Making Wines with Finesse

The mantra for the quest for making a big blockbuster type of wine is “more is better” — more sugar in the grapes, more alcohol in the wine, more extraction, more color and more wood. (And in the commercial marketplace, usually more bucks per bottle.)

So if that’s not your style, what’s the alternative? No, it’s not wimpy wine, or thin or pale or mediocre wine, but wine with finesse. The alternative to sheer power isn’t weakness. It is, as the American Heritage Dictionary sees it, “Refinement and delicacy of performance, execution, or artisanship.” It’s the light touch, the slow hand; it’s Billie Holiday, not Lady Gaga. And it’s not just a quality that magically ends up in some wines and not others; it’s a way of approaching your winemaking, a methodology, a subtle series of tactical maneuvers. American Heritage offers this as its final definition: “A stratagem in which one appears to decline an advantage.” Passing on more may deliver better.

Making finesse a goal immediately raises two problems. First, it’s a subjective characteristic and hard to quantify. By contrast, most of the properties of a blockbuster — potent alcohol, oak flavors, inky color — can be measured and, if necessary, purchased in bulk. Good luck ordering a bag of finesse on the internet. And then there’s immediacy: you know the instant a blockbuster crosses your lips, but you have to sip and swallow and ponder and sip again before the finesse receptor lights up. Unlike blockbusters, finesse wines are marked as much by what isn’t there as by what is.

I’ll stop now, before I go all Zen on you, but I think most wine drinkers know what I’m talking about. The heart of the matter is balance, harmony, the right mix of tannin, acid, fruit, alcohol, and (perhaps) oak, a package that comes across as a whole, seamless wine, not a jumble of elements. And that whole wine should be complete, with an intriguing nose, a pleasant entry into the mouth, something for every surface of the tongue, the sides, the roof of the mouth, and a finish that may surprise you with its length, but not with its lingering flavor profile.

Blockbusters make people say, “Wow!” Finesse wines make people murmur, “Aaaahhhh. . .” Finesse wines get described as pretty or lovely whereas blockbusters get described as “kick-ass.” You get the picture.

Characteristics and Strategies

It might seem that the finesse recipe would simply take the blockbuster checklist and undo or reverse all of it — but that’s not right. Finesse wines still need ripe fruit, good color, good body, and so on; but there are subtle differences in approach at every point from vineyard practices to barrel aging.

The common characteristics of the blockbuster style are: 1.) big body, high alcohol, up near 15% ABV; 2.) inky dark color; 3.) intense primary fruit flavors —a “fruit bomb;” 4.) moderate to below average acidity, perceived as smoothness; 5.) a slight perception of sweetness (even if the wine is totally dry); 6.) noticeable oak flavors, again appearing mainly as sweetness; and finally, 7.) fat, smooth, viscous mouthfeel, with no unpleasant tannic edge.

Tweaked for finesse, the list might read like this: 1.) good body (for that variety), with moderate alcohol; 2.) rich color (again, varietally appropriate); 3.) definite primary fruit flavors, but with non-fruit notes for complexity; 4.) moderate to bright acidity, perceived as refreshment; 5.) dry, but long and pleasant finish; 6.) subliminal oak, adding richness, not overt flavor; and 7.) rounded mouthfeel, silky but lively.

Balancing Flavors In The Vineyard

For this school of winemaking, the quality — and qualities — of the incoming grapes are even more important than for the blockbuster style. Here we come closer to the slightly overdone notion of “wine made in the vineyard.” Because you will do less overt intervention in the cellar, the fruit has to arrive with the right stuff.

Finessed red wines can be made with a broad range of grapes. Blockbuster Beaujolais is an oxymoron, but Beaujolais with finesse is perfectly plausible. The poster grape for finesse wines is, of course, Pinot Noir; repeated attempts to turn Pinot Noir into a blockbuster in California have produced some downright freakish wines. Grenaches, Rhône blends, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Syrah, any of the Bordeaux varieties, Chambourcin and the other top-tier red hybrids — pick your grape. The options are numerous because one of the hallmarks of the style is fidelity to varietal character, which hardly makes it onto the blockbuster checklist. In the finesse world, “medium-bodied” isn’t a defect; it’s the norm for Sangiovese and even Zinfandel. Colors other than inky black are also welcomed, even sought after.

Finesse-grade grapes are likely to come from cooler climates, at least on the cooler end of the range in which the variety ripens successfully. Ripening wine grapes seem most contented when high temperatures are somewhere in the 80s °F (around 30 °C) a majority of the time. Using that as the happy medium, my rule of thumb for “cool” climates is places where there are a fair number of days in the growing season on which the temperature doesn’t make it to 80 °F (27 °C), and “warm” climes are those with a fair number of days up above 90 °F (32 °C). Variety matters; a fairly “cool” climate for Tempranillo might still be too toasty for Pinot Noir.

Growing grapes on the cool side has two advantages. First, that climate profile will preserve a higher level of natural acidity all the way through harvest, and the more tartaric acid that has to be added in the cellar, the more artifice gets layered on top of your finesse. Second, cooler temperatures are more likely to keep the accumulation of sugar in synch with the accumulation of flavor, not requiring super-high °Brix levels to achieve grape maturity.

The grapes still need plenty of sunshine, especially since cool climates often feature foggy mornings and even the occasional growing season cloud cover. Sun exposure can be aided by location, with higher latitudes receiving more summer sunlight hours (Washington State grapes get more daylight hours than California grapes) and higher elevations getting more sun intensity, even with lower temperatures. Just as important is canopy management, making sure to limit leaf cover; this concern prompted the development of Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) systems, which train leaves and clusters to different heights, giving both sun, rather than shading the fruit with foliage.

Cool climate grapes and growers have to try harder to get from green to ripe, both in terms of sugar accumulation and flavor development. Both from drinking wine and making wine, I have become convinced of the old adage that any grape variety does its best in a climate in which it struggles to get ripe — or gets ripe often enough for the grower to stay in business. Over-warm climates make for lazy grapes; just-warm-enough climates make for grapes with more character and balance.

Unlike the fruit-only blockbuster school, the finesse school of winemaking is not always and inalterably opposed to any hint of “green,” herbal flavors and aromas. Indeed, a pinch of rosemary or pine or forest floor — and just a pinch — can rack up additional complexity points, and aid considerably in food pairing. But in the fruit department, berry for berry, cool-climate grapes carry more intense, concentrated fruit flavors. What makes warm-weather “fruit bombs” fruity is that they are amped up by some combination of high alcohol, sweetish oak and perhaps even residual sugar; cool-climate grapes come by their fruit naturally.

Blockbuster grapes usually get and benefit from extended hang time on the vine, raising sugar levels to get super-ripe flavor development; finesse grapes are lucky to get ripe at all, and hit their flavor peak at lower sugar levels. Expect sugar levels somewhere in the 23–25 °Brix range, depending on the variety and vintage; anything at 26 °Brix or above should be brought back down to earth with an addition of acidulated water. Initial fruit acidity should be on the relatively high side, up around 7 or 8 g/L; it will drop a bit during both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, so not to worry. Grape pH should be down around 3.4–3.5, important for color stability and for minimizing the amount of sulfur dioxide needed to protect the wine.

Let me try a more specific example. Cabernet Franc, for example, is more likely to produce finesse wine in France’s comparatively cool Loire Valley or up in New York’s Finger Lakes than in Napa, where a power wine is a more likely outcome. Bordeaux’s climate is somewhere in between; there Cabernet Franc ripens fairly easily, while Cabernet Sauvignon has to struggle — a good part of why it’s the premier variety.

Finding grapes that fit the finesse profile may take some work, especially if your easily obtainable options all come from sunny California, where this is not the trendy style. Try tasting wines, amateur or commercial, made from the source vineyard or nearby growers. If you have multiple options, all else being equal, give strong consideration to the coolest source in the mix.

Finally, like any serious red, wines that show finesse have to be made in barrel-sized lots, at least a 30-gallon (110-L) half barrel, which means 500 lbs. (230 kg) of grapes.

Coaxing Out Character In The Cellar

In the cellar, blockbuster wines benefit from more of everything; finesse wines benefit from nothing more than is necessary — but some things certainly are necessary.

Spend the time to sort over the grapes carefully, getting rid of leaves, stray vineyard debris, earwigs and any other form of MOG (material other than grapes). Gentle crushing and destemming, leaving some whole berries intact, is good practice for any winemaking style. Some producers, especially in the Pinot world, like to include a portion of whole clusters, stems and all, in their fermentations. If you try this, do only a small portion the first time around, and only include stems if they have matured to a nutty brown, no longer a neon green.

Once the grapes are crushed, or perhaps the next day after some liquid extraction has happened, check the grape chemistry and adjust it as needed. If the profile is far out of whack — sugar at 27 °Brix, pH up at 3.8, acidity down under 5 g/L —the adjustments need to be more than minor. You cannot force unbalanced grapes to make high-finesse wines, but it is your job as winemaker to at least make them into something much more drinkable.

Pinot producers almost universally put their grapes through a few days of cold soak before fermentation begins in earnest; the practice is not yet legally mandatory in any state, but that time may not be far off. In any case, for Pinot and many other grapes, letting crushed grapes sit in their own juices for a time, without significant yeast activity or heat, gives a gentle start to extraction, and opens up the possibility, later on, of pressing before dryness if too much tannin is coming out. If you use a cold soak, make sure the temperature stays under 60 °F (16 °C), and keep the grapes covered and preferably blanketed with carbon dioxide or some other inert gas.

Standard, safe winemaking protocols call for a routine small addition of sulfur dioxide (SO2) during or right after crushing, 20–50 parts per million, enough to knock back any populations of rogue yeasts and stray bacteria and clear the path for whatever yeast the winemaker chooses. For home winemakers, especially starting out, this is the sensible way to go.

One alternative, taking a calculated risk, is to postpone the initial sulfur addition a few days, letting any ambient yeast strains from the vineyard or winery have their fun before shutting them down with SO2 and turning the job of completing the fermentation over to a commercial yeast strain.

Here’s a scenario for the latter approach. Starting with healthy, clean fruit, let the grapes do a day or two of cold soak, assuming you can control the temperature, without benefit of sulfur. Add a rehydrated commercial Saccharomyces yeast strain, but just puddle it on top of the grapes, not mixing it in. In the day or two it takes the top yeast to start serious bubbling, the wild things down lower in the fermenter will still have some chance to do their thing, hopefully paying off in some additional aromatic and flavor notes. Once the top yeast gets going, make the initial sulfur addition as well, and mix the batch of grapes thoroughly.
There are seemingly endless numbers of yeast strains on the market, though some are hard to procure in home-sized quantities. Yeast producers and suppliers are good sources of information on what yeast to match with what grape, but keep in mind that every fermentation has its own characteristics and may not match the lab results obtained by the yeast company. Once again, for complexity’s sake, try splitting your grapes into two or three batches and use different yeasts, and then ultimately blend the results.

In a perfect world, home winemakers would have information about the nutritional status of their grapes, especially the amount of yeast-available nitrogen (YAN). Some grape growers and suppliers furnish this information, or it can be obtained from a lab sample, but most often, home winemakers are in the dark. The reason this matters is that ideally, you want to make sure your yeast have enough nutrients available to do their work, but no more. Yeast that has to work hard (like vines that have to struggle to ripen) make better wine; yeast swimming in packaged nutrients like diammonium phosphate (DAP) have it far too easy, and the result is monochromatic wine. Plus, excessive nutrient additions mean that after fermentation is complete, there are still plenty of goodies around to feed Brettanomyces and other spoilage organisms.

In the absence of YAN information, the rule is simply, don’t overdo it. Take the suggested nutrient dosage, split it into several pieces, add one, add another the next day, see how the fermentation is going, and coax it along. Keep a close eye (and nose) on the fermentation, and be prepared to do a nutrient boost if things get sluggish and verging on stinky.

Most of the ever-expanding roster of enzymes, tannin enhancers, and yeast-based additives were developed for and work best on problem fruit — overcropped, underripe, color deficient, rained on during harvest. With healthy fruit, it’s not always clear why these processing aids should be employed, and their over-use can yield awkward, over-extracted wines and impair varietal character. Trying to make Zinfandel, let alone Pinot Noir, have the color of Cabernet Sauvignon by applying color enzymes probably won’t work, and surely won’t get you many finesse points. It’s not that these products should never be used, just that they should be used only for some good reason.

There are nearly as many theories about the ideal red wine fermentation temperature as there are winemakers. Some like peak temperatures to get quite hot, up around 90 °F (32 °C), for maximum extraction, while some prefer cooler, down nearer 80 °F (27 °C), to preserve fruit flavors. Some like the temperature to peak as early as possible, some nearer the end of fermentation. There is probably no universal “right” answer here, but when I have finesse on the brain, I usually go for moderate temperatures and an early peak period.

Since we are aiming for a dry style, pressing will normally come when the wine has fermented completely. On a standard hydrometer, that means the reading has fallen a degree or two below 0 °Brix. Another, perhaps better indicator is when the cap of skins and seeds falls back into the wine, no longer pushed up by the generation of carbon dioxide.

Many commercial wines that fit the finesse profile benefit from some period of extended maceration past dryness, but trying this technique in your garage is effectively impossible without risking serious spoilage.


After pressing and before going to barrel, settle the wine briefly in carboys or a small tank in order to get rid of the grossest of the gross lees, then rack into the barrel(s). Since 100% pure primary fruit is not necessarily our goal here, the wine can go to barrel pretty quickly, pretty “dirty,” after only a day or two of settling. The heaviest junk falls first; having a lot of the spent yeast around in barrel can help with flavor and texture.

Your wine should certainly go through malolactic fermentation, normally right after it goes into barrel. Cool-climate grapes tend to be higher in malic acid, so the rounding effect of transforming it into lactic acid is welcome. For safety and stability, putting your wine through malolactic quickly, using a commercial culture and a malolactic nutrient and ensuring a high enough temperature (over 60 °F/16 °C) is the best course. For complexity, a longer, slower malolactic fermentation can yield results, but that only works in a very clean, temperature-controlled winery. Test after a few weeks for malolactic completion, and once it’s done, do a major SO2 addition proportional to the wine’s pH.

Barrel aging for this style of wine is important primarily for rounding and integrating the elements of the wine through very slow oxidation, and for added concentration through slight evaporation over time. Not, in other words, for noticeable oak flavoring. The goal is for the wine to taste like it has been aged in wood, not in a sterile tank, but not for it to taste like the wood itself. The time in oak should add richness and perhaps oak flavor at a more or less subliminal level. To this end, the main question is not so much choosing between French, American, and Hungarian oak, but deciding how much of it, if any, should be new oak.

Generally, new oak should be only a small percentage of the mix; if you have only a single barrel, it should be at least a second or third fill. If you use a thoroughly neutral barrel — more than five years old — you can consider spicing the mix with a small amount of oak chips.

Stirring up the lees every couple weeks, at least until the first racking, can accelerate the rounding process, helping with texture and mouthfeel, and performing a sort of fining process in which rough-edged tannins get trapped in the lees and eventually discarded. If your nose picks up something going wrong with the wine — acetic or vinegar-like aromas, or cabbagey, rotten-eggy smells — rack the wine and clean it up immediately. But if it’s maturing peacefully, let it go at least four or five months before the first racking to let the lees soak in.

Many wines made in this style get long-term barrel aging, as much as three or four years in the case of classic Rioja or Brunello di Montacino. Doing this at home, especially in a smaller barrel, you will likely bottle sooner, somewhere between a year and 18 months. The best indicator is the progression of taste; once the wine stops changing significantly from month to month, and once the tannins have pulled back and integrated, bottling is in order.

Before that, however, blending may well be part of the picture. A little bit of blending is always a good idea for home winemaking, and for this style, where having the wine be a complete mouthful is important, blending comes in especially handy. If you haven’t paid much attention to blending in the past, set up some small experiments for yourself and a couple of friends. Pull a sample of your finesse-track wine; doctor a second sample with only 5% of a commercial bottling of the same grape; and do a third sample with 5% of a commercial bottling of some other compatible grape. You may not decide to blend, but you will come away convinced of what a difference a splash makes.

The longer the wine sits in barrel, the more gravity clarifies it, and the less need there is for filtration. If needed, a coarse, 5-micron filtration can help give the wine’s appearance an inviting sparkle.

Drinking Trajectory

Blockbusters are built to drink impressively the day they’re bottled, even if some of them can also age well. Finesse wines may take some time. The combination of complete dryness — little or no sweetness from new oak or high alcohol or residual sugar — and comparatively brisk acidity can make the tannin structure seem hard and uninviting, and keep the fruit characteristics closed up tight.

If you’ve made a sound wine — keeping oxygen and microbes and temperatures under control — all you need now is a little patience. Back to that American Heritage definition: you’ve done what “appears to decline an advantage,” but just wait. Achieving finesse in wine is very much like finessing a card in bridge: take your time, quietly tease out any troublesome elements around the table, then take the hand.