Insipration for a New Year

Well, the blog has been hibernating for several months now. Since being back in Vancouver, I’ve sadly let the ball drop. Still, the holidays blessed me with several great ideas and events that I hope to share soon.

For starters: I’m a big fan of Grape Radio. These guys always do a great job with their interviews, their subjects are always interesting, and they find some of the most interesting personalities in the wine world (their interview with Terry Theise is a favorite).

Now, I don’t know too much about Italian wine, but their latest episode is a great, and thorough discussion about Italian wine with MW Antonia Galloni, who is also a contributor to Wine Advocate. Very worth a listen, and gets me thinking about jumping into more Italian varieties.


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Formulating a concept of wine appreciation and evaluation

wine reviewThere is an adage; there are no great wines, only great bottles of wine.
How do we know when we have found that great bottle, much less, how do we increase our chances of picking out that great bottle from the myriad choices. Many people are happy with a simple point system, but to me, this tends to dumb down the experience of wine. While it may help guide you towards picking a better bottle, a point scale says nothing, absolutely nothing, about a wine, the actual experience of drinking it. I’ve never heard anyone say, “that’s some good 94 points.” This is why consumer education, or better yet, a developed culture of appreciation (for food as well as wine) is so critical.

Beyond a point scale, tasting notes do little better for describing the quality of wine. They may describe the qualities of a wine, but do not speak to the overall experience. I came across this in “Wine Science” by Ron S. Jackson:

“Regrettably, the use of wine descriptive terms can become perceived as an essential component of wine appreciation. Once tasters have developed sufficient experience with wine, the description of wine in terms of fruit, flowers, vegetable, and so on – except for research purposes in the descriptive analysis of wine – becomes unnecessary and counterproductive. In addition, it can degenerate into an exercise in self-fantasy. Quixotic terms may be invented to describe fleeting, imagined perceptions. It is generally more meaningful to characterize wines by their production style, varietal origin, and aging process.”

The difficulty with these broader characterizations, and assessments of quality, is the subjectivity of taste, and the variability of experience and knowledge. Appreciation of wine, is like that of art or music; we are often rewarded when we begin to appreciate its qualities beyond the surface elements. Jackson outlines a set of criteria for examining a wine which I find relevant and useful. The key term he uses is “Assessment of Overall Quality”. Chief among these is the wine’s memorableness – does the wine hold our interest, does it create an impression on us. This could be due to factors such as its sense of balance, its complexity, its development or its duration. This reinforced the notion that dissecting a wine’s flavors can do a disservice to the wine by reducing it to parts less than the sum total. If we want to say anything meaningful about a wine, we must remember that wine can tell a story, so we must in turn tell the story of the wine.

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Unadulterated wine

I have been thinking about natural wine, in light of my previous post about water-backing, and the links to related websites I posted. My thoughts went something like this: wine is anything but natural. Wine does not occur in nature, barrels do not assemble them selves, grapes do not jump in voluntarily. What they (natural wine enthusiasts/advocates) are talking about is not neither natural wine, nor authentic/traditional wine (I don’t want to get into a discussion about defining the terms traditional or authentic). What they are talking about are unadulterated, transparent wines. As I pointed out, there are all sorts off things one can put into a wine to push it towards one “expression” or profile. You can highlight aromas, and introduce bouquets. You can manipulate body, texture, and alcohol. All of these actions are generally used to “design” a wine to fit a model consumer, or create a more standardized product that fits a user groups needs.

The natural wine movement is advocating that wine reflect its context (I will use context, rather than terroir, as its and easier term to agree upon), and that this context be considered and appropriate. They are arguing for non-mass market wine… that wine be unique, individual and handmade (even non-corporate).

So, what does appropriate mean? Well, if a grape variety in one region ripens to 26 Brix or higher, you may be pressured to inoculate with yeast that has a high alcohol tolerance, or cause you to add water, and thus acid, in order to make a “balanced” wine. Whereas, said variety in other regions often delivers ripe flavors at lower alcohols without additions or manipulations. Case in point: Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir. I know a lot of people like it; I don’t. It taste like cola and vodka, not wine. However, the other night I drank a Grenache from the same region, which was more balanced and appropriate for a region that has so much sun and heat. But grenache is a different product, does not fly off the shelfs. Someone thought about that, and still planted it anyway, because they knew it was a better choice. I suspect that the wine making practices were also considered and appropriate. Let me be clear; I’m not opposed to a little chemistry in wine making. Stuck fermentations, partial malo-lactic conversion – these are real problems that wineries face, and must have an answer to them in order to keep their business vital. Similarly with their vineyards, real problems such as rot, mildew and pests have an impact on livelihoods, and few of us have the tolerance for risk (or the financial freedom) to watch a product go to ruin just for an ideal. I just hope that when faced with these problems, farmers and winemakers would opt for the lease invasive intervention.

This is what I believe the natural wine movement is advocating, and I believe that it will catch on, eventually. Organics has convinced many people to consider health over price; fair-trade has encouraged people to think about the social impact their purchases make. Natural wine is asking us to really consider what goes into our wine, and whether responsible choices were made during its production.

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Barreling Down

When fermentation comes to its death throws (it does not stop suddenly, but rather continues in a weakened stake, the new wine throwing CO2 off for a while) it is time to drain the tank, shovel out and press the skins, then settle the new wine into barrels for their winter nap. I’m amazed out how much of what is in the tanks is actually not wine, but spent berries. The free run wine is only a small fraction of what is in the tank. This is generally reserved, pumped to another tank to wait for the lees (sediment) to settle out. This new wine is generally slightly bitter and green (young tannins and sharper acid), but interesting.

Once the berries are sent to the press, the gently pressed wine is tasted for its tannins, which are higher than the free run wine, but may be included in the lot, and thus pumped to the tank. Or it may be too tannic, and will be set aside for a different lot. The hard press wine is always set aside.

A day of two latter, we will come back and rack a tank, that is, transfer it once again to a different tank, this time leaving behind any sediment that has fallen to the bottom. This is the start of making a wine clear and clean. Once racked, the wine is ready to head to one more container, this time French white oak barrels. Only about 25 percent of the barrels are new, the rest divided up from previous years. In the barrels, the wine will undergo secondary fermentation, transforming the green, tart malic acid, which makes the wine taste young, into lactic acid, giving a softer feel to the wine. Oak also allows the wine to slowly breath, and the barrels will regularly be topped up so that the wine does not oxidize too much.

Meanwhile, all the mistakes get sent to Tank Zero. Tank Zero is what we euphemistically call the drain. How does wine end up there?

  • While dragging hoses between too close barrels, a valve gets tapped and wine shoots in the air, on the barrels, and on you.
  • After mixing the tank, detach the tank mixer without closing the valve, then attempt to close the valve while the mixing rod is still in. Note: Shirt will turn purple.
  • Forget to correctly measure the volume of wine you are transferring to a smaller tank. Wine shoots out the top, and into Tank Zero.
  • Keep a pump running even if the wine is not flowing through it. The wine trapped in the pumping chamber will burn to a cotton-candy-carmel crisp. Take a part the pump and dump all the wine in the hose.
  • Become slightly distracted while filling barrels. If you look away at just the right moment, a geyser of wine will shoot out the top, stan the barrel, and flow to the drain.
  • Turn on a pump before checking each connection, or the end point of your hose.

Of course, all of this is generally done right as the winemaker walks around the corner and see you, so that your actions are recorded and humorously discussed at lunch.

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The Cap

One regular, and critical task in the winery, and one of my favorites, is punch-downs.  Punch-downs refer to breaking up and submerging, literally pushing down, the cap of skins and seeds that float, or are pushed to the top of a tank. This is what makes red wine; by mixing up the grapes in their juice, skin phenolics are extracted, color and tannins are imparted and the juice develops character. As the juice ferments, the berries are pushed to the top by carbon-dioxide.

The Cap

When fermentation is in full swing, we punch-down four times a day. In the morning a cloud of C02 can be seen when you first break the cap, as the warm gass breaks through to the cold air. The cap is three feet thick, and rolls like a wave when you push on one side. Traditionally this is all done by hand, with a metal paddle, but we are afforded pneumatic arms the take much if the work out of the job. Still, we run around, trying to cycle through a dozen tanks.
The point of a punch down is not just to extract color and tannins.

Fermentation, through the mechanism of CO2, stratifies the tank, and the top of the juice can be several degrees warmer than the bottom. Mixing the tank helps keep the temperature even. And it does so gently, which is important to Pinot Noir, as it benefits from careful handling.

What I love about the punch-downs is seeing how each tank is unique, depending on the vineyard or lot or stage of fermentation. Some tanks give off a very fruity aroma, as they go through the cold soak. As the juice turns to wine, fermentation imparts new scents to the wine; some tanks give off a savory, gamey bouquet, others maintain a their primary fruit character. Each tank is different, and a map of aromas and bouquets in the winery has developed in my head.

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It is a common practice in California, due to the “perfect climate”, to allow grapes to ripen to “phenolic maturity”. Phenolic compounds are contained in the skins and seeds of grapes, and by allowing them to ripen to maturity means that they will not impart bitter woody tastes (like over-steeped tea, from the seeds) and will have more developed fruit aromas/flavors (from the skins). However, this often means that grapes are picked when they are at 26° brix, or sometimes higher. As brix is a measure of sugar, and sugar is converted to alcohol, wine made from these grapes would be high in alcohol: around 15% and higher. This is considered acceptable for some varieties, to some people. There is, of course, a way to lower the alcohol by adding water to the must to dilute the sugars. And depending on the philosophy of the winemaker, this is not only acceptable, but the right approach to making “balanced” wine in California.

Of course, when fruit ripens, becoming sweeter and sweeter, it lose acidity. And acidity is what makes wine good to drink with food, it makes it refreshing and cleanses the palate (think lemonade!) So to make balanced wine with grapes that are “phenolically” ripe, winemakers must add tartaric acid (a grape’s natural acid, though in this case from it has been extracted from grape sources, only to be added back to grapes) in addition to water. This may seem like a roundabout way of taking care of the problem… why not just harvest the grapes when the acid and sugars are in balance? I ask that question as well, and the answer I come up with is that wines with ripe fruit character sell. Also Americans are just not phased about having additives, from natural sources or not, in our food or drink. No one is really outraged about a little chemistry… after all some of us (read: I) drink Red Bull from time to time.

Now, to say that this (it has a name: water-backing) is common, is not to say that everybody does it. Just like not every wine is adulterated with Mega Purple. But just as Mega Purple is added to give uniform color to a wine to make a consistent product, water-backing provides the winemaker with a degree of control over the wine (specifically the alcohol content and acid) to create a uniform product that will be acceptable to the (American) market. Simple as that; its not romantic, its business.

There are winemakers out there who disagree, and question the acceptability of the practice. I’ve seen back labels that stated the ingredients in the wine, which read “organic grapes”. Of course I thought that it was BS. Besides being hard to imagine anyone making a reliable living depending on spontaneous fermentation, not adding yeast nutrients or enzymes, there is the question of what else could constitute an ingredient in wine making. After all, oak barrels play a significant role in the aroma, flavor and feel of a wine; should they to be included on the ingredient list – after all tannins from the oak leech into the wine. Another issue is vintage variation. With so much chemistry, and such ease of ripening, its easy to make a very consistent product from year to year. Great for creating a product, but frankly boring; if nothing ever changes, why put a date on the bottle? Lastly, if the grapes ripen so easily, to such high levels of sugar, it raises the question of how appropriate the variety is suited for the place. In physiological terms, grapes ripen faster in warm weather, but developing complex flavors takes a long slow ripening period. When you ripen too fast, you get too much sugar, not enough flavor. Though some would say that its just a different expression. Or, climate change can be tasted in the glass. And while water-backing is illegal in France under AOC rules, producers there have the right to add beet sugar to the must to increase alcohol. Is this any better or worse?

The point of all of this is not to question the decisions of winemakers and winery owners. Rather, it is to give context to this anecdote:
I found myself adding approximately 60 gallons of water to a tank of must to bring the brix down to 24°. To do this we use a large gauge that connects to the end of a hose via a quick release connector. The gauge is large, and heavy, and awkward to hold. And it takes about one minute for 10 gallons to flow, so I was looking at standing there, holding the gauge for six minutes. After about 30 seconds of holding the hose, I  attempted to adjust it and find a more comfortable position. This is when the quick release connector came to rest on the edge of the fermentation tank, and did just that; it quickly release the water gauge. Right into the tank. And disappeared into a mess of grapes.
I stood there dumbstruck. There was really nothing I could do to retrieve it. I couldn’t get into the tank, or just reach in… it was 15 feet down a dark tank, under 6 feet of juice and 3 feet of grape skins. And there was no way to ignore it. Eventually I would have to tell somebody, because I would not be able to complete my tasks – it would look awfully weird if I went around carrying buckets of water instead of using the hose.

The object in question

So I went to tell the cellar master, figuring, at least he would be able to find another water gauge. He left into action (literally… he is a bit hyper) while I stood there, still coming to terms with the idiotic thing I had just done. While I began to prepare to transfer all of the juice from one tank to another, then dig out the gauge from the remaining grape skins, the cellar master had already rigged up a crazy rake taped to a telescopic pole, and was ready to go fishing.
After just a few attempts, we managed to get the offending piece of metal out, much to the relief of the winemaker. And then he told me about the time he accidentally dropped a bin (yeah, a bin that holds a half ton of grapes) into one of the fermentors. That made me feel a little better.

On a related topic, some interesting articles on Natural Winemaking:

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A visual accompaniment to the previous post. It basically shows the sorting table, the de-stemmer, and a “side dump” into an open top fermenter.


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