Q&A with Diana Snowden Seysses
We are delighted to present a q&a between the crew at Craft and Cru and Diana Snowden Seysses. We love her wines and winemaking philosophy, but are far from alone in our estimation of her talents; Diana's work is widely celebrated. She grew up in Napa Valley, and she makes wine at her family's estate, Snowden Vineyards, as well as at Ashes and Diamonds, a small new operation in the valley. Today she lives in Burgundy were she works with her husband and family at Domaine Dujac, source of some of the world's most sought-after Pinot Noir. She also works at Triennes, a small estate in Provence that was founded in 1989 by her father-in-law, Jacques Seysses, in conjunction with Aubert de Villaine, of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Triennes' flagship, St. Auguste, has always been one of the more serious reds of Provence, but since Diana has begun consulting, we believe it has become even more pure and characterful, putting more emphasis on freshness and intensity of fruit. We have had St. Auguste on the shelves at Craft and Cru since day one, and it has garnered many fans over the past couple years. It is $18 and we consider it on par with many much more expensive bottles. We hope you try one soon. We also have two fabulous wines from Snowden: Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($93) and The Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($45) in stock. We encourage you to try one of those as well. In the meantime, cheers to Diana!
Triennes' flagship wine, St. Auguste, used to have Merlot in the blend. What was the reasoning behind removing Merlot from the cepage?
Every year we get together, my husband Jeremy, Remy Logier and myself, to make the blend out of the blending components of several lots of Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot. We always end up with a Syrah-dominated blend, 60% or so. When Merlot gets left out, which happens from time to time, it’s just because we didn’t feel it worked well in the blend.
Were there any changes made to viticulture when you started working with the team at Triennes?
Triennes has transitioned to Organics in the time since I’ve been part of the team. Certified since 2014. The credit is definitely shared and inspired by the mother-company Domaine Dujac in Burgundy. In order to make a vin de terroir, you need a healthy, diverse ecosystem in the soil. To achieve that, you must give up the chemicals. We are very proud of St August and all of the Triennes wines for pulling off organics on such a tight margin.
I have been know to say "on paper, Cabernet/Syrah is one of the most boring blends in the world, these two characterful grapes just kind of cancel each other out, but in Provence, there are at least two wines, Trevallon and Triennes, that work magic with the blend". How do you feel about a Cabernet/Syrah blend? Had you worked with Syrah before Triennes?
Are there any Cabernet/Syrah blends that you admire? You nailed it! When Jacques Seysses, my father-in-law, started Triennes, he had Trevallon in mind. In Napa, Syrah frequently contributes to Cabernet-dominated blends. I have never used Syrah in the Cabs that I work with, but I know many colleagues who do. It’s a magical combination. The first Syrah wine I made was at Triennes. Otherwise, I’d worked with it in the vineyard at Mondavi in 1997 and 1998 and tasted it in tank at Ramey in 2006.
Could you talk a bit about the vinification and elevage for St. Auguste? Did you make any changes or take on any new equipment, or fermentation and aging vessels?
Since 2013 we’ve done native yeast fermentations. After a diverse microbiome in the soil, this is the next most important winemaking choice for making a vibrant vin de terroir is native yeast fermentations. They make wines which are more complex, dynamic and age worthy. We’ve also experimented with whole-cluster fermentations, again inspired by years in Burgundy. We’ve gotten excellent results from the whole cluster Syrah trials which inevitably ends up in the St Auguste. As for equipment, there have been significant changes and investment to the winery but mainly for the benefit of our Rose. So, since 2013 the St Auguste is fermented by native yeast, some whole cluster, a very minimal extraction and no temperature control. It is pressed and then transferred to 100% French oak barrels, all seasoned previously by red burgundy from Domaine Dujac. The wines are blended in May, a year and a half later and bottled at 18 months of elevage.
The 2015 vintage of St. Auguste was great, but the newly arrived 2016 is even better. Both wines are intense and balanced, and we think that they will evolve positively for a decade or more. Could you talk a bit about recent vintages and weigh in on how long you would recommend keeping bottles?
St August is truly an age-worthy wine. We are so pleased you’ve noticed! I’ve had stellar bottles from the 90's so I think that proof, coupled with the tannins when young would lead me to predict a longer bottle life than 10 years even.
Here are the vintage notes which come from Remy at the estate:
2015-Plenty of rain over the winter to replenish soil reserves. The following spring was dry and hot. The grapes harvested were large, homogeneous and very concentrated. They were perfectly healthy with an excellent potential. 2900 cases made. 14.1% alcohol. Blend; 72% Syrah, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Merlot, 2% Grenache.
2016-Dry winter led to hydric stress in July. Verasion and ripening was heterogenous. Very early beginning of harvest for the rose & whites. Rains end of September helped the reds ripen and balance tannin to fruit. Very good ripeness for the harvested fruit, but a need to sort. Once sorted the remaining red grapes had exceptional phenolic ripeness. 1580 cases made. 14.5% alcohol. 70% Syrah, 17% Cabernet, 13% Merlot.
2017-Frost and drought are responsible for a 70% drop in volume in the Rosé. A difficult year with conditions otherwise favoring mildou. The Mistral played a saving role in the remaining fruit, maintaining clean fruit in all of the vineyards. The little grapes that were harvested were of good ripeness and excellent acidity. 2333 cases made 13.7% Alcohol. 55% Syrah, 45%Cabernet Sauvignon
2018- Excellent weather during the growing season. Alternating warmth and rainstorms allowed the grapes to ripen harmoniously. 3000 cases made 65% Syrah, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon.
2019-Perfectly ripe grapes. The vintage is looking to be excellent; balanced with bright acidity and deep color.
You work in Burgundy, Provence and Napa Valley. Burgundy is obviously the outlier, so let's leave it alone, but how would you compare and contrast the growing conditions of Napa and Provence?
Triennes is higher in altitude than most of Provence. We have exceptional acidity and tannin structure. I would say the wines have more in common with Italy than the rest of Provence. Also there is the ever present Mistral which shapes the ripening. Then the soils have limestone with marle and clay. Limestone, wind, altitude, all of these elements reinforce structure, acidity and line. Napa is much warmer during the day with similar night time temperatures. In Napa we irrigate which makes ripening optimal for the fruit and makes for richer wines. Between the sunshine and the water availability on extremely well drained soils, Napa wines come off as more generous next to St August’s structure and precision.
With your insight as a winemaker in both the US and France, is there more we can do to educate our US based clients on your wines? Do you feel that the California wines are easier for Americans to comprehend?
Yes, I think that is absolutely true. St August is a bit of an anomaly. I think, as always, the very best way to educate and showcase a wine is to taste the wine over a dinner in its context. So, ideally, we’d have all of your clients to our terrace at the house at Triennes with a view of the St Baume, lavender & thyme all around, olives, goat cheese and grilled lamb on the table and a bottle of 2013 St August. While this is impossible, we can get close by reproducing the same environment at home… If you were to council your clients to have the bottle with a warm summer evening outside, candles, lavender, grilled meat with thyme, they’d be pretty close to that delicious experience.
Anything new and exciting on the horizon at Triennes?
Yes! We are just finishing the new, eco building with a solar panel roof. This will give us more room to play with fermentation techniques, allow us more whole cluster capacity etc. Otherwise, now 10 years into farming without chemicals and we are going to really see the beauty of this blend in the vintages to come.