Crane Creek Vineyards is a special place to be.
The wine, the views, and our vineyard family all contribute to our uniqueness. Although fermentation and post-fermentation winemaking operations are a very major part of what we do at Crane Creek, most of our focus is in the vineyard and in the initial winemaking stages of evaluating grape maturity, selective hand picking, gentle handling and small lot fermentation. When I got into the vineyard and winery business as a second career, wealth and fame were not my goals but truly, the pursuit of the “Jeffersonian Ideal”; that of a man living in harmony with nature and being rewarded in the bounty of the land.
Goal: I enjoy crisp white wines with a refreshing minerality. I like the weight of the wine to come from the vineyard, rather than the winemaking. I find that white wines best show their terroir through their aromas and acidity.
Harvest: As the years go by, I find myself making picking decisions less and less by lab analysis and more by personal sensory (smell, sight and taste) evaluation. Each year is different and the decision to pick can be determined by factors not found in textbooks. Even the aroma while walking through the vines is a harvest factor. As much as possible, our vineyards are picked by our regular staff supplemented by a hand full of regular seasonal hires. As a result there is a good understanding of the quality requirements.
Crush: After picking, the grapes go immediately to our destemmer/crusher. Destemmed and crushed grapes are then pumped into the press. We have ancient 1500-liter Wilmes pneumatic presses, which is great because of the gentle juice extraction and manual control. From the press the raw juice is pumped to a holding tank.
Fermentation: The juice is settled and chilled to about 50° F, usually overnight. The next day we will rack to a clean tank leaving any solids behind. At this time the yeast is pitched. Most white wines are fermented at 50° to 65° F (10° to 18° C). Chardonel is the only white we barrel ferment. All other whites are typically tank fermented.
Aging: I rack just as the wine reaches about 1 to 1.5 Brix to get the wine off its gross lees, then again after the wine has gone completely dry. I may then rack once or twice more in the life of the wine depending on sensory and visual evaluation. The final racking will be in preparation for bottling. Chardonel is aged on the lees (sur lie) for about 3 months and will be stirred occasionally depending on its development. Most whites are bottled in late spring in order to retain freshness and aromatics. The exceptions are the Chardonel, which is bottled in the summer. We try to give the bottled white wines at least a month or so of bottle aging here in our cellars.
Goal: We produce four separate red wines here at Crane Creek. They are designed to appeal to a wide range of wine drinkers. Hellbender Red and Brasstown Mountain Claret are wines that are made for aging and have depth, structure, and complexity. Our Mountain Harvest Red and Brasstown Red are wines that reflect the vintage and are typically approachable at a younger age and have straightforward, appealing flavors and structure. All our reds reflect the number of vineyards they are grown in and their corresponding terroir.
Harvest: pH is the most important harvest parameter for me. After years of being focused on the sugar content, I found the best red wine was made ultimately on the final pH being in the right window. As pH goes up there is an important change that happens as the skin changes from thick and resilient to thin and fragile. If my fingers are stained while sampling, this is a very good sign. Bird netting has been the single most important factor in raising our reds’ quality in the last few years. Netting allows us to extend the hang time of our red grapes avoiding the downward cycle of the fruit following bird damage. This allows me to focus on seed ripeness. Green seeds give undesirable green tannins to the wine. As the grapes continue to hang into early fall there may be insignificant changes in sugar and acid but seed ripeness will continue.
Crush: Our reds go through the destemmer/crusher immediately on the day of harvest. An addition of enological tannin and or enzymes may be added depending on the vintage and the variety.
Fermentation: Destemmed grapes are pumped into one ton open fermenters. On occasion we perform tank fermentation, pumping over, delestage, and extended skin maceration, but I much prefer the results of Burgundian open top/manual punch down. With this method I think the subtle aspects of the variatal are retained. Press timing decisions are made by evaluating tannin and color extraction. Usually this is just at or before dryness. We bucket the skins/wine into the press to avoid damaging skins by pumping. The young wine is settled for a few days in 400 gallon tanks, then racked into barrels to complete fermentation in our cellar.
Aging: We now use primarily American oak, both Pennsylvanian and Virginian. Typically 30% is new with most of the new oak used for Norton and Cabernet. We rack at least once during the winter to give the young wines oxygen, but then put them to bed by spring. They spend anywhere from 9 to 24 months in oak before bottling. Blending decisions are made once the individual wines show good evolution. A panel of mostly Crane Creek staff tastes to fine tune the blends. Red wines are usually bottled unfined and lightly filtered.