Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Stalking the Shaw ’07 Pinot Noir

Stalking the Shaw ’07 Pinot Noir
by Rob Lane
(Finger Lakes Weekend Wino)

When the 2007 harvest was complete in the Finger Lakes region, I was particularly excited about one red varietal from the barrel tastings that I was experiencing. It was a grape that many experts said could never produce excellent wine in the Finger Lakes – Pinot Noir. And one ’07 Pinot Noir in particular piqued my curiosity – the ’07 Pinot Noir from Shaw Vineyard. Since I know that Steve Shaw, vineyardist/winemaker/owner of Shaw Vineyards on the west side of Seneca Lake, likes to take his time when releasing his reds, I made it a goal of mine to follow this particular wine through its entire journey from harvest to release.

So for the last 3 years, I have stalked this wine (with Steve’s permission, of course) and Steve has given me unprecedented access to tasting the wine at regular intervals over the last 3 years and all along the way I have been convinced that it was going to be a special wine. But let’s return to the birth of the Shaw ’07 Pinot Noir.

The climate in 2007 created good growing conditions with very hot and dry conditions for Shaw’s vines. As Shaw relates, “I like the Pinot vines to be stressed. But since my Pinot is grown in clay soil types, the vines are less susceptible to shutting down from lack of water, even in the almost droughtlike conditions over the summer of 2007”. Shaw has two 1-acre blocks of Pinot, located .6 miles and .8 miles from the lake shore. The Pinot Noir clones planted are Clones 7, 667, 115, and 777. Shaw uses the German-developed trellis system called Pendlebogen on a large portion of the vines. This trellising is essentially a system where the canes are allowed to arch and it gives a somewhat “wild vine” appearance. Shaw says that, in warm years like 2007, this system allows him to take full advantage of the ground heat. Steve relates that bunches closer to the ground can yield sugars up to 1 brix higher.

The vines are spaced 6 feet apart with 9 foot row spacing. Asked if shorter spacing would give any advantage, Shaw replies “The soils are so fertile here that closer spacing does not provide any additional stressing advantages and in my opinion, creates other airflow and disease issues.” He does not however mind some weed growth around the plants to make the vines struggle. Shaw believes wholeheartedly that the Pinot vines must be stressed to produce the best fruit. The theory is that when the vines are stressed, they will produce smaller but more flavorful fruit.

Shaw has been growing grapes in this region for many decades and he seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to timing the harvest. In late September of 2007, Steve called in his crew to pick the Pinot Noir. The Brix varied from 22 to 23.5, with yields of 2.5 to 3 tons per acre and all of the grapes were hand-picked and destemmed whole with no crushing, and with a very light pressing regimen. Shaw emphasizes, “I believe in gentle extraction, lots of patience, being mindful of the living product, and only interfering when necessary”.

Steve uses several European Burgundy variety yeasts with extended contact with the fine lees. 16 barrels of the ’07 Pinot Noir then spent the next 2 years of their lives lounging in 20% new French oak barrels and 80% 2 & 3 year old French oak barrels, with much of the third year spent in neutral oak barrels for micro-oxygenation and softening the tannins. When it came time to bottle, all 16 barrels were evaluated but only 13 were deemed to meet Steve's standards. 300 cases of the '07 Pinot Noir was bottled in June of 2010, allowed to age in the bottle for 5 months and released this month.

I barrel tasted this wine about twice a year for the last 3 years, my anticipation for the final product growing with each experience. But actually, the best part of these tastings (as any wine geek will say) was the wide-ranging wine discussions with Steve, where I got a glimpse inside the mind of someone with Steve’s vast experience. Steve has amazing patience with his wines. I know I wanted it in the bottle 2 years ago. The flavors and mouthfeel were exceptional from the start and became better at each tasting, with beautiful tannic structure that showed this wine’s stellar aging potential.

When Steve announced that he was releasing this wine in November, I was giddy with excitement. After all, I felt like I was, in some small way, a part of this wine. I had spent 3 years tasting it, discussing it, and experiencing it behind the scenes. The moment was at hand where I would finally taste the final product, and it did not disappoint.

First we tasted a new bottle. Right away, I smelled that familiar aroma of candied cherry that I experience in many excellent red wines, along with that classic Pinot earthiness. On the tongue, the rich berry flavors filled the front of the palate leading into deep notes of cassis and plum, with underlyng tones of anise, deep-roasted coffee, and a complex earthiness that made me smile. The tannic structure was still tight in this young wine, but not overly so, with a long complex finish featuring the positive oak elements.

But the real stunner came when Steve poured a glass from a bottle that he had opened the day before and corked overnight to give me an idea of what this wine will be like with several years of aging. Those tannins had unwound and opened up soft, ripe, and juicy berry flavors, with beautiful toasted vanilla from the oak integrating perfectly with the now deepened layers of cassis (with some raspberry undertones on the deep palate), earthiness, and roasted coffee flavors that lingered on longer than an Alaska Senatorial ballot count.

Was it worth the 3 year wait? You bet it was, and it will be worth another 3 year wait to see how this young wine develops. I will need the patience of Steve Shaw, though, to resist the temptation to open my prized ’07 Shaw Pinot Noir’s now snuggled in my wine cellar.

I thank Steve Shaw so much for allowing me into the world of a passionate and talented vineyardist and winemaker. When you talk with Steve, you can sense the intensity at which he pursues excellence in every aspect of his viticulture and winemaking. Shaw Vineyards is located on the west side of Seneca Lake, 14 miles north of Watkins Glen.