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Pressing Chard

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Posted: Sunday, September 19, 2010 4:09 pm

A crew of about a dozen strong backs arrived at the crack of dawn to Borra's Gill Creek Ranch north of Lockeford to pick Chardonnay last Friday. When I arrived at 8:30 a.m., they were about half done filling 22 off-white half-ton plastic bins.

Except for barely 1% of the bunches showing a few brown raisins as the result of minor sunburn during this season's two spurts of over-100-degree temps, the Chardonnay looked like radiant golden small-berried jewels.

I watched one of the crew standing on the sideboard of the tractor trailer teasing out brown leaves and imperfect grapes with small shears. "Whatever is sunburned we take out," explained Markus Niggli, winemaker for Borra Vineyards.

Obviously very excited about this year's high quality so far, Markus went on, "Fruit looks really insane. It's about 26 Brix, pH is below 3.4. Fantastic."

By about 10:30 a.m. the bins had been loaded onto a flatbed truck and trailer, and were on their way to the winery - not Borra's, but rather Van Ruiten Family Winery.

Chardonnay and most white winegrapes have been traditionally dumped right into the wine press, stems and all, ever since the early Robert Mondavi days, when it became known as "whole cluster press." It's a way of locking-in the more delicate aromas and flavors - the best feature of cool whites - that would otherwise be lost with extra handling, warming and oxidation.

Borra's press is right-sized for small lots of already-crushed and fermented red grapes, but would require many separate loads taking all day and into the night to be done with this Chardonnay.

On the other hand, as Van Ruiten has successfully grown to now become a medium-sized winery, their equipment has grown as well, and they are one of the few homes for a towering Bucher press. Borra's 11 tons of Chard would take only about 3 hours from loading to the final squeeze - much more efficient and better for quality than using a small press.

A big improvement on the backbreaking old wooden screw presses, the modern press is fully computerized and programmable, inflating, rotating and deflating on a flexible schedule.

Calling Van Ruiten's winemaker, Ryan Leeman, from the field, Markus requested a gentler "Champagne" program that means he'll get fewer gallons of juice from the grapes, but he'll also nearly eliminate any raisin taste from those sunburned berries.

This is the sort of teamwork between wineries that is consistently raising the quality of all Lodi wines.