November 07, 2005

Home winemaking 2005

I wasn’t planning to make wine at home this year. After setting the goal of working harvest at a winery and then lining up a good position, I figured I wouldn’t bother making my own stuff.

Then the opportunity presented itself, unfortunately due to the rain and the subsequent break in the harvest. I suddenly had time, and after a few calls I had lined up some pinot noir from Courting Hill vineyard in Banks, west of Portland on a beautiful south-facing slope.

The vineyard elevation is 350-480 feet, similar to the estate where I worked. There, pinot noir grapes in the last week of September were beautiful, well above 23 brix and delicious with moderate browning of stems and seeds.

After the rain, I would have liked to wait to pick, but working at the winery was my priority. I wanted to be available for any good picking day for the next few weeks, if not a few bad ones so I could do cellar work. So I picked on Sunday morning, October 2, in showery weather two days after the big rain that turned summer to fall.

What did I get? 204 lbs. of pinot noir at 22 brix, diluted probably but still not as ripe looking as the other fruit I’d seen before the rain. More green in the stems and occasional seed. I tried to find the ripest fruit in the upper block where I could pick. The Courting Hill site is pretty far north for Willamette Valley pinot, so it might have been smart to pick later to get as much ripeness as possible. But I saw lots of grapes from many vineyards after I picked, and 22 brix would be right in the ballpark of what you’d expect to see. I can’t say there weren’t vineyards with higher brix in October, but I wonder how many got to 24.

I crushed and destemmed on site into a Rubbermaid bin. There was no rot or other disease, but I added approximately 70ppm SO2 as I learned at the winery. The sulfur at crushing is intended to protect the must as it soaks for a few days before fermentation starts.

I would have added less if none at all, as other winemakers suggest. But as with many decisions I made with this wine, I chose to practice the techniques I was learning – many of them from Germany and France, and largely intended to let terrior speak through the wine.

I learned about Jayer’s methods in Burgundy, adding more sulfur at the crusher to allow for a cold soak, to extract color and flavor before alcohol is present from fermentation. And allowing extended maceration, typically up to three weeks from crushing to pressing, with the intention of allowing the tannins to grow longer and smoother than you might get in a wine pressed earlier.

So I practiced. After picking Sunday and adding some dry ice to really cool the must down, I let the must soak until Thursday night when I inoculated the bin with a pail of must I had started with some liquid Assmanhausen yeast that morning. Fermentation took off within two days, and I put a heater near the bin out in the garage to keep the air temperature up – and hopefully the fermentation temp up – due to the cold weather.

The ferment peaked a few days later with a cap temp of 86F before punching it down into the juice. The juice peak was 85F, but only for a short while. The temp was probably only over 80F for a day, after I turned off the heater one morning when the day was supposed to warm up significantly. It never happened, and when I got home late that night the must was down to 77F. I turned the heat back on for the rest of the week, but the temps were slowly downhill from there. I wanted more heat to cure the wine a bit, give it some depth and hopefully burn off some of the greenness I expect in the wine. A bigger fermentation is the solution, so that’s on the docket for next year.

Early in the week I chaptalized a bit, to raise the brix by .5 but mainly to extend the fermentation. I added plain table sugar to a small amount of juice, then stirred that into the bin. The wine was essentially dry by Friday, but I let it sit until Monday night before pressing. The total skin contact time was 16 days. With a bigger fermentation, I would have waited longer but I was concerned about oxidation and allowing too much volatility into the wine.

Fermentation smells followed the arc I noticed on pinot noir fermentations in the winery. The crushed must smells sweet and a bit green, like most crushed grapes. The early fermentation shows lots of CO2. Then you move into the more maturing smells of wine, rich fresh and preserved fruit along with yeast. After the fermentation peaks, there’s a "roasty" period where you get coffee and other roasted scents. The best lots from before the rain were really nice during this period, just beautiful to smell. Then as the fermentation ends there is some volatile acidity pungency from the shallow cap, more vinous smells that wines pressed too early seem to lack (in favor of sweet candied fruit). In my wine, I noticed all of these stages. Actually, I was most excited by my wine during its own "roasty" period. The smells were very ripe but earthy and vinous. The wine is still very young and is expected to go through many phases, but I’d love to see that quality back in this wine before its bottled.

I pressed with a small stainless steel press rented from a local homebrew supply shop. I ended up with a 50-liter barrel and two 1-gallon demi-johns of wine for topping. The barrel I also got used from a guy at the shop. It’s four year old Slovenian oak, a small cask and perhaps prone to oxidation. It’s in my basement, which is cool and somewhat humid, but not a perfect cellar environment. We’ll just have to see how it goes.

So far, the wine tastes a bit harsh and astringent though it does have some pinot noir fragrance, so I do have some hope. I’ve seen wine change dramatically over time before bottling. But I don’t expect too much from this year’s wine. It’s a nice experiment, one I’ve executed pretty well to this point but too bad about the less than ideal ripeness and the small fermentation size. I’m not sure where I’ll get the money to make a full barrel next year or where I could do it. But I’m going for it and now I think I have every reason to expect I won’t f#*! things up.

November 06, 2005

1999 Clos Roche Blanche Cabernet Touraine

I once suggested that this wine is all cabernet franc, but was advised that who really knows whether or not there's cabernet sauvignon in there as well.

But I am certain this wine, labelled simply "Cabernet," is not nearly as tannic as I remember it from its younger days. It smells classic without much intensity, with musky herb and berry aromas and more than a hint of soil. Yet in the mouth it's a little flat and tired, even if the flavors aren't more than beginning to mature. It's not old, just dull but still a nice drink with dinner and worth the $10 it cost me a few years back.

Working Harvest

So what do you do?

That’s the question I got this fall more than I expected when people found out I was working harvest part-time for a local winery.

The next question was invariably - do you really stomp the grapes with your feet?

Generally, no. The grapes are machine crushed and destemmed for the most part. It isn’t uncommon even these days for people to get into a vat of fermenting red wine to mix the solids and juice, and spread out any hot spots created by the fermentation. But that didn’t happen here.

What you do working harvest is work your tail off. Dump countless 35lbs. trays of grapes onto the sorting conveyor, if not pitchfork grapes that arrive in half ton or larger bins. Sort endlessly. Move the bins of crushed grapes into the winery to soak and then begin fermenting. Punch down fermenting red wine with a metal rod with a disk on its end, when the grape solids are pushed up by carbon dioxide from the fermenting juice forming a cap that can be one or more feet thick. Clean and rinse picking trays, bins, tanks, hoses, fittings, buckets, pumps, conveyor belts, barrels, things over and over again. Stir lees in the chardonnay barrels, clean the presses, sweep the floor, hose down the floor, punch down again. Crush more grapes and do it all over again.

That’s essentially it, broken up by times of waiting for grapes to arrive or for someone to get back from an errand to do something that requires a group.

Along the way I asked as many questions as I could manage. What’s "ripe?" How much sulfur dioxide to use at crushing? How long to cold soak the crushed grapes before fermenting? What analysis do you really need to do? How do you do it? What do you look for during fermentation? How often do you punch down? What odd smells during fermentation are normal and what are signs of more serious problems? How long do you wait until pressing? How clean do you really need to be? How often do you rack? When do you sulfur the wine again? How do you know when to bottle? All things I have some experience with (and even more opinions on), but how does a professional do things?

And I paid attention to how you might manage the whole thing. What is the typical sequence of events to do all the tasks of harvest? How do you work with the growers who seem to talk up the quality of their grapes and are often anxious to have you harvest as soon as possible, only not this week because we don’t have picking crew. How do you manage your space in the winery, and your available bins, tanks, and barrels that need to hold everything you bring in from the fields? Most of all, considering the Oregon climate, how do you make picking decisions, especially with constantly shifting weather forecasts and more folk wisdom than you can imagine from anyone in the industry.

What did I get out of the deal? Lots of exercise, lots of knowledge, and some fun with a very humble, extremely honorable boss who really knows what he’s doing (and often not going to do) in the wine cellar. Not to mention some cash in my pocket and some nice wine at a good price for my efforts.

All this from a phone call out of the blue that I made to the producer almost a year ago saying, essentially, I respect your wines very much and although you don’t know me I’d like to work with you to learn how to really make wine in Oregon. I didn’t exactly achieve that goa, yet. There are more harvests to come no matter where I work. But this was the start of something very interesting, and combined with my ongoing experiments with home winemaking, I’m excited.

November 03, 2005

Good article on the place I worked

The other day I heard about this article on about the winery I worked at this fall. There's even a picture of me, looking typically lost and useless. I'm the guy in the blue sweatshirt about halfway down.

Avalon is based in Corvallis - it's actually a wine shop right in downtown, but more and more of its business is web driven. Their prices are on the high side, but they connect lots of people to Oregon wines and sometimes feature good content, like this article. It's not perfect but definitely rises above the norm in detail and wine geek interest. Check it out.