Big Reds: How To Make A Blockbuster Wine

Every home winemaker wants to make drinkable wine. Most home winemakers aspire to make really good wine. And lurking inside the heads of many home winemakers is the urge to make an absolute blockbuster, a jaw-dropping, mind-bending, 800-pound gorilla of a wine.

Admit it. Some of you crave making that wine. Some of you have tried; a few of you may even have pulled it off. Like everything else commercial winemakers do, there are ways to break the process down into its components and reproduce them in your garage — or at least get pretty close.

Before getting into the details of this style of wine, a word or two on motivation. That is, make sure you like to drink this kind of wine — high-extract, high-alcohol, in-your-face, fruity to the max. The kind of wine that makes writers use words like “opulent,” “decadent” or “impossibly dense.” We’re talking about Napa Cabernets with three-digit price tags, or hyper-ripe Zinfandels that seem to have three-digit alcohol percentages. Wines like this are controversial: they fetch high prices and bushels of critics’ points, but get knocked just as often for being over the top and verging on the freakish. If these are wines you seek out and enjoy anyway, you can save a bundle by making your own.

Definitions and Strategies

Let’s start by clarifying the concept of “blockbuster.” Blockbuster isn’t a quality rating; it’s a style description. No Riesling on earth, however perfect, will ever qualify as a blockbuster. That’s not what Riesling does, not even high-octane Alsatian Riesling. Blockbusters need to be really, Really, REALLY BIG wines, full-frontal smash mouth wines, something only a few red grape varieties can possibly morph into after determined work in the vineyard and the cellar.

Common characteristics of these wines include: big body, high alcohol (around 15% ABV); inky dark color; intense primary fruit flavors — “fruit bomb” is just as good a name; moderate to below average acidity, perceived as smoothness; a slight perception of sweetness, even if the wine is totally dry; noticeable oak flavors, again appearing mainly as sweetness and a fat, smooth, viscous mouthfeel.

The various considerations and practices described below, from the vineyard to fermentation to aging, all contribute to upping one or more of these characteristics. These wines don’t just happen; they aren’t the inevitable expression of certain special terroirs; they take a lot of calculated effort. Care must be taken to ensure that grapes are grown and harvested chock full of the right stuff, and cellar practices have to extract and preserve every bit of it and more. In fact, if there’s a general principle behind this kind of winemaking, it’s that if something is potentially good for wine, more of it is better.

In the Vineyard

For home winemakers, the hardest part of this project is getting the right grapes, since blockbuster wines can’t be coaxed out of sub-blockbuster grapes. If you can’t grow the right grapes yourself, be prepared to pay a pretty penny for your fruit. The prime Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that goes into some of these wines, for example, sells for $6,000– $7,000 a ton — and that’s the price for folks who buy in volume.

Realistically, your grape variety choices come down to Cabernet Sauvignon (or blends of Cab Sauv and its Bordeaux relatives), Zinfandel and Syrah. Cabernet leads the pack because of its small berry size, which means a higher ratio of skin to pulp, which means more extraction per unit of wine. Zinfandel grapes are famous for their ability to accumulate humongous amounts of sugar, resulting in humongous amounts of alcohol. Syrah, at least from warm climates, has plenty of fruit and color and few hang-ups, making it highly malleable in the hands of winemakers — much in the way Chardonnay is a winemaker’s white grape.

There are other options, at least theoretically. The biggest wines from certain Mediterranean growing regions sometimes make the cut: France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Spain’s Priorat, for example, both yielding wines based on gnarly old-vine Grenache/Garnacha, are contenders. Some examples of Brunello di Montalcino from toasty Tuscany have been nearing blockbuster status, at least until it was discovered that many had Cabernet blended into them. Barolos and Sagrantinos can be downright bellicose as youngsters, but they grow up to be wines of some delicacy. Attempts to transform California Pinot Noir into a blockbuster wine have had at best mixed results. Blockbuster Chambourcin? Not likely.

Your candidate grapes also need to be grown in a moderately warm climate in order to reliably reach elevated levels of ripeness, both in flavor composition and sugar content. These are emphatically New World wines, and mainly from California and Australia; you won’t find them in New Zealand or the Finger Lakes, and only rarely from European producers in the most Mediterranean of climates. Cooler-climate grapes reach flavor maturity at significantly lower sugar levels; they may deliver intense, focused fruit, but in the context of lower alcohol, higher acidity, and more evident tannin structure. Truly hot climates, on the other hand (i.e. California’s Central Valley) produce grapes with bland fruit and stubbornly unextractable phenolics.

Even with a boost from warm climates, blockbuster grapes need a steady diet of sunshine in order to ripen away anything resembling green, herbal, pyrazine-like flavors and aromas. A couple decades ago, an herbal element was a standard varietal descriptor; these days, Napa winemakers and their international counterparts are green-phobic in the extreme. To ensure sun exposure, the trellising system du jour for fancy California grapes is some form of Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP), in which vines are trained straight up through a series of wires, with the fruit exposed at one level and all the leaves in a kind of solar array higher up, not shading the clusters.

Historically, VSP was developed in and for cool-climate regions, including New Zealand and Germany, where every hour of sunlight counts. Transplanted to warmer climes, VSP encourages super-ripeness and high sugar accumulations, and is one component of the recent rise in alcohol levels. VSP has a number of advantages for growers, but its migration to sun-rich regions has some hidden consequences. In the 2010 harvest in California, for example, the extreme heat spikes that punctuated a generally cool vintage led to considerable sunburn and shrivel on VSP systems, leading some growers to reconsider whether that was the best way to go. But VSP certainly banishes the greenies.

Proto-blockbuster grapes also tend to come from very low-yielding vineyards, letting the vines concentrate their bounty of goodies in smaller amounts of fruit. The natural way to get this concentration effect is letting the vines age, preferably for several decades, giving us the joys of old-vine Zinfandel and Grenache in various places. More common these days is crop reduction on younger vines by way of clippers and knives, so-called “green harvesting” or fruit dropping. Frequently a good portion of the fruit that is initially set will be lopped off soon after veraison, and another round of cluster thinning may be employed nearer to harvest. The smaller the crop load, according to the theory, the more attention the vines can give to the remaining clusters, and the more saturated with goodies their berries become.

Starting in the 1980s, viticultural researchers in several countries discovered a great deal about how vine water supply in the rooting zone influences things above ground. The upshot has been various schemes for Reduced Deficit Irrigation (RDI), rationing water and controlling its timing to stress the vines at certain times and thus promote quality fruit. Even though much initial research was done on un-irrigated European vineyards, the lessons are clearly best applied where the quantity and timing of water can be precisely monitored and controlled.

Two elements are key for our blockbuster grapes. Restricting the amount of water available to the vines in the period just before veraison helps keep berry size small. Shutting off water in the final countdown to harvest ensures that the grapes don’t fill with water, but rather with sugar, and begin to dehydrate, even shrivel, starting down the slippery slope to raisining. Smaller grapes plus less water equals bigger wines. It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of blockbuster wines come from irrigated vineyards, not dry-farmed plots, however notable their terroir.

Proto-blockbuster grapes not only need lots of heat and lots of sun, but they need those things for a good, long time — for “extended hang time.” Many winemakers and growers talk about the need for “physiological ripeness,” a somewhat fuzzy concept, but one which includes elimination of any hint of green flavors, seeds changing color from greenish to brownish, and harsh tannins receding or disappearing from the skins when they’re chewed. Standard practice in the new viticulture means keeping clusters on the vines for two or three weeks beyond the point when they reach what used to be “normal” sugar accumulation and acidity/pH balance. Though the goal is getting past any form of greenness, extended hang time also increases the level of sugar, lowers acidity and raises pH, increases polysaccharide formation, and moves flavors along the line from ripe to ultra-ripe to just short of cooked.

Harvest Brix is thus likely to be somewhere between 26 and 30 °Brix, possibly even higher. Depending on the winemaker’s preferences, that elevated sugar may just ferment through to a high-alcohol wine, or get restrained by water additions at the crusher, or get undone by some form of alcohol removal on the finished wine. One way or another, lots of sugar at harvest is the price paid for getting all the other desired characteristics in the grapes.

Obtaining grapes grown along these lines isn’t easy or cheap, and again, there’s no way to force a blockbuster wine out of grapes Nature intended for another purpose. Winemakers do a lot of great things with Cabernet Franc in the Finger Lakes, but making muscle wines isn’t one of them, and short of massive global warming, won’t ever be.

Since the smallest possible vehicle for maturing this kind of wine is a 30-gallon (110-L) barrel, you’ll need at least 500 pounds (230 kg) of grapes.

Extraction in the Cellar

If the goal of all the vineyard action is concentration, the aim in the cellar is extraction — getting all those goodies built up over several months into solution. Heightening extraction is the common thread running through decisions made about yeast choices, maceration time, temperature, and the use of various additives along the way.

Step one is ruthless, painstaking sorting, getting out anything that might detract from the wine. Leaves and other kinds of MOG (material other than grapes) are just the starting point; any clusters or even individual berries with mildew damage, insect damage, sunburn or other maladies aren’t welcome at this party. It takes a careful and practiced eye to differentiate between genuine shriveled grapes (good) and sunburn-blasted grapes (bad).
You might think that the kickoff event would be an aggressive crush, ripping those little berries apart to make it easier to suck out their inner treasures. Instead, blockbusters start with the gentlest possible crush, sometimes only with destemming, resulting in a large proportion of whole berries. These grapes will get plenty of extraction without being shredded, and starting with fairly intact berries contributes to the overall fruitiness of the wine.

As with any other bunch of grapes, you need to know your initial juice chemistry numbers — but don’t expect them to follow the textbooks. Brix will be quite high. The juice pH is also likely to be quite high — 3.8 to 4.0 is par for the course — and this may require some adjustment through acid additions. But typically, these wines only get modestly tweaked; acidity is likely to be not much over five grams per liter, and pH values in the very high 3 range are routine. It’s not that anyone likes high pH on principle; but the perception of too much acid will just make the high alcohol stick out that much further. Adding 25–50 parts per million of sulfur dioxide at the crusher is routine; these wines are too valuable to entrust to ambient microbes.

Cold soaks are a common technique; even though the idea mainly originated with the Pinot crowd, plenty of Cabernet and Syrah and Zinfandel producers have adopted the approach, since it offers another avenue for extraction. Three or four days, chilled down under 60 °F (16 °C), will start the juices flowing and begin pulling out the pigment, which only needs water to free it from the skins.

Macerating enzymes are standard, adding another weapon for breaking down the skin cell structure and releasing what’s inside. It’s not entirely clear that color-extraction enzymes do all that much for long-run color stability, but they certainly do pull out more tannins and possibly some flavor and aroma compounds and precursors who are reluctant to leave their homes in the berries. Even if your grapes have lots of color and tannin, you want to get more of it out.

Use a commercial yeast strain with a high alcohol tolerance, a high temperature tolerance and a capacity to build structure makers. You can usually pull off a dandy fermentation with half the suggested starter dose of yeast; here, you might want to double the dose, to ensure rapid growth to a large biomass, useful both for getting the fermentation finished and for shedding yeast components that add to the desired density of the wine. Yeast nutrients should certainly be part of the package; the yeasties will likely need some help.

The grapes were grown to be stuffed with tannins, polysaccharides and precursors for this and that, but blockbuster winemakers rarely rely just on their grapes. For future mouthfeel emnhancement, additions of oak chips or powder or grape tannin products, or yeast hulls and other yeast-derived products, or both, are near-universal. Added tannin may help in speeding up the process of fixing color into stable forms, and also seems to somehow neutralize any of those pesky green elements that made it into the fermenter. While live yeast turns sugar into alcohol, dead yeast and their extracts can still contribute things like mannoproteins that affect texture; this is the same gift that comes from stirring lees in wine over time, only front-loaded.

Temperature is an important solvent for extraction, so warm-to-hot fermentation is appropriate, pushing 90 °F (32 °C) for at least some period of time. Punchdowns or pumpovers are generally vigorous and frequent. The technique of délestage or rack-and-return — separating the developing liquid wine from the skins and seeds in mid-ferment, aerating both for a few hours, then recombining — is frequently used to give the fermentation a fresh shot of oxygen. Toward the same end, some fermenters are constructed so that oxygen can be injected directly into the churning must. Once the wine reaches dryness or near-dryness, it may stay on the skins for some period of extended maceration; here ethanol gets its turn as the chief solvent.

After all that, grapes which arrived loaded with sugar may yield a wine that has a pinch still unfermented — and in blockbusterland, that could be just fine. The really big bruiser wines from California or Australia often have some measurable residual sugar — half a gram per liter, even a gram — which only multiplies the fruitiness and sense of body. The finagled wine has to be made stable, through filtration or other means, but the presence of some sugar is more like a feature than a flaw.

Like any other red, blockbusters go through malolactic, and usually as quickly as possible, using a commercial bacterial starter and nutrients. The sooner malo is accomplished, the sooner the wine can get hit with sulfur dioxide — and with high pH wines, that day can’t come too soon.

Aging Blockbuster Reds

Now that our blockbuster is officially a wine, we need to hold onto what we’ve got and do whatever final adjustments are needed to make it sleek and seamless. For openers, as soon as the malolactic fermentation is complete, the wine needs a dose of sulfur dioxide commensurate with its pH. As pH rises, appropriate sulfur levels rise logarithmically: a wine with a pH of 3.6 needs an addition of 50 parts per million to achieve the desired 0.8 gram molecular level, but a wine at 3.9 needs 99 parts, twice as much. Even then, the efficacy of the sulfur dioxide gets iffier and iffier as you go up the scale. But without the sulfur dioxide, high pH wines are in danger of turning into Petri dishes.

Blockbusters thrive on new oak, and lots of it. Most of it is French, but that may mostly be for status reasons; a good deal of Australian muscle wine matures in American oak, and California is discovering the value of domestic wood. Some winemakers in this groove have gone beyond the seeming threshold of 100% new oak to boast of 200% new oak — a year in a new barrel, followed by a second year in another new barrel. It is characteristic of these wines that oak influence is well above threshold level: the oak aging contributes not just subliminal richness and roundness, but distinct flavors, from vanilla to spice to chocolate and beyond. Since these wines are deeply concentrated, they can embrace a considerable amount of oak without losing their fruitiness, but the presence of some oak is part of the flavor palate.

Zinfandels in this style may come around and be ready for finishing and bottling in 18 months; Cabernets may take 30 months, and Syrahs land somewhere in the middle. Barrel aging is important for integrating various elements of the wine, making it rounder, and possibly letting some alcohol evaporate over time. Slow oxidation moves various chemical processes along; slow evaporation (of water as well as alcohol) continues the process of concentration. During aging, to maximize the value of the yeast and yeast products in the mix, lees stirring can further enhance the dense, viscous mouthfeel.

Such big wines — with lots of fruit, lots of alcohol, lots of tannin, and lots of oak — may need some attitude adjustment before bottling. Many critics of this big style call it unbalanced, but I think the best of them are simply balanced in a different way, using a different matrix. For these wines, as for “normal” wines, balance means not having one element stick too far out, and blockbuster winemakers aim to do that.

The elevated alcohol and consequent big body only work when the wine carries an immense load of fruit and has moderate to low acidity; without those balancing factors, the same level of alcohol would seem patently hot. Higher acidity would also accentuate tannin astringency. These wines generally contain massive amounts of tannins, but they are often described as “smooth,” “silky” or “supple,” not “harsh” or ”drying” or “rough.” The difference is likely not in the composition of the tannins themselves, but in the presence of mitigating and masking factors. Their high pH goes against the traditional recipe for ageability, but that is balanced by the higher alcohol, one heck of a preservative.

Two kinds of balance adjustments frequently come into play. If the alcohol sticks out, some of it can simply be removed through reverse osmosis or spinning cone technology, and a “sweet spot” in better balance can be obtained for the wine. This one, alas, you can’t take advantage of at home, unless you want to spend a couple grand for a mobile line to come out to your garage. The other likely issue is excess tannin buildup, the legacy of already tannic grapes, relentless extraction and oak or grape tannin additions. Some form of fining to remove tannins may be in order, or gum arabic can be added just before bottling.

If the wine, big as it is, doesn’t come across as complete, blending may be in order. A bit of Cabernet Franc can lengthen the finish of a Cabernet Sauvignon; a splash of Petite Sirah can give a Zinfandel more bass notes. And winemakers who are still not happy with the color intensity they have achieved, color enzymes and all, can add a splash of Mega Purple or one of its cousins, concentrates made from teinturier (red pulp) varieties like Rubired. A gallon of Mega Purple goes a long way for about $100.

Drink Now or Later?

Blockbuster wines are designed not only to be impressive early, for the enjoyment of wine critics, but to be consumed early. All that fruit, combined with the absence of biting acidity and out-front tannin, makes for an inviting mouthful. Many of these wines, of course, are not consumed at all; they’re snapped up by collectors and speculators and traded from person to person at wine auctions. But yours will be drunk, and it should be ready to drink shortly after bottling.

Do blockbusters age? The jury is still out, since we don’t have any 25-year-old blockbusters to try. The ones that are a decade old get mixed reviews: some hold up well, some fall apart entirely. Drinkers who like this kind of wine young also tend to find virtues in it a decade later, and those who can’t stand them young rarely fall in love with them with the passage of time. But you, if you make some of this stuff, can squirrel away a couple cases and try them every few years and let me know.