Friday, May 9, 2008

Meanwhile, back in the winery...


Wine has been made for 7000 years. The first was undoubtedly the result of a gatherer in the Taurus or Caucasus Mountains coming home, exhausted, arms laden with edibles, only to find her hunter impatiently pacing about saying “so, what’s for dinner?” She hurriedly tossed the grapes she had gathered into a pot in the corner, and fixed a sumptuous feast. She forgot about the grapes, but a couple of weeks later came home from another gather to find her hunter stretched out on the sofa, the pot of grapes by his side, and a huge smile on his face. 7000 years later, Chateau Lafite.

So wine is not hard to make. You don’t need oak barrels, you don’t need temperature controlled fermenters, you don’t need fancy yeasts, you don’t need vast filtering systems, you don’t need cobwebby underground caves, you don’t need to be French, you don’t need a degree from UCDavis. All you need is grapes—wine is made in the vineyard—a container to ferment them in and then—and this is the first lesson our hunter/gatherer learned—an airtight container so that the wine is not exposed to air. Wine—like bananas, milk, meat and peaches—will spoil if exposed to the oxygen in air. (So if you’re ever unlucky enough to only drink a half bottle with dinner, be sure to decant what’s left over into a smaller bottle to minimize its exposure to air).

A friend once said “the magic is in growing grapes, because wine making is just chemistry.” As the son of a chemical engineer, I had to take exception—yes it is chemistry, but to say “just chemistry” is like saying Marilyn Monroe is just a hundred pounds of water with a few pounds of minerals thrown in. You can make Thunderbird, or you can make Stag’s Leap—the difference is in the chemistry.

In fact, ten skilled wine makers using identical batches of grapes harvested from the same vineyard on the same day, will produce ten easily identifiably different wines. It’s all in how they handle the chemistry.

So the mechanics of making wine are simple: you extract the juice either mechanically or with your feet, if they’re white grapes you separate the skins from the juice before fermentation, usually by pressing, if they are red you keep the skins in contact with the juice until after fermentation because the color comes from the skin. Fermentation is the process of converting sugar—glucose—into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Yeasts are a catalyst for fermentation, and you add yeast to the juice, or depend on natural yeasts in the air and on the fruit to do the job. Fermentation lasts a few days to a few weeks, after which you have wine. At that point it is murky, cloudy, filled with bits of skin, seeds and an occasional bee, quite raw, and hard to drink. You can train your taste buds to taste it at that point, however, and get a good indication of how it will end up. The rest of the process is clarifying the wine, and allowing it to develop its true taste and character, much as you might let a stew sit for a time after cooking to allow the flavors to meld together. Except with wine it can take weeks, months or years.

Let’s get back to those ten winemakers. What are the variables that will produce ten distinctly different wines from the same grapes? First, the fermentation. Fermentation generates heat—which is why most modern wineries have temperature controlled stainless steel fermenters. A wine fermented at low temperatures will preserve the flowery aromas of the grapes, so the temperature of the fermentation can determine the difference between an austere, steely wine, and a soft, flowery wine. The yeast you use —and there are many choices—can alter the flavor slightly. You can ferment a wine bone dry—most fine wines are—or you can leave varying degrees of sugar. Most beginning wine drinkers like a slightly sweet wine, and grow into drier and drier wines as their palates develop, so many wine makers make some sweet wines to appeal to as many customers as possible.

The really great sweet dessert wines, the Chateau D’Yquems, the ice-wines from Ontario, the Trockenbeerenausleses from Germany, are made from grapes dehydrated by either freezing on the vine, or by botrytis—the “noble rot”—and so have such a high sugar content when they are harvested that there is considerable sugar left when the wines reach about 17 percent alcohol, the point at which most fermentation stops. With very special handling, the alcohol percentage can crack 20 percent, but that is very rare. (Any liquor with a higher alcohol level—Cognac, Scotch, Gin, Vodka, Rum moonshine tend to be 40 percent or above—has to be distilled).

The second set of decisions comes in the process of clarifying the wine; separating the wine from the lees, the dead yeast cells, the bits of skin and that dead, but happy, bee in the bottom of the container. The lees impart a flavor, and some winemakers will deliberately let the wine sit on the lees for months, and stir them up from time to time, to capture that flavor. Others will siphon the wine off the lees as soon as possible.

And finally, there is the aging process. Here the two main variables are “how long?,” and “in what?” As an often broken rule, white wines are aged for months in stainless steel, and red wines for years in oak. Oak barrels—and of course, there are many kinds of oak—impart a subtle oak flavor to wine. French Limousin is the traditional standard, but some winemakers are partial to Yugoslav or Spanish oak, and many Australian winemakers like Pennsylvania oak, go figure. Each variety adds a different flavor, and the length of time the wine is in oak affects its flavor as well.

To add to the complexity, oak barrels lose their ability to impart their flavor to the wine after three or four uses, but continue to change the wine because a minute amount of air gets through the wood and, subtly, matures the wine. Similarly, a tiny amount of air gets through a bottle’s cork and helps high quality red wines age. Yes, too much air spoils wine, a tiny bit matures it.

By the way, there are people who make their living going from vineyard to vineyard and scraping off a thin layer of wine soaked oak from the inside of barrels, thus exposing new oak, and giving the barrels another three to four years of life.

So it’s easy to see how our ten winemakers can each make a different wine from the same grapes.

In our small winery right now, we have three vintages (2005, 2006, and 2007) undergoing the clarifying/flavor melding process. There are certain processes that have to get done—stirring the lees or siphoning wine off the lees, for example—but there’s no rigorous schedule. Like snakes that only eat once a month or so, it doesn’t really matter if we stir on Monday or on Thursday.

So during the winter Russ Gaul, the one-handed Episcopalian minister’s son, Nixonian Republican, and one time cardboard box salesman turned Unitarian and de facto Democrat, and Mike Carpenter, the long bearded—the Mexican pickers refer to him as “Osama”—Republican, lawyer and sailor, also Unitarian and de-facto Democrat and I gather intermittently to check on the wines, and occasionally do some bottling.

Last time we were in the winery, I bottled the 2005 Cabernet/Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend that, faux de mieux, will be the red we’ll serve at our opening reception on June 11, 2009. I’m still working on the whites.


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