At SAMsARA Wine Co., we work hard in the vineyard to ensure that the grapes we harvest have the perfect ripeness, flavor, acidity, and tannins. Once they reach the winery, there is as little intervention as possible in the winemaking process. Low intervention winemaking allows us to maximize the terroir of the vineyard and create wines with authentic aromatics and flavors, unique to each vintage. The result is the utmost expression of the fruit, soil, site, and region, otherwise known as terroir.
Fruit sorting really starts in the vineyard, and it is critical for us to only use uncompromised fruit in our winemaking process. Compromised fruit is mostly any moldy fruit or unwanted green fruit. Because we source our grapes from the finest vineyards in the region, most of the fruit that we receive at the winery during harvest is top notch quality.
Fruit sorting at the winery is important to ensure that we are not introducing any compromised fruit into our wine. Naturally, there is always an exceedingly small percentage of comprised fruit that reaches the winery, even though our grapes a carefully grown and hand harvested. Once the fruit reaches the winery, we use a sorting table on which all the fruit gets run through, and any bad clusters get picked out by our team.
The decision on destemmed fruit versus whole-cluster fruit is driven by our experience with the vineyards, and by our knowledge of how much of that whole-cluster style the wines can support. Very generically speaking, the destemmed fruit is more fruit driven and has more of a fruit focus, whereas the whole-cluster fruit has more of a spicy, savory focus.
We destem some percentage every red varietal. Pinot Noir typically is destemmed about 50 percent and then the other 50 percent is whole-cluster fermentation. It is just a balance of those two components and as the winemaker trying to decide how the wine will most benefit from the right proportions of those two pieces. Because we want our wines to have delicious fruit characteristics, but we also want to maximize complexity and have those savory and spice-driven qualities that really define the SAMsARA style.
SAMsARA is known for producing wines that have a lot of whole cluster fermentation. Whole cluster fermentation means that we ferment the grapes’ whole cluster, including berries and stems. This winemaking method beautifully enhances the natural savory and spice-driven aromatics and flavors in the wine. The process is simple: we run the harvested grapes on our sorting table to remove any compromised fruit and load them directly from the sorting table into a fermentation bin. One of our crewmembers stands in the bin with clean, sterilized legs and feet, and gently foot stomps the fruit as it gets fed into the fermentation bin. The fermentation goes on for three to four weeks as the native yeast continues to convert the sugar in the berries into alcohol (averaging at 13.5% ABV when complete).
We often say our wines are handmade, they are also made by foot! The reason we foot stomp instead of using a machine is because a foot is a lot gentler than a piece of stainless steel or a piece of machinery. You can picture what the bottom of your foot is like, it is sort of this soft, bendable, flexible tool. Our goal is to not really grind up the stems or even break the stems, but just to gently crush the fruit with our feet to get it juicy enough for the native yeast and the native fermentation to kick off.
Native yeast really is the kinetics in the fermentation, contributing a lot to the style of our wines. At SAMsARA, we do slightly longer macerations than most wineries. For the red wines, the wine will sit on the skins for three to four weeks and will be in the fermentation tank for up to a month! It is important in our winemaking to get the fermentation started quickly. Once the wine fermenting it creates an anaerobic environment with no oxygen, preventing any microbial elements that can cause volatile acidity and wine flaws. We want our native yeast to get going as fast as they can. Since we have a high level of native yeasts from whole-cluster cluster and berries, the fermentation lasts longer and happens in an environment that is clean and free of any undesired microbial activity.
We use punch downs for the red fermentations that are in an open-top fermenter tanks. The red wines are in the tanks for three to four weeks and we do a punch down once a day. As the fermentation is going, the native yeasts are metabolizing sugar and producing alcohol and CO2 as a byproduct. That CO2 gas, carbon dioxide, is generated in the ferment and it pushes up all the grape skins to the surface of the ferment and creates and what we call the “cap.” The cap is just dried grape skins at the top of all the liquid below.
Once a day we will take a stainless-steel punch-down tool to submerge the cap and reintroduce the skins to the juice below. Red wine gets all its color, structure, and much of the flavor from the juice being in contact with the skins. Fermentation generates and punching down is also a way to redistribute in the bin. It lets the CO2 blow off and distributes any heat that is built up in the ferment.
For the reds, after the three to four weeks of fermentation, we will do our punch downs daily and will monitor sugar daily. The sugar will start out at around 23/23.5 Brix and, over the course of the three to four weeks fermentation, the sugar level goes down to zero. Where the sugar gets metabolized by the native yeast, we are left with dry wine with no sugar and a finished alcohol of around 13.5%.
At that point we will press the wine. About 50 percent of the wine goes directly into barrels without going in the press. It is what we call “free run.” We get the other 50 percent of the wine from pressing the wine. We lift the fermentation tank and dump the wine into our European 2600-liter bladder press. It is gentle yet forceful and deliberate. It can inflate to the hundredth degree of atmospheric pressure, giving us a great deal of control over how we press. The press cycles are fully customizable and all programmed by our winemaker, Matt Brady.
For our whites wines, the fruit goes to the press the morning that it is picked. We are very careful not to extract any phenolics, bitterness or structure from the white grapes so we press a little bit lighter for the whites than we do for the reds. We press our white grapes within hours of harvesting, we then segregate our free run and hard press, like we do with the red wines. The free-run barrel might be a future vineyard designated wine; the press barrel might go into one of our appellation bottling.
Barrels are the only flavor additive that gets into the wine because new oak barrels impart some flavor and aromatics. We are really light on our use of new oak, however, in particular with our Pinot Noir. Our Pinot Noir wines typically have about 30 percent new French 500- liter oak barrels (more than twice larger than typical barrels). The remaining is all neutral French oak.
The reason we use older barrels instead of using something like stainless steel tanks is because the barrels still breathe. They still have a relationship with the outside world and that low degree of oxygen getting through the wood will soften the wines and allow them to mature in a way that we want. One of the impacts of these larger barrels is that the wines have a bit more freshness, energy and youthfulness, while still imparting the benefits of oak aging, where texturally the wine is smoothed out and carries a little bit of extra weight on the palate.
The goal for our winemaking team is to give ourselves many options down the road for blending. We may do one fermentation predominantly whole cluster, another fermentation predominately destemmed. We press it separately, so we get several barrels of wine, half are made in one style, the other half are made in a slightly different style. Ultimately that wine will come back together, but it will come back together in some proportion.
The barrels came from different fermentations that we produced differently; some of them have neutral oak, some of them have once-used oak, some of it is free run, some of it is pressed. And having several barrels that are slightly different allows our winemaker to have some variability within the wines and create layers of complexity in the finished wine, once it is all blended together.
At every stage of the winemaking process, we conduct lab analysis on the fruit and on wine, beginning when the grapes are picked all the way to bottling.
We monitor Brix, sugar, and pH with our lab equipment here at the winery. Anything more complex (i.e. testing levels of malic acids), we outsource to a reputable, local testing lab. It is also important to mention with the testing, the goal of doing this analysis is to ensure that we have clean and stable wines. When we bottle unfiltered wines, it is especially critical to know that there’s nothing undesirable growing in our wine.
The goal is to not do intervene on the wine unless we must, and that applies to filtering as well. We will filter our white wines and rosé for aesthetic clarity and to increase the stability of the wine. Rosé is a good example because it does not complete malolactic fermentation. We inhibit the malolactic fermentation intentionally to preserve the malic acid and create that bright, crisp rosé we love. Because we have inhibited the malolactic fermentation and the wine goes to bottle with malic acid in it, it is important to filter the wine. If it were not filtered, the malolactic fermentation would naturally happen in bottle, which would result in a flawed wine that nobody would want to drink. Red wines will get filtered for similar reasons. Sometimes the fatter, softer, riper wines have higher pH levels, and those wines are less stable. In that situation filtering can be a good alternative instead of adding a lot of sulfur (which we do not do).
There are no discernible negative impacts from filtration. Sometimes it may have the slightest effect on color. But the color does not really drive a lot of what we do. Our goal is to make sure our customers and club members get wines that love whenever they choose to open them, whether it is right after the release or ten years later where it is been in the cellar for a long time.
A lot of the work for bottling happens in advance of bottling day, when we will empty the barrels to tank. On bottling day, we will have all the bottling supplies staged at the winery, including all the glass, corks, labels, and capsules. We hire this large mobile bottling line to come to the winery. It is a big semi-truck that has all the bottling equipment. We first sanitize and sterilize their system, and then hook the hoses up to our tanks and go! It takes a crew of about ten people, so we will have the whole winery team helping on those bottling days. Typically, we recruit some of our valued wine club members or our friends over at the neighbor brewery, Captain Patty, to give us some extra help.
It is basically an assembly line where the wine goes in. Somebody places an empty case of glass on the conveyer belt. The bottles get picked up by the bottling line, spun upside down, blasted out with nitrogen to remove any dust particles or anything that could be in there. The bottle gets spun up on its side, dosed with liquid nitrogen to get the oxygen out of the bottle, and quickly filled with wine. It is then dosed again with liquid nitrogen right as it is being corked. The bottling line pulls a vacuum as well just to ensure that we are not getting any oxygen in the bottle.
The bottled wine continues around the bottling line where it gets a label. A crew member puts capsules on each individual bottle as they go by. Then they spit out the backend of the truck a bottle labeled, corked, capsule wine. We will have some folks on the end of the bottling line taking the full bottles putting them back in the cases, taping up the cases and stacking them on pallets.
Cleaning is on the most critical thing that we do, because a lot of the technical wine flaws that can ruin a wine are driven by failures in sanitation. At SAMsARA, we have a strict cleaning protocol that we use for our facility and all of our equipment. Having a clean cellar, clean equipment, clean barrels, clean drains, etc. is emblematic of how we do things, even beyond the obvious reasons of sanitation and prevention of any unwanted microbial activity in our wine.