Every bottle of Alta Colina wine is estate grown and produced. You are drinking a pure expression of our vineyard’s soil, weather, varietal clones, rootstocks, and site. Our winemaking practices are aimed at delivering that pure fruit expression directly to you with minimum intervention.
The actual winemaking process starts right after harvest, as we nourish and hydrate the vines to encourage carbohydrate storage in the over-wintering wood and to support the late season root growth. We also get next year’s nutrients into the soil via compost application ahead of the winter rains that distribute the nutrients throughout the root growth zone.
Once winter has passed, we begin the season-long process of manicuring and nurturing each vine in search of the viticulturist’s perfect balance—that moment when the fruit load, the leaf canopy, and root system achieve perfect harmony. Once the vines in a given block reach that point, we look to the grapes for the moment when the sugar ripeness, acidity, and the phenolic ripeness (flavors and color) are optimized. This moment may not occur simultaneously in every block of the vineyard, so we harvest some blocks today, others day after tomorrow, and so on until we get all the fruit into the winery in the optimum condition.
After 11 months in the vineyard ensuring that we have the highest fruit quality, the process of winemaking finally commences. Ours is a minimalist approach—we want to let the vineyard express itself with little intervention on our part.
We grow 4 varieties of white grapes, all from the Rhône Valley in France: Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc. Each is vinified separately, and the wines blended after several months of aging. The process starts with hand harvesting starting pre-dawn when the fruit is at its coolest. We visually inspect each cluster in the field as it is picked—this is the greatest intervention we introduce into the natural process. The fruit is at the winery by 7 AM, where it is gently pressed to extract the sweet grape juice. The stems and grape skins are returned to the vineyard for composting. The juice is fermented mostly in oak barrels to extract flavor from the barrel and to allow the yeast access to oxygen which is slowly diffusing through the oak staves. A fraction is fermented in stainless steel which yields pure fruit flavors. After the fermentation is complete, we blend these lots together and let them rest for about 2 months.
Sometime in January, we sit down and taste our way through all the white varieties, and experiment with blends. There are no rules in the blending process—we are guided by the flavors expressed by the vineyard. So far, we have settled into 3 general blending regimes. First, a Viognier dominated wine featuring strong varietal characteristics, big body, and the power to pair with any sauce. This is the 12 O’Clock High. Second, a Marsanne dominated wine made in a similar style, but featuring the Fuji apple flavors of that varietal–Claudia Cuvee. Both these wines are blended, returned to barrel, and aged for another year prior to bottling.
The third blend is made in a crisp, fresh, fruity style perfect for shell fish dishes. This wine is varietally labeled as Grenche Blanc. We continue to experiment with Roussanne–each year will see a different treatment of this grape until we find the optimum from the vineyard. Once these final blends are complete, the wine is aged another few months and bottled in the spring.
Bottling is tough on wine. It’s a shocking event and some bottles temporarily lose their character as a result. After a few months of recuperation, they are ready for your drinking enjoyment. We suspect the Roussanne based wines will benefit from further bottle aging—stay tuned as we get more experience with Alta Colina Vineyard fruit.
We also grow 4 varieties of red grapes, again all Rhônes: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Petite Sirah. The situation here is a bit more complex as we have 3 clones of Syrah and 4 of Grenache. All clones are vinified separately and (potentially) blended together after up to a year of aging. Our harvest process for reds is identical to that described above for whites. Once the fruit reaches the winery however, the process is considerably different.
We begin by de-stemming, which separates the individual grapes from the woody stem. In the case of red wines, we need the grape skins to be part of the fermentation as they possess the crucial color and flavor compounds that are associated with these wines. The stems impart unwanted woody flavors to the wine, so we return them to the compost process. After de-stemming, we visually inspect the individual berries again and remove anything that is not perfect.
Fermentation takes place in open-top tanks. We allow the native yeasts from the vineyard to kick off the fermentation on their timetable. Sometimes we get a rogue native yeast that commences fermentation. When that happens, we inoculate with wine yeast which quickly overwhelms the rogue and gets us back on track. A red wine fermentation is something like a newborn; it needs attention every few hours in the form of a “punch-down”. The carbon dioxide, released by the yeast, lifts the grape skins to the surface where they will dry out if not forcibly pushed (or punched) down into the liquid wine below. This is the primary reason winemakers lose weight (not to mention, get a bit testy) during the harvest season—sleep deprivation is a terrible thing!
When the fermentation has consumed all the sugar in the grape juice, we pump the free-run wine from the tank and place it in oak barrels. The remaining mass of skins (now a bit worse for the wear) is moved into the press, and the press-run wine is extracted by gentle pressure and placed in oak barrels. After about 6 months of aging, all barrels are tasted and the initial blends decided. The wines are racked into tanks, blended, and returned to barrel where they age another 8 months before again being tasted and the blends fine tuned if necessary.
While the wine is aging in barrel, oxygen slowly diffuses through the oak staves where it mingles with the tannin molecules to soften the wine and round its flavors. Then, in the spring of the second year after harvest, we bottle the wine and let it sit for a few months to recover from the bottling process. Alta Colina reds are released in the subsequent fall with another 6 months of bottle aging to get through the bottling shock and to further develop the flavor and structure of the wine. They are ready to drink, but will continue to develop for years to come.