Mike Januik is one of the big name winemakers in Washington. Not only has he been named as one of the world’s ten “Masters of Merlot” by Wine Enthusiast magazine, Januik has had more than a dozen wines appear on Wine Spectator’s famous “Top 100” list. Januik began making wine in the Columbia Valley in 1984. He holds a master’s degree in enology and viticulture from the prestigious University of California, Davis, and served as head winemaker for Chateau St. Michelle for many years. Januik was so good at his craft that he started his own winery in 1999 a few blocks down the road from St. Michelle. His winery, Januik and Novelty Hill, has been an incredible success.
I started sampling these wines more than ten years ago and was instantly impressed. It was not only the quality of winemaking that showed through, but the hugely impressive range of wines that he has at Januik/Novelty Hill. There are really few Washington winemakers that can take on so many wines and do them all so well. Januik, with his vast background of working with so many varietals at Chateau St. Michelle, has taken that experience and brought it to his winery. Januik sources from some of the best vineyards in the state like Champoux and Stillwater Creek, their estate vineyard. Mike Januik’s superstar wine program is an absolutely joy to run through. I recently had the chance to interview Mike Januik. He was incredibly humble about his success in the industry. I think you are going to really enjoy his interview. Learn more at http://www.noveltyhilljanuik.com/ Here is my interview with Mike Januik, head winemaker and owner of Januik and Novelty Hill Winery.
WWB: Can you talk about the 2012 growing season vs the 2013 growing season?-
MJ: Well, I know these vintages were a lot different than what we have had in 2010 and 2011. 2010 was the sort of vintage where your experience of making wine made a big difference, because of the cold growing season. The beginning of 2011 was a lesser version of that and it was a late vintage in terms of ripening. But 2012 and 2013 was more typical of what I have come to expect from the Columbia Valley. I have done 32 vintages and the ’12 spring was relatively cool but the summer temperatures in 2012 were warm and consistently warm. They were not too hot and that weather continued through harvest which contributed to some nice wines. At the time, 2013 was the warmest vintage of the decade, but 2014 and 2015 turned out to be even warmer. In 2013, we had an earlier than normal bud break and warm temperatures through August and then we started picking earlier than normal. We picked Sauvignon Blanc at the end of August and fortunately it cooled down in September, which helped in the quality of grapes. 2013 was a nice vintage – one I really enjoy.
WWB: Januik has such a wide range of wines. Can you talk about working with all these varietals and the huge range of wines that you make?-
MJ: I come from the background at Chateau St. Michelle where I was the head winemaker. As head winemaker there I had to learn how to do a lot of things at the same time. Because of that experience I am comfortable with working with so many varietals. I like putting blends together and I like harvest because we work with so many lots of wine and use more than a hundred lots of wines -- probably more. Because with Januik and Novelty Hill we are making over 30 wines. Now my son is working at the winery, Andrew. He just came out with his second wine with his label and is working on a third one. Andrew crafted the Lady Hawk from the Horse Heaven Hills, his second wine. I think it is a really excellent wine and I think this fascination with doing many different wines is probably a trait that he inherited from me.
WWB: The 2012 Reserve Red Wine was on my Top 100 for 2015. It was an exceptional wine that combines lovely structure and dark fruit flavors. Can you talk about this impressive red wine?-
MJ: The Reserve Red Wine is Cabernet focused and ordinarily it is from a couple of different vineyards and the Cabernet portion came from Weinbau and Champoux vineyard and it has Merlot, which comes from the Klipsun vineyard and Cabernet Franc and Malbec both come from the Weinbau vineyard. The wine is mostly from Weinbau and Champoux vineyards and the Klipsun portion is around nine percent of the blend. This is the first blend that we put together each year. In fact, we just put together our 2014 Red Reserve Wine today! We have been working on it for a number of weeks and have been trying to figure out the right blend that want. This is the first blend that we work on and we primarily use a Cab base and like the vineyards and we want the style to remain the same. So we have a lot to choose from in those vineyards and they produce really consistently well-made wines. We are always looking for length in the red wines that we make.
WWB: How were you able to get that texture and balance in the wine?-
MJ: The most important time of the year is during harvest and how we handle harvest. This is something that I have learned with my many years in winemaking. Harvest has much greater impact on the quality of wines than for everything else. We pay a lot of attention to when we are picking and the right time to do that. We are over in Eastern Washington tasting the grapes every week. Over time Andrew [Januik] has taken on more of that, the tasting portion. Sometimes we will go over and spend the night and spend two days over there doing the tasting in the vineyards. You need to constantly taste the berries to make things right.
The other thing that really gets a lot of attention is our macerations. We don’t macerate our reds as much as others do. Our macerations usually are six to eight days but there are reasons for that. One of the challenges in Washington State is having fruit coming in in October and having it be like 45 or 50 degrees. If it is that cold, the fruit will sit on its skins for 10 days before fermentation kicks in. But when we built our winery we built it so we could cool our tanks and we also have capacity to warm our tanks. When our fruit is crushed into fermenters we turn our heat on and are able to get our must up to 70 degrees in 24 hours. That means that our fermentations begin earlier. One of the truths in winemaking is that the best extraction occurs with the presence of alcohol. If you are doing that early on that is different than if the must is sitting there for seven to eight days and warming up. It is extracting in a completely different way. Alcohol is a solvent and a great solvent at that. It pulls things that are quite different than without alcohol for me that is a big deal. The other thing that happens is punching down. I am not a big fan of that and I don’t think you have as much control over your maceration. I might do that if I was doing Pinot Noir. We pump over and every time we pump over in the mornings and in the evening when we leave. We also change the fermenter and decide how long we want to pump over. There are times when we do it longer or do it less and there is a lot of experience with that that makes a big difference. There is nothing cookbook about it and it is coming in and tasting and having our brain tell us how it should taste. Sometimes we don’t think we should pump over until the next morning because it is not the weight that we want to be. So that is a big part of what we do and is really important to me. When I was head winemaker at Chateau St. Michelle I was doing eight hundred or more lots of wine and that is a lot of tasting. That is a lot of opportunity to learn things too and one of the things that I have always thought is that if you start out making wine, only doing a couple of wines, you don’t have as many opportunities to learn things. That is why I like the amount of wine that we make now but having that experience making a lot of wine helped a lot because you are learning so much more.
WWB: I have really been impressed in the quality of your aromatic white wines, which are some of the best in the state. Can you discuss the winemaking in some of those wines?-
MJ: With Sauvignon Blanc it is important to have Semillon to make that wine great. That always makes a better wine and more aromatically interesting if you don’t have any at all. I have made Sauvignon Blanc for at least 20 years and that has always been my experience. I wouldn’t want to make it without high quality Semillon. That is very important, the blending in the wine. With Rousanne, another aromatic varietal, it is important not to pick it too soon. That actually takes on a pinkish hue when it is ready to pick. The hue is important to look examine when you are picking. Sometimes it is tempting to pick Rousanne based on the brix but if you wait and you get that change in the skins then it helps a lot. The Sav Blanc and Rousanne are both done in oak barrels. For Chardonnay we used some new oak but for the Rousanne we use neutral oak. Sav Blanc is about 10 percent pretty neutral because I don’t think it needs as much new oak.
I think one thing that really contributes to the aromatics in a white wine is not fermenting it with too warm a temperature. A lot of challenges for people is being able to control the temperature if the grapes are not in a refrigerated tank. We made sure when we built the winery that we had good refrigeration capacity and our barrel rooms are kept to 55 degrees and the fermentation doesn’t get much warmer than that. I think the challenge for a lot of people is that they put it in barrels and the temperature is in the high 60s, which can make a big difference in terms of aromatic structure. The classic line with fermentation is that higher temperature you have more esters but you also can blow more esters off that way. I think there is an increase in ester compounds when you ferment at a lower temperature. Another thing we do with our whites is before we press the grapes we add an enzyme that helps clarify the juice and I think it is important with those varietals to have clean juice when you ferment it. The more solid you have your juice the more likely that you are going to end up with a good wine. Probably the biggest thing of all is that we don’t shoot for high yields. If someone wanted to get high yields you could have that. We stay away from that because the more you press the grapes the more phenolic it gets.
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