February 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Traminette Goes Commercial

How two wineries grow and vinify this aromatic white variety

 
by Ray Pompilio
 
 

The Traminette cultivar, a cross of Joannes Seyve 23.146 and Gewürztraminer, may have been named in 1996, but its commercial roots date back more than 10 years earlier. Two commercial winemakers made an early commitment to the variety, resulting in the first commercial production of Traminette in 1995, the year before it was officially named by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Cornell University. Today, both winemakers continue to count Traminette among their wine offerings.

Arbor Hill Grapery & Winery
Naples, N.Y.

One of the early proponents of Traminette was John Brahm, who was then the grapegrowing production supervisor for Widmer’s Wine Cellars, with vineyards in both New York and California. Brahm recalls his first time tasting Traminette: “It was flowery and fruity, and I believed it could do as well as Riesling in the Finger Lakes climate.” Widmer quickly obtained some Traminette vines and began its experimental planting. The own-rooted grapevines were planted on flat terrain, but Brahm was not pleased with the results.

     Meanwhile, Brahm’s family had established their own vineyards beginning in the 1970s. “We were always looking for new varieties to plant,” he recalled. He immediately made efforts to obtain as many cuttings as he could and began planting the relatively unproven cultivar in the late 1980s. Brahm opened Arbor Hill in 1987, and when his Traminette started bearing fruit in 1990-91, he added it to Vidal Blanc and Cayuga White in a proprietary blend.

     The vines, which now total more than 3 acres, were planted mostly on 5BB rootstock, chosen because of Arbor Hill’s relatively heavy soil. Some own-rooted vines also were planted so Brahm could make a comparative study. The vines were planted with primarily a 9-foot by 8-foot spacing. As they developed, the vines offered what Brahm calls “a nice balance of leaf and fruit. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten more than 5 tons per acre, and usually (we) get between 3.5 to 5 tons per acre on the grafted vines.”

     Brahm characterizes his soil as loamy with some clay, or “one of the poorer Honeoye soils.” He considers Honeoye to be one of the better soils in the area, usually known as fertile, with slight acidity at the surface and neutral subsoil. He trains the vines to an umbrella or modified umbrella position and uses a three-wire system, bringing an average of three canes over the top and down to the second wire, with wire spacing of 12 to 16 inches. He tries to maintain relatively short canes, with internodes 5 to 6 inches apart.

     Average bud break is from late April to early May, which is later than Concord, Niagara and Maréchal Foch, about the same time as Valvin Muscat and a bit earlier than Riesling. Spray maintenance requires three or four applications throughout the season, a number Brahm describes as average for his vineyards. “I don’t think we’ve ever had any real disease problems with Traminette. That’s another attractive quality for this grape. Occasionally I’ve seen a bit of powdery mildew, but no black rot or downy mildew,” he said. He remembers only one winter in the early 1990s when some of his newer vines were affected by crown gall as a result of unprotected graft unions.

     On average, Traminette in Brahm’s vineyards is harvested by early to mid-October. He likes to pick at around 20°-22° Brix, when the TA is usually between 0.8 and 0.95, numbers he has found to be close to the mean. He recalled one particular aberration in 1996, when sugars only reached 17° Brix, combined with TA of 1.25. His records showed one other extreme, on the high end, with 24° Brix and TA of 0.71. The picking schedule is basically pre-determined, as Brahm and his brothers also run a juice business from the vineyards. He bases his schedule on more than 30 years of experience with the grapes but still pays attention to mitigating weather considerations for maturity.

     The grapes are machine harvested with a circa-1990 upright harvester with four-wheel drive, self-leveling and adjustable picking heights. He picks early in the day to keep the grapes cool and loads the fruit into 1-ton harvest bins. If the summer has been a bit cool and lacking good sunshine, he cold soaks the berries overnight to 24 hours, but says that is not usually the case with Traminette. Arbor Hill utilizes a Lugana 2R crusher destemmer from Prospero Equipment. At this point, Brahm adds potassium metabisulfite, looking to have 70-80 ppm.

     The processed fruit goes into a mixing tank, where ground paper pulp and pectic enzymes are added to aid pressing.
     Fermentation takes place in movable PVP 500-gallon tanks, with a temperature range of 60° to 70° F. The tanks are not temperature controlled, so Brahm uses a chiller to cool the young wine to maintain that range. Yeast selection is dependent upon the fruit character; Brahm tends to favor Lalvin 71B-1122 obtained from Presque Isle Wine Cellars.

     Fermentation usually takes two to three weeks, after which the new wine is transferred into PVP 260-gallon cubes, which can be palletized for easy movement with a forklift. The wine is racked off the lees, treated with Bentonite and Sparkolloid, and then moved to an unheated building for cold stabilization. They remain there from mid-December until late March or early April, when the wine is transferred back to 500-gallon tanks prior to bottling. That wine will undergo a coarse 200-micron pad filtration, and its clarity will determine what level of filtration will follow. Brahm uses an AFTEK plate and frame filter and finishes the wine with a 0.45-micron membrane filter from Presque Isle Wine Cellars.

     Bottling is done with a six-spout gravity filler, except when Arbor Hill bottles carbonated wine or juice and uses a Seitz counter-pressure filler. Sulfur is adjusted to 70-80 ppm, if necessary, prior to bottling. Brahm uses a cork finish for his more expensive wines but is leaning more toward roll-on pilfer-proof screwcaps for his product line. The majority of his glass bottles and stoppers come from Waterloo Container in Waterloo, N.Y. Traminette is a popular wine at Arbor Hill, so it usually gets only about a month of bottle aging before its release.

     The winery produces about 2,100 cases of wine annually and sells about 80% of it onsite. Traminette makes up about 25% of the total and is produced in three styles (see table “Traminette Production” on page 79).

     In addition to nearly 30 different wines, Arbor Hill offers more than 50 food products for sale including jellies, spreads, iced tea concentrates, desserts and candies. The winery also has a restaurant, Brew and Brats, specializing in beer and sausages. For Brahm, a lifelong grapegrower, leading the way for Traminette in New York has been a sometimes challenging but also successful venture.

Oliver Winery
Bloomington, Ind.

On the opposite end of the production scale is Oliver Winery headed by Bill Oliver, the son of winery founder William Oliver, who started the winery in 1972. As the oldest and largest winery in Indiana, it produces about 430,000 cases of wine annually. Traminette production makes up 2,000 cases of that total and is their second-best-selling estate wine, under the Creekbend label.

     Currently, Oliver has 57 acres of vineyards, mostly hybrids such as Chambourcin, Traminette, Chardonel, Crimson Cabernet, Maréchal Foch and Vignoles. Although some vinifera vines were planted, the move to these cultivars mostly came between 1996 and 2001. Traminette totals 7 acres, with plantings in 2000, 2001 and 2010. Rows are spaced 9 feet apart with 8 feet between vines and trained to a bilateral high cordon 5-feet-10-inches in height, with about 610 vines per acre.

     Oliver noted that once the vines reached three to four years old, they showed good growth with few problems. Earlier than that, however, winter damage can happen and result in trunk injury and, in worst cases, crown gall. Oliver was the vineyard manager but passed on that responsibility to Bernie Parker, with whom he still works closely. The vines were obtained from Double A Vineyards in Fredonia, N.Y., one of the three original nursery partners of Cornell.

     All the vines are own-rooted, planted in loamy topsoil 18 inches deep, with 3-4 feet of clay subsoil over fractured limestone bedrock. Oliver noted that this soil, combined with “plenty of Indiana rain,” does not require irrigation, except in uncommon conditions for very young vines. He said, “There’s not a flat spot in the vineyards,” which are at an elevation of 800 feet above sea level, and soil drainage is not a problem. Oliver does not use cover cropping. “We are blessed with very good limestone soils with a great pH of 6.5-6.8,” he said, but they will mulch with vine cuttings. He added, “We don’t do much at all. There’s no nitrogen added, either.”

     The Traminette vineyard is hand-pruned between late November and mid-March, with the average bud break occurring April 20. Oliver has learned that vines more than eight years old do not produce highly fruitful basal buds, so they allow for fairly long spurs, with five buds each. This can provide between 4 and 5 tons per acre, a number Oliver is comfortable with for Traminette. He also noted that it has not been necessary to move any of the canes downward for winter protection, thus saving labor costs.

     Oliver finds the vines can become “aggressively vigorous,” so he has to stay on top of shoot positioning, which needs to be done by mid-June. A tractor-mounted brush-type shoot positioner is used to lower the shoots, which sets vines up for better leaf removal with a fan/blade head. Initially, Oliver was very aggressive in removing Traminette leaves but found that it caused the wine to have a terpene character. Now they try to provide about 50% shading, which according to Oliver results in “a more appropriate style of wine.” Two John Deere narrow-body tractors rated 80 and 90 horsepower are used for these tasks, with the winery’s big sprayer and mechanical harvester. Oliver said Traminette can require “anywhere from a lot to a little” spraying: 2016 was a difficult year, and he sprayed every 10 days. Conditions were better in 2017, and the vines needed only five spray applications, he said.

     The winery has never done any fruit thinning with this cultivar, based upon its well-behaved fruit clusters. The biggest issue is with vegetation, and Oliver stressed staying on top of it is a must. His leaf puller has a variable pitch screen, allowing for heavy or light removal. “The way to do it is look at the vines, use your best judgment and take a pass at it with the tractor. Then get off the tractor and check the results,” he said. Netting Traminette rows has not been necessary, as the area birds tend to prefer red grapes, Oliver said, adding that when birds do go after white wine grapes, they choose Chardonel.

     In terms of harvest parameters for Traminette, Oliver looks for a TA around 0.75 and pH not more than 3.4. He thinks the ideal Brix is 22.5°-23° but still depends more on flavors than Brix numbers for ripeness.
The grapes are mechanically picked with a Pellenc harvester, which also destems the berries and sorts out material other than grapes (MOG) for a high-quality pressing. “The machine delivers remarkably clean fruit,” Oliver said. Unlike at Arbor Hill in New York, Oliver Winery doesn’t use a cold soak. The grapes go directly into a Wilmes bladder press, for which moderate pressure of up to 500 millibars is used to keep the juice and its wine flavorful but delicate.

     The wine is made by 19-year Oliver veteran Dennis Dunham and his crew, with some assistance from Oliver. He and Dunham share the same attitude of what a wine should be, and this results in year-after-year consistency with the Traminette. Once the fruit has been pressed, potassium metabisulfite is added to bring the sulfur dioxide level to 30 ppm. The juice is chilled to the mid-30s in jacketed stainless-steel tanks for four to seven days to cold settle, then it is racked and put through a heat exchanger to the mid-60s for fermentation.

     It is inoculated with Lallemand K1 (1116) yeast and, after reaching a vigorous fermentation (usually in 24 hours), it will be cooled down to about 50° F for a fermentation of about four weeks. Following fermentation, both nitrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2) are used to keep the wine fresh, and Oliver has a stringent program using analysis of the headspace in each tank to monitor oxygen levels. The winery has a number of smaller tanks, most of them from Santa Rosa (Calif.) Stainless Steel and Paul Mueller Co. in Springfield, Mo. All the larger tanks are from Paul Mueller and range from 6,000 to 114,000 gallons.

     For stability of the new wine, Oliver uses the 0.8 molecular mathematical formula to determine the necessary SO2 levels based upon the pH of the wine. Oliver explained that if you take away the “3” whole number of the pH, one needs to have the remaining fraction equal to ppm of free SO2. The lower the pH, the less SO2. Thus, a wine with a pH of 3.2 needs 20 ppm of free sulfur, while wine at 3.4 pH will require 40 ppm. He believes that this method is particularly useful for SO2 in Traminette.

     When the wine has been fermented to about 2% residual sugar, it is centrifuged, cold stabilized and run through a Della Toffola horizontal pressure diatomaceous earth (DE) leaf filter. Prior to bottling, it will be checked for heat and cold stability, SO2 levels (which may require an addition via the 0.8 molecular formula), and a final pad filtration of 0.45 microns.

     Bottling is done quickly, using a large GAI 28-valve counter-pressure filler from Prospero Equipment that is run by a seven-person bottling crew. If started first thing in the morning, the Traminette bottling is usually completed by lunch.

     The wine is packaged in flint-colored Vitro WCF reverse-tapered Bordeaux-shaped 750 ml glass bottles stoppered with Nomacorc Green Line closures made with sugarcane-based polymers and topped with a PVC spin-on capsule. Usually bottled in December, it averages about eight weeks in the warehouse.

     “I’m a firm believer in these fresh, delicate wines being expeditiously made and bottled,” Oliver said. His Traminette wine is only available in Indiana and through Oliver’s limited-distribution wine club.

     While Bill Oliver has successfully led his family winery to a large commercial success, he has done it with a singular focus. He explained: “While the fruit is growing, how do we present it in the bottle? We want every wine we make to reflect the quality of great fruit, grown well and clean, and picked at the right time.”


Ray Pompilio is a wine writer based in Ithaca, N.Y. An avid follower of the Finger Lakes wine scene—and new grape varieties across the East and Midwest—Pompilio delights in finding new and interesting wines to write about, and to taste.

 
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