Slow winemaking on the Sonoma Coast

For his wine brand Ferren, former Marcassin winemaker Matt Courtney gives voice to single-vineyard sites on the far Sonoma Coast – with ethereal and serious wines made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in locations previously deemed too cold

Words by Courtney Humiston

Ferren wines matt courtney in the vineyard fog
Matt Courtney of Ferren Wines at his Silver Eagle vineyard site, where heavy fog is a regular feature

Even though it is 10.30 on a Tuesday morning and harvest is in full swing, winemaker Matt Courtney isn’t in a hurry. We are standing on a ridge line 1,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean examining a Chardonnay vine and taking in the broader scenery of the Silver Eagle vineyard from which Courtney makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for Ferren, his eight-year-old wine brand dedicated to special single vineyards on the extreme Sonoma Coast.

In spite of the warmth of the mid-morning sun, the air temperature is cool and the canopy quivers in the constant breeze. Less than an hour ago, this vineyard, surrounded by coastal redwood trees – the tops of which are nearly at eye level — was heavy with fog.

Matt Courtney walks his Ferren vineyard
Matt Courtney says there's an ‘unmitigated coastal influence’ at Ferren's vineyard sites

Things move slowly on the coast. Grapes accumulate sugar at about half the rate as their Russian River Valley counterparts, which allows for flavour and aroma development at lower alcohol. But farming in such marginal climates can also be anxiety inducing. One Ferren vineyard was deemed ‘too cold’ by a Burgundian vigneron  and Courtney admits that he may not be able to make wine from that site every year. But for Courtney, who embraces vintage variation and is focused on quality above all else, it’s a risk he is willing to take.

‘Patient’, ‘gentle’ and ‘gradual’ are words that come up often when talking to Courtney – who made the legendary Marcassin wine alongside founder Helen Turley for eight years prior to founding Ferren – about his approach in both the vineyard and in the cellar. ‘I don’t want to impose my style,’ he says. ‘My wines are best when they are unique and expressive of site.’ Such a commitment takes mindfulness and dedication.

‘Patient’, ‘gentle’ and ‘gradual’ are words that come up often when talking to Courtney

We taste a few golden Chardonnay berries and Courtney, who also makes wine for a prominent high-end Russian River Valley brand, reflects on the differences of the wine from these coastal sites. ‘The Chardonnay is more about mineral and citrus, with a tangy acidity and firm, linear texture.’ And, he laughs, ‘Maybe it’s just in my head but I get a briny, sea air, oyster-shell quality as well’ – we taste the wine later and I can assure you it is not just in his head. He describes the Pinot Noir as being more defined by structure and acidity than by power and density, with a blue-fruit core, spicy textural quality and citrus-inflected crushed wild berry.

Matt Courtney in the Ferren winery
Wine in the barrel at Ferren Wines
Ferren champions a slow and closely observed fermentation

Courtney, who started his career as a sommelier in the Bay Area, tasting the great wines of the world before earning a degree in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, takes what he calls an artisanal approach in the cellar. ‘The more you add to it or take away, the more you are losing what is interesting about the wine.’

Courtney is committed to organic farming practices (‘I just don’t see any other way’) and native fermentations, two things that he believes are instrumental in making high-quality, site-expressive wines. ‘We are beginning to understand more and more that terroir is about the whole ecology and the microbiology of the vineyard… it’s the residents of the soil and not just the soil that create the terroir.’

In his cool cellar, native primary fermentations can take all winter, a risky endeavour compared to the more common practice (in California, at least) of inoculating the grape must with commercial yeast and malolactic bacteria then sulphuring it until bottling. Instead, Ferren allows the wine to ferment slowly and naturally under a watchful eye – Courtney and his team look at each fermentation under a microscope daily to ensure there is no nefarious activity. This is done with the aim of building layers and complexity while honouring and celebrating the unique characteristics of each vineyard.

From the Silver Eagle vineyard, we head west through the small Sonoma County town of Occidental and out to the Volpert vineyard, from which you can actually see the ocean and that receives, as Courtney describes it, ‘unmitigated coastal influence’. A herd of cows eye us suspiciously as we approach the Chardonnay block.

ferren wine bottles
'The Chardonnay is more about mineral and citrus, with a tangy acidity and firm, linear texture,' says Courtney

Planted in 2013, Ferren will be releasing its first vintage (2019) of Volpert Chardonnay in the autumn. Even though it is well past noon, the air is noticeably cooler and the grapes are still going through veraison [the beginning of the ripening process]. Whereas most Chardonnay will be harvested in the next week or two in the Russian River, this fruit here is at least six weeks out. ‘But that’s OK,’ shrugs Courtney. ‘There’s no rush.’

Back at the winery, the sun is low and activity for the day has stopped. The cellar is pristine and orderly, designed by Courtney with his efficient and detail-oriented – but certainly not complicated – way of working in mind. He describes the transition from working at Marcassin to building Ferren as ‘more of an evolution than a revolution’. Courtney is constantly refining and fine-tuning his winemaking decisions as he learns from each vineyard and each vintage.

‘Making wine in a simple way isn’t necessarily easy,’ he says. ‘We are making a small amount of wine that is relatively expensive. It needs to be special.’

The wines of Ferren are distributed in the UK by Justerini & Brooks