If asked last year whether Black Star Farms’ flash détente thermovinification system was earning its keep, Lee Lutes would have said it was too soon to tell.
Flash détente briefly heats up juice and pulp before sending it to a vacuum chamber, where the grapes’ cell structures rupture, explains Lutes, Black Star Farms’ head winemaker and managing member.
The process releases desirable characteristics and facilitates “cleaner fermentations” for fruit that’s partially degraded or not optimally ripened, he says. It also minimizes undesirable components, like harsh tannins and underdeveloped flavors and colors.
“An awful lot of the color pigmentation, an awful lot of the tannins, an awful lot of the structure that you really get toward the end of a typical fermentation, you get upfront when you flash the fruit,” Lutes says. “What it does is give you a little bit more substance in the finished juice.”
Black Star Farms purchased the device — manufactured by Italian company Della Toffola — in 2017, after receiving a $210,000 grant via the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to partially fund its acquisition.
The northern Michigan winery sought the grant “with the hope that we would bring some new technology into the area … as a means of having another tool that would help us get through the challenging vintages that we often have — primarily with red fruit,” Lutes says.
Compromised fruit happens more often than winemakers would like in Michigan, thanks to the fickle weather and cool climate growing conditions.
Last year, a nearly flawless vintage, Black Star Farms didn’t need to rely much on the machine. But this year was the perfect example of how it can come in handy, Lutes says.
With an early-emerging summer that was dry, sunny, and warm, the 2018 growing season was “near optimal” — until the very end, says Lutes. “And then we hit the first of September, and the rain started.”
The deluge persisted throughout September and October. Lacking heat and sun, the grapes didn’t have adequate time to finish ripening and struggled under the water burden.
“For the very first time in a long time … I actually saw grapes bursting for the amount of water pressure that the plant was absorbing,” Lutes says. “It’s not something that we see in most vintages.”
Those conditions also make grapes — especially thin-skinned, tightly clustered varietals like Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc — more susceptible to mold and rot, Lutes says. Ultimately, they were forced to harvest the grapes earlier than desired.
“The flash serves as a tool to help deal with that level of fruit,” he says.
According to Lutes, Black Star Farms was the first winery in the Midwest to obtain a flash détente system. Other Michigan wineries have utilized Black Star Farms’ device, including St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, which is now demoing its own unit with plans to purchase.
“We had so much success working with Black Star Farms and their unit in 2017, we wanted to expand on its capabilities with southwest Michigan fruit,” says Nancie Oxley, St. Julian’s head winemaker and vice president. “We have a diverse portfolio of varietals that we work with — 41 and counting — so we wanted to see how this method could enhance our fruit, not just by flashing, but combining several techniques to produce top-quality wines.”
Oxley likewise considered flash détente invaluable in combating the detrimental effects of 2018’s rainy growing season.
“We definitely can see an improvement in quality with the fruit that was flashed — increase in color intensity, increased tannin structure and mouthfeel, increase in bright fruit aromas, and the elimination of microorganisms that can be challenging during fermentation,” she says. “By blending flashed fruit with traditional winemaking, it means the consumer will enjoy higher-quality wines from a challenging vintage.”
This year, St. Julian ran Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Crimson Cabernet, Chambourcin, Chancellor, Noiret, and even a bit of Vidal Blanc, a white, through flash détente. Next year, Oxley plans to add Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, and Marquette to the list.
As Black Star Farms did, St. Julian intends to make its unit available to other wineries in the area.
Lutes notes that it will be rare for a single Black Star Farms wine to be composed completely of flashed fruit; typically, only a portion will go through the process. And some wines will continue to be made entirely in a traditional manner.
“Whenever you bring in something different and it seems to be more technologically based than traditional based, you’re always going to have some controversy associated with it,” he says. “The truth of the matter is, winemakers have been using tools of various types and varieties for generations. And whatever it is that we can do to bring the best product that we feel is worthy to the consumer, I think is worth at least considering.”
Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website and online community that promotes the entire Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room, tasting rooms operated in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township, Royal Oak, and Auburn Hills. Contact her at email@example.com.