks it is a perfect match with local seafood, especially oysters and shellfish. The finished wine has between 11.2% to 12% alcohol, with TA of 0.7-0.8, and a pH of 3.0-3.2. Bedell averages about 500 cases annually, and the wine retails for $35 per 750ml bottle.

Stylistically, Olsen-Harbich calls the wine bone-dry, tempered with juiciness, exhibited from the tropical fruit elements that develop into pineapple and passion fruit flavors. He thinks the wine has a character of salinity, brought on by the ocean air (their vineyards are within a mile of Long Island Sound and the Great Peconic Bay).

Like his vineyard manager, Olsen-Harbich believes this is the place for Sauvignon Blanc to grow in New York. “To me, it’s the quintessential white wine of the North Fork, because it exhibits so much local character, reminiscent of the area with its salinity,” he said. “I don’t have to do that much with this wine, I just let it sing its tune.”

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