Among the many changes in wine over the last ten years has been a general increase in alcohol and a decrease in acid levels. These changes have resulted from evolutions in viticulture, enology, and consumer tastes. Consumers everywhere have favored a more ‘drink-me-now’ wine as opposed to something that needs years of cellaring to become approachable. Wineries have responded in kind.
Northstar Winery winemaker David ‘Merf’ Merfeld has watched these changes take place. Merfeld, a native of Iowa, moved to Washington in 1990 to pursue a career in brewing. While originally interested in beer he says, “When I got the offer to make Merlots at Northstar, no one had to ask me twice.” Merfeld joined the Northstar team in 2001 and became head winemaker in 2005.
Merfeld understands the changes that have taken place in consumer tastes. “I’m a consumer as well,” Merfeld says. “I’m a ‘ready-to-drink’ guy. It’s tough when you look at Bordeaux and some of these other places and it’s like, ‘Don’t drink for ten years.’ Well I don’t want to wait ten or fifteen years,” he says. While Merfeld understands what has led to the recent changes in wine styles he says, “We are all evolving our palates, but it is always a little bit sad what we leave behind.”
Every now and then one gets a glimpse of exactly what was left behind. A few years back Merfeld was attending a blind tasting with some local winemakers. He decided to bring a 1983 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cold Creek Cabernet Sauvignon. Despite the wine’s age, it was holding up remarkably well. Merfeld says, “We were all just surprised that it was doing so well. Then you read the back label and it says when it was picked and has the acid level and alcohol level on it. It just got me thinking.”
What the wine got Merfeld thinking was about trying to make a similarly styled wine at Northstar now – a Washington Merlot designed specifically for the long haul. Merfeld says, “I just had this vision of making something more, I don’t necessarily want to say more Bordeaux-like, but you cellar this wine and it’s going to be something that I can have when I retire. It’s going to go thirty years and have lots of extraction and plenty of fruit with it as well. But it’s going to have the lower alcohol, higher acid level that will help it to age and hold its color.”
Merfeld set out to make such a wine starting with the 2009 vintage. In tribute to the Northstar name, the project was codenamed Big Dipper. To create the wine, Merfeld has focused on varying his approach to winemaking. Northstar already receives exceptional merlot grapes from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ extensive vineyards – “the best of the best” Merfeld says. The project has therefore focused more on slight changes in the vineyard and more significant changes at the winery.
At the vineyard, the fruit is picked earlier during harvest so that it is lower in alcohol and higher in acid. In the winery, Merfeld has been experimenting with alterations in fermentation techniques. This has included experimenting with barrel fermentation and different types of yeast, “Things outside the box to add other layers,” Merfeld says. Merfeld has also worked with a concrete fermenter, which he describes as “kind of like a little hot tub.” He describes the results of the latter as “a very fruit forward wine,” due to the steady, cool fermentation.
In terms of the Big Dipper wine, Merfeld hopes to make it as high a percentage of Merlot as possible, saying, “My vision is that I want the wine to be one hundred percent Merlot.” Talking about what makes Washington Merlot special, Merfeld says, “Our merlot is on steroids. It’s big, lots of structure and tannins and is often confused with Cab.” While Merfeld hopes that the Big Dipper wine will have as high a percentage of Merlot as possible, he is also looking to make the best possible wine, so specific blends will vary based on vintage.
The Big Dipper project is still in the very early stages. Merfeld says, “We’re not positive on the direction yet but we’ve got some things to play with.” Merfeld sampled the 2009 wines recently with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ CEO Ted Baseler and others but says, “We’re not getting ready to blend any time soon.”
The Big Dipper wine – which will have a different name on release – will ultimately spend twenty-four months in the barrel and then another year in the bottle before release, so don’t expect to see the wine any time soon. “There’s no rush to get it out,” Merfeld says, adding, “I’m very fortunate.” The wine will be extremely limited in production, most likely somewhere between one hundred and three hundred cases. Given the low availability, determining how to sell the wine is sure to present problems. “I’ve already had people offer to take it all,” he says.
While Merfeld envisions the Big Dipper wine as something to drink when he retires, don’t look for him to go anywhere soon. Only in his fifth year as Northstar’s head winemaker, he looks to continuing having an impact on Washington wine for many years to come.
Read Northstar Winery’s Big Dipper Chronicles here.