Calera Winery takes a riskier wild-yeast approach to tasty results.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
The term “terroir” gets overused, but when it comes to Josh Jensen of Calera, it means something. It’s his sense-of-place—one that goes beyond his selection of a rare limestone-soil site on the border of San Benito and Monterey counties—that makes his wines great. It’s his use of untamed ingredients, though, that make them unique.
With institutions like UC Davis’ viticulture department training winemakers on recipes designed to carry large productions, small-scale winemakers like Jensen are an anomaly. But even among the area’s boutique wineries, many that are doing excellent grapework, none ferments like he does.
The idea seeded when Jensen went to Vosne-Romaneé, France during the 1970 harvest, helping push down the skins with a wooden paddle during red wine fermentation (to encourage color and skin extraction, and to maximize flavor and lifespan). By paying his dues, he was able to chill with winemakers deeply steeped in tradition.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says.
In 1971, he worked at Domaine Dujac, which makes Pinot Noir from Grand Cru vineyards like legendary Echezaux, Romanee St. Vivant and Bonnes-Marres.
There he soaked up two game-changing lessons. One: He learned that he should go on a geological quest for California’s virtually nonexistent limestone soil, as it’s the perfect environment for Pinot Noir vines to mature and dig to over 40 feet deep, as they do in Burgundy. Two: He realized that he shouldn’t speed up fermentation with commercial yeast.
“I saw the best Burgundies were made with a native yeast,” he says.
UC Davis promotes commercial yeast to ensure a more predictable process. If employed imprecisely, native yeast can create wine that’s fizzy and cloudy—one mistake can result in a major loss.
Mike Wollard, Calera’s assistant winemaker and resident enology expert, graduated from Davis. “They’re training wine makers to make wine for Gallo,” he says. Safe is the name of the game. “But the more risks you take,” he adds, “the more exciting your wine will be.” The proof is in the bottle (see box, this page).
“We’re true believers,” Jensen says. Besides, native yeast found on the skins of grapes is enough to cause fermentation.
“That’s how wine has been made for 8,000 years,” he adds.
Big production wineries also add extra sulfur dioxide; since commercial yeast strains can tolerate it, fermentation is quickened and off-flavors are minimized.
Wild yeast isn’t so easy.
“Native yeast fermentation is labor intensive,” Wollard says.
Critics of this style think the flavors in the finished product are too earthy. Maybe they’d be more enthused with that earthiness if it went by its French name, terroir.
CALERA WINE COMPANY is located on 11300 Cienega Road, Hollister. 637-9170, www.calerawine.com.