Saignee: The Bleed...
In the course of making red wines, winemakers have a tool in their bag of tricks called “bleeding” their tanks (“saignee” in French).
This is a process by which some of the juice is drained out of the original "must" (a technical term for the mix of juice, seeds and skins), usually right before the ferment starts, and is held separate.
What’s the purpose behind this removal?
Red wines get their color, the majority of their tannins and aromas from compounds found in the skins of the fruit that’s used to make them. Winemakers are always on the lookout for ways to get fruit with small thick-skinned berries, as this will provide them with a naturally higher ratio of skins-to-juice than clusters of big berries will.
(More skins equals more aroma, more color, and more potential tannin for the winemaker to use.)
Nature sometimes will give these berries to you, by having some higher then normal temperatures during the period when the fruit is ‘set’ after flowering…but whenever Nature doesn't provide and the winemaker wishes too, they may influence this ratio.
Wines which have been bled generally have more intensity and can command a better price. But this leaves a slight problem for the winemaker - What do you do with the 10 ~20% of your original must volume which now has little to no varietal aromas, tannins, or color?
Well, here are some options:
- Blend it out through other larger blends which can absorb it
- Bottle it by itself and sell it as “Saignee” or “White (varietal)”
- Place it on the bulk market for someone else to put into their mega-blend
Blending it out within your own cellar provides you with the best way to recoup your costs from processing, and if done right produces no problems with the ‘other’ blend it’s being put into. Though this is tough when you’re a small producer and don’t have a home for all this weak under-extracted wine.
Bottling it by itself is certainly acceptable, but you have to have an outlet for the wine or it won’t work. Also, you’ll want to have it priced attractively so it doesn’t hang around in your cellar – since it doesn’t age well! (You’ll also want to think about what that offering to the public will do to your brand image…do you really want to be the first still-wine “White Pinot” or “Pinot Rosé” producer in your area?) The path to market for White Zin has already been paved ([Valley Girl voice-over] "...like, you know, with cobblestones, because it can be pretty bumpy..."), but the wineries who produce it do have a stigma attached to them.
White Merlot has been market tested, and hasn't taken off (at least not here on the West Coast). It's doubtful that White Cab would fare much better, or White Mouvedré, White Syrah, etc.
Placing the saignee on the bulk market is generally the best way to get rid of the wine as there's no stigma to tarnish your main brand image. Expect to take a loss on your price however, as others won’t really want to deal with that problem either. At least not at full price...
How’s it work from an economic standpoint? Watch…
Say we'll produce 1,000 cases of decent Pinot Noir that we’re going to sell for $250/cs (generating $250,000 revenue).
Our winemaker informs us that she’d like to bleed 10% of the volume off prior to fermentation to concentrate the wine even more, and really make a statement. And since they’re a winemaker, they really don’t care what happens to the saignee afterwards (or how it affects the rest of our operations financially!).
She informs us that she’ll be bleeding 100 cs worth of must off, ferment it by itself as a $5/btl table Rosé (since it’ll never see a bit of oak), and ferment the remaining wine with skins into a fabulous vintage that we’ll be able to charge $350/cs (that’s $6,000 for the Rosé, and a whopping $315,000 for the Pinot – we’re already ahead $65,000!).
And even if we have to eat some/all of the cost of the Rosé because we can't convince our prima donna winemaker to put her label on it, we’ll still be $59,000 above what we thought we would get!
So the up side is that the consumer gets a more concentrated wine, albeit at an increased cost, and the potential to buy an inoffensive (though not stellar) Rosé for everyday consumption.
The down side is still the increase in price for the consumer.