A New Harvest 2010 Photo Essay
Winemaker Ryan Hebert discusses the end of the 2010 Harvest

Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed

We're making Vin de Paille this year for the first time since 2007.  For those of you who don't know (we don't make much of the Vin de Paille, and it generally doesn't make it into distribution) Vin de Paille is a process of making dessert wines.  Grape bunches are laid on straw to dehydrate in the sun, and fermented only when they get to the desired concentration.  The name in french means "wine of straw".

We started making Vin de Paille out of Roussanne with the 2003 vintage, and continued to make whites in 2004, 2005 and 2006.  We made a red out of Mourvedre also in 2003, and then again in 2005, 2006 and 2007.  We haven't made either wine the last two years due to wanting to protect our dry wines given the short crops we've faced.  But with the resumption of healthy yields this year, we're thrilled to be able to begin again.

Vin de Paille is not the easiest method of making dessert wines.  In fact, it's so labor intensive that hardly anyone does it.  But the other dessert wine options weren't practical here.  Roughly in the order of easiest to hardest, the common methods of making dessert wine are:

  • Late harvest: This is probably the easiest method; you just leave the grapes on the vine an extra few weeks so that they accumulate more sugar.  The downside is that as you accumulate sugar, you also lose acidity, and in an area where the sun is intense at the end of harvest (like Paso Robles) you can end up with grapes that taste cooked.  We generally haven't liked the late harvest wines we've had from Paso Robles, or those we've had from Rhone varieties.
  • Fortified: Alcohol above about a 17% concentration is fatal to yeasts.  So, one way of keeping sweetness in wine is to add brandy or neutral spirits to wine in mid-fermentation to get the alcohol concentration up to around 20% or so.  This is what is done in Port and Banyuls.  But the result is that you end up with a much more alcoholic drink, which typically has a fiery aftertaste, and the sweetness often has an artificial quality to it because it was stopped mid-fermentation.  We have not much liked the California port-style wines we've tried.
  • Botrytis: Botrytis is a fungus that dehydrates the grapes without donating spoilage flavors (for this, it's sometimes called "noble rot").  It's the typical means by which Sauternes grapes are concentrated, as well as many German and Alsacian dessert wines and Tokaji in Hungary.  Unfortunately, Paso Robles is generally too dry to allow botrytis to flourish, and while some vineyard owners will seed their land with botrytis spores, this can have negative consequences in future years.  Overall, it seemed too risky and difficult for us to attempt artificially here.
  • Ice Wine: Ice wines are made in colder regions like Germany and the Great Lakes regions of New York and Ontario.  Berries are harvested, typically in December, still frozen after a cold night and pressed immediately.  Because the ice crystals stay solid in the press, the juice that comes out is sweeter and more concentrated than it otherwise would have been.  Unfortunately, while Paso Robles does get cold at night, our first hard freezes are typically a month too late, after any grapes still hanging out in the vineyard would have been cooked by the sun.

So, we returned to the models of the Rhone Valley, where vin de paille has been made for centuries in the northern Rhone appellation of Hermitage.  Both Roussanne and Marsanne take well to this technique, and get an intense honeyed stone fruit character that makes for wonderful drinking.  Unfortunately, the process is very labor intensive.  Grapes have to be carefully harvested by hand and then carried in their picking baskets down to where they'll be laid onto straw.  Straw is a desirable bedding because it allows air to circulate and naturally resists mold.  The clusters have to be brought to the straw by hand; they can't be dumped into picking bins and driven down because the weight of the clusters on top will bruise the bottom clusters sufficiently that they'll rot rather than drying.  The clusters have to be carefully chosen to not have any imperfections or rot because rot can spread quickly to other clusters, and broken or bruised berries start attracting bees and insects.

After about three weeks on the straw, the clusters are now home to semi-raisins: grapes that have concentrated their sugars to somewhere in the 350-400 grams per liter range.  They're now picked back up and driven up to the winery, where they are pressed and moved to barrel (if they're whites) or crushed by foot in a small bin (if they're reds) and allowed to macerate for 10 days or so before being pressed into barrel.  The wines then ferment slowly over the next 6 months or so and stopped by the addition of sulfur dioxide when they get to the balance of sweetness, acidity and minerality that we want.  They're typically quite sweet, 150 grams per liter residual sugar or so, but with vibrant acids that give the wines balance.  They tend to have low alcohols, in the 8% - 12% range, which makes them wonderfully refreshing compared to ports or other fortified wines.  And they age, essentially, forever.

Some photos of the grapes in the greenhouse should give you a feel for at least the beginning stages of the process.  As usual, the complete photo album can be found on the Tablas Creek Facebook page.

Grapes are laid down on our greenhouse benches, Roussanne on the left and Mourvedre on the right:

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Closeups of the clusters after a week in the greenhouse show them starting to dehydrate:

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The greenhouse benches and the straw allow air to circulate under the clusters as well as on top, which promotes even drying and discourages rot.  I love this photo:


One more shot, taken through the greenhouse door, shows a little better how everything is laid out:


These grapes won't likely see bottle for another couple of years.  But it's great to have the process started again.