The Art of Winemaking... from harvest to bottle
Amy Thorn, owner and winemaker, is passionate about each artisan wine she crafts. She believes that making great wine is a balance of experience, intuition, discipline and discovery. She personally selects and oversees each varietal’s production. Each vintage is created by premium fruit selection, fine winemaking, and master blending. Always mindful of producing exceptional high quality wines, her discerning palate and unrelenting attention to detail produce limited production artisan wines with as little as a few hundred cases per varietal. Amy breaks the process of winemaking into a seven crucial stages.
Stage One: It’s all about the grapes...
Making a world class wine all begins with quality grapes and the right terroir. The Thorn family chose vineyards sites from the world renowned grape growing regions of Napa, Sonoma and Lake Counties to produce their award winning wines.
Good winemaking begins in the vineyard with nurturing the grapes in order to cultivate fruit that is imbued with flavor and the nuances of the terroir. The terroir, (determined by location, climate, soil, drainage, and perfectly matched grape clone selection) is imperative in crafting a quality wine. Thorn employs vineyard management techniques that allow her grapes to achieve the height of ripeness, not only with the fruit but in the grape skins and seeds, all of which make up the characteristics of a truly superior wine. Through intuition and taste, Thorn discovers the expressive core of each site’s fruit and brings that expression forth in her wines year after year. Quality winemaking takes imagination, experience, a deft hand with technique and an openness to learn from each vintage.
Stage Two: Harvesting the Grapes
Picking the grapes in many ways is the second step in wine production. Amy makes the decision to harvest the grapes, by using a combination of smell, taste and chemistry. However she believes the most important factor in determining optimal ripeness is tasting the grapes.
When she thinks the grapes are ripe, she tests the level of sugar (called °Brix), acid (TA or tartaric acid) and PH of the grapes. Other considerations are berry flavor and tannin development (seed color and taste).
Stage Three: Crushing and Fermentation
When it comes to fine winemaking Thorn is a purist. Starting with harvest, each grape cluster is picked and sorted by hand; the grape clusters are then de-stemmed and crushed.
Crushing is the process of gently squeezing the berries to break the skins and get the juices flowing. With all the Thorn Hill vintages Amy crushes and de-stems the grapes gently to leave as many whole berries as possible. After the grapes are crushed they are hand sorted to pick out the remaining pieces of stems then gently transferred to the initial fermentation tanks where the yeast is added.
The yeast Amy uses during fermentation is thoughtfully matched to each grape varietal and each clone is fermented and aged separately. The use of a wide range of diverse wine yeasts allows accentuation of flavor, tannins, texture and mouth feel. Thorn is a non-interventionist winemaker who believes that both primary and secondary (malolactic) fermentation should occur naturally. With her red wines skin contact is extended during the cold soak and fermentation which allows for increased complexity and richer color in the finished wine. It is during the cold soak and fermentation period that she begins to create the fruit forward complex style inherent in all her wines.
Stage Four: The art of barrel selection
Thorn Hill’s wines are aged in hand selected French oak barrels until optimal flavor integration and aging is achieved, usually one year for white varietals and two years for red. Finding the perfect match for barrel aging a wine is paramount. For Amy the barrel is to wine what a frame is to a painting. Choosing the perfect barrel can accentuate the beauty and flavor of the wine or it can compete with it. She chooses barrels that accentuate the fruit in the wines. Proper barrel selection contributes to both the aromatics and mouth feel of a wine. One of the main reasons barrels affect the mouth feel and body of a wine comes from the fact that barrels breath, allowing a small amount of oxygen into the wine. This process is called microxygenation and it is an important step in fine winemaking. A young red wine is like a new rose. It starts out closed; all of its flavors and textures are tightly wrapped together. Barrel ageing helps the wine open up and come into balance, revealing it’s full blown beauty.
Stage Five: Secondary fermentation and barrel aging
It is during aging that the wine begins to come into its own. Thorn looks at this developmental stage as ‘raising’ the wine. It is during this period that she begins to cultivate the wine’s balance of overall fruit, oak flavors and sweetness. Through a series of gentle racking’s, followed by still periods of barrel aging in the cellar, the wine begins to integrate the structure and sweetness of the oak tannins with fruit from the vine. Working to develop the wine’s individual personality is a balancing act both for the wine and the winemaker.
Stage Six: The art of blending
It takes patience and faith to navigate through this process but the rewards come into play when Thorn begins the final balancing act of blending each vintage to make up the pièce de résistance, the finished wine. There is a masterful side to blending that not only requires an understanding of its mechanics but also requires a palate with finesse and an ability to envision a flavorful outcome. To become the best at blending, you must learn how to identify a particular wine's strengths before you can continue to improve that wine. What makes the wine stand out among the rest? What gives it distinction? For Amy this process is one of her favorites and is more like an art than a science.
Stage Seven: Bottling and bottle aging
Thorn carefully crafts each vintage to reflect the earthiness of its terroir, the richness of the fruit and the integration of the grape and oak tannins. Tie this in with bottling and releasing the wines at the appropriate level of development, while retaining great aging potential, and you have a vocation that Amy Thorn was born for.