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Holy Hiatus

Unlike the previous three years, I pretty much worked full time throughout vintage this year.  Unfortunately, that left little time for writing, and frankly not a huge amount of enthusiasm on my part.  Wine writing started as a tool to aid me as I studied for the WSET Diploma, and it was fairly seamless to go from having my nose in the Oxford Companion to Wine during the day to applying what I had learned in describing whatever I was drinking in the evening.

However, working vintage as a cellar hand is much more about manual labour than it is about wine knowledge and tasting.  There are certainly ways in which one can apply having a Diploma, but being able to clean tanks efficiently is more often required day to day.

But here is it the end of July and I’m only now getting back to writing?  Vintage actually finished in April, and I did have some down time, but even outside of vintage there are things to be done in the winery and I’ve not been short of work.  Over the course of the last two months the 2013 red wines have finished up their malolactic fermentation, and so hundreds of barrels have been emptied and cleaned, while the wines that came out of them have been blended and returned to them for further ageing.  Some of last year’s red wines are still in oak, each of which has required topping.  Finally many of the 2013 whites have been finished and sent off to be bottled, and I was pleased to be able to taste a bottle of wine I helped make this year, complete with proper closure and label.

So while work goes on, I’ve been away from wine writing for far too long.  Apologies to those who assumed I had passed away due to liver failure.  I am still here, and I have a bit of a backlog of interesting wines to post.  My intention is to return to a more modest posting schedule, starting with a wine a week, and possibly more when I’m spending less time in the winery and more time with bottles and a glass.  Thanks for reading.

2013 Vintage – Part 3 of 5

Shiraz has left its mark on me.

Shiraz has left its mark on me.

In addition to working closely with a winemaker in a tiny winery in the Adelaide Hills for the past four vintages, this year I’ve also been working at what could be described as a medium-sized winery that makes use of fruit from across South Australia. While not an especially large winery when compared with names like Penfolds or Casella, it’s been a big step up for me in terms not only of scale and varieties, but in terms of my role in a team.

The first big difference was that I was hired as a casual cellar hand for the vintage and paid an hourly rate – a fairly generous one at that.  I’ve worked as a volunteer in the Adelaide Hills, initially for the experience, and on subsequent vintages because I enjoyed it.  So as someone who ordinarily spends most of his time in front of a computer screen typing, it was strangely pleasing both to be doing a fair amount physical labour and to be paid for it.

Second, I was part of a team that consisted of two winemakers, up to four casual cellar hands, and myself.  The senior winemaker managed the overall operations of the team and the winery, scheduling the delivery of fruit, the movements from fermenters across to tanks and barrels, and the staffing.  The other winemaker was responsible for all the lab work – analysis of sugars, acids levels, temperatures, and progress of fermentations.  The two of them set out the daily work to be done by the cellar hands.  In addition, both were involved at different points in many other activities in the winery alongside cellar hands, from receiving fruit, digging out fermenters, pressing, racking, cleaning, what have you.

So what was so different about the experience?  While I was hired on an “as needed” basis, it’s been pretty much a full time job.  Vintage in the Adelaide Hills this year consisted of a handful of days spread over a couple of weeks, but with this job there has been a full day (and often more) of work to do for the last two months.  So while vintage is generally the busy time of the year for wineries, this year has been much busier for me, and for a longer duration.

Not only has there been more work in general, but many new experiences.  I’ve now worked with Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Colombard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Sangiovese, and even Nebbiolo.  I’ve spent more time on a forklift, stacking and unstacking barrels, moving things on and off trucks, and have tipped 500kg bins of grapes into a receiving unit.  I’ve used a number of unfamiliar types of pumps, fermenters, and tanks, as well as a press so big that you have to climb inside and walk around to properly clean it.  I’ve pumped over Shiraz ferments (as opposed to the gentle plunging when I worked with Pinot Noir), climbed to the top of a catwalk to dip tanks (that is drop a measuring tape into it to see how full it is) and then thrown in chucks of dry ice to lay down a protective buffer of CO2.  I’ve done the same on a huge tanker truck, which somehow seemed the antithesis of my experiences in a tiny winery, but if you don’t do your own bottling on site, you need to get your wine to the bottling line somehow.  All of that is in addition to jobs that were already familiar from previous vintages, like tipping baskets of grapes by hand, racking off lees, and of course cleaning.

The biggest single difference though has been being an actual cellar hand as opposed to just assisting the winemaker.  As an assistant, I was typically working directly with the winemaker or doing a specific task that he assigned me, and the winery was small enough that we could always see each other.  As a cellar hand, I spent some time working with winemakers or other cellar hands, but equally often I would be given a task (or assign it to myself if I knew it needed doing) and just get on with it independently.  I certainly started the vintage needing to be told what to do, and often needed some supervision in doing it, but these days I typically will know how I’ll be spending my day even as I drive to the winery and can get to work immediately.

Next I’ll try to describe my understanding of the difference between what it means to be a cellar hand and what it means to be a winemaker.

2013 Vintage – Part 2 of 5

Whole bunches of Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

Whole bunches of Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

As with the previous three years, I worked the 2013 vintage at a winery in the Adelaide Hills.  It was a small vintage, not because of yields in the vineyard but rather because the owner / winemaker has been cutting back on his wine production and selling on more of his fruit.  We worked with three crops of grapes:  Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills is a distinct expression of the variety, distinct from the better known wines of the Loire Valley in France or the now ubiquitous New Zealand interpretation.  It is neither overwhelmingly austere, not especially grassy, but rather has some hint of melon to complement the naturally high acidity.  As with all of our fruit, the grapes were hand picked and arrived at the winery as whole bunches in 20kg baskets.  We tipped the baskets by hand into the destemmer / crusher, pumped the must into the press, and pressed the juice into a tank where it was chilled.  After the clear juice settled, most of it was racked off solids into another temperature controlled tank for fermentation, though some was put into a pair of barrels to produce a small amount of oak influenced wine.  At this point it’s not clear if that will be bottled on its own or blended in with the stainless steel fermented wine.

Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills is not, to my palate at least, quite so distinct a style of wine, as there are competing views on how best to make it.  When I can identify an example blind, I usually pick out a “lemon butter on toast” character which encapsulates both the citrus and new oak flavours that I find most typically.  We put the Chardonnay whole bunches directly into the press without destemming or crushing and pumped into barrel for fermentation.

I can’t pick Pinot Noir from the Adelaide Hills blind, because I find there is a great range in expression, even across the parcels that make up the wines I’ve helped produce, depending on the site, the clone, the barrel, and the vintage.  The best have very herbaceous notes and some pencil lead in addition to black cherry and raspberry, while some others are nothing but fruit when they are young.  When our grapes arrived, some portion of the bunches went directly into the tubs we use for fermenting, while the other baskets are tipped into the destemmer.  Those grapes were destemmed (but not crushed) into buckets that are then tipped into the fermenter tubs.  After fermentation, the wine and remains of the grapes and bunches are transferred by bucket (which is to say by hand) into the press and the wine is then pumped into barrel.  The point of the soft handling is to avoid having the bunches and grapes go through any sort of pumping.

My role in all of this has been assistant to the winemaker (though I wouldn’t be so bold as to call myself an assistant winemaker).  Tasks like crushing typically involve moving pallets of baskets around with the forklift, tipping baskets, washing and stacking the empty baskets, bucketing must, operating the pump, washing barrels, what have you.  Most can be done by a single person, but are much more efficient with two or three.  Sometimes the tasks I’ve performed have been as simple as standing on the top of a ladder holding a hose and lowering down as a tank is drained, or switching a pump off when a barrel is full of wine.  On the other hand, it can be more complicated in the form of preparing a yeast inoculation and starting a ferment.

What makes working at such a small winery special for me is that I was working with the winemaker on every physical step of winemaking, from washing barrels and cleaning tanks to measuring sugar levels and eventually tasting finishes barrels.  As an assistant, I also brought provided coffee and sometimes doughnuts, both of which were considered essential.

At some point I’ll explain the difference between the physical steps of winemaking as opposed to being a winemaker, but in my next post I’ll talk a bit about the other vintage I worked this year, at a much larger winery, and as part of a team.

2013 Vintage – Part 1 of 5

Pinot Noir grapes - hand picked whole bunches

Pinot Noir grapes – hand picked whole bunches

I’ve been working vintage this year, which for me is one of the most important aspects of the relationship I have with wine.  It’s my fourth, and I wrote a bit about it last year as a break from writing about wines that I was drinking.  This year it was a much more time intensive process, and so writing has been largely set aside.  However, as vintage draws to a close, I’m going to take a week to write up what this vintage has meant to me while it’s still fresh in my mind.

One thing I’ve not properly discussed is vintage itself.  Vintage is when wine is made.  It’s broadly the period from when grapes are harvested until you only have wine.  While there are some very warm parts of the world that can grow multiple crops of grapes in a year, typically it’s an annual event, occurring in the autumn.  The term can also be used to refer to a specific year of a bottled wine, meaning the year in which the grapes that went into it were harvested, but for my purposes I use it in the winemaking sense of the busy time of the year.

The start depends on the climate  - warmer area of Australia typically have harvests a few weeks before cooler areas, and vintage doesn’t come to cooler parts of New Zealand until later still.  Obviously, vintage is roughly offset by 6 months for the Northern Hemisphere.  Each year is different as well, with cooler summers leading to later vintages.  Grapes ripen at different times depending on the variety, and even within a single variety they can be picked at different levels of ripeness from early picks for sparkling wines, later for table wines, and later still for late harvest or ice wine styles.  For a winery that handles many varieties and styles across many regions, harvesting grapes can stretch over months, while for smaller wineries it can be as short as a week or two.

Defining the end of vintage is somewhat fuzzier, because it’s not simply a matter of when the wine is finished.  Some wines are considered finished only weeks after having been grapes, while others undergo extended contact with skins or lees, further fermentations, cold stabilization, filtering, and/or fining, each of which can add days or weeks to the process, to say nothing of extended ageing which can add months or years.  I generally think of the end of vintage as the point at which the white wines have finished their alcoholic fermentation and red wines have been pressed off their skins.  From a practical point of view, it’s when you can give most of your equipment, that is your receivers, destemmers, crushers, fermenters and presses, a final wash and store them away until next year.  More importantly, there’s typically a dinner or a party to celebrate the end of vintage, and I’m especially looking forward to one this year.

So for me, the 2013 vintage is nearly finished, with only a single white still fermenting – a late harvest Riesling.  Much of the equipment has been washed and stowed, and we’re moving forward to getting the first whites ready for bottling.  There’s plenty of cleaning still to be done, and the normal work of topping up and racking will continue throughout the year, but for now at least the long days are over and thoughts are turning to the vintage dinner.

In my next post, what it was like working this vintage at a very small winery.

The 2013 Vintage Has Started

As some may remember from last year, I work vintage.  This year, in addition to having plans to work again with a producer in the Adelaide Hills, I’ll be doing some work with a producers best known for McLaren Vale wines.  Today was the first day, and I’m generally knackered from an invigorating start, punctuated by the general lack of sleep experienced by someone with a newborn in the house.  So yes, a new daughter, my second, and the start of vintage, my fourth.  If not for just how good beer tastes after a day of making wine, I’m not sure how I’d survive.

In practical terms for this site, I’ll be thinking of my readers as I work at making wine, but will be unlikely to have a huge amount of time to actually write anything.  At the very least, expect posts about the vintage and my experiences instead of posts about specific bottles of wine (and the grapes that make it up, and the region from which it originates).  Still, if vintage doesn’t kill me, I’ll be back as soon as I can.  Take care.


Approaching a Wine Century

Wine Century Essential - De Long's Wine Grape Varietal Chart

Wine Century Essential – De Long’s Wine Grape Varietal Chart

I’m creeping up towards my goal of 100 varietal wines from 100 different varieties, and it’s worth a post on its own, largely because I never really explained it in the first place.  So to start, what is this Wine Century that I keep going on about?

Wine is made from grapes, and while the vast majority of quality wine is made from one species called Vitis vinifera, within that species there are varieties such as Syrah and Chardonnay that have their own unique properties.  It’s a bit like breeds of dogs – most domesticated dogs are Canis lupus familiaris but within that species (sub-species to be more accurate) we have Labrador Retrievers, Irish Setters and hundreds of other breeds.  So roughly speaking, varieties are to grapes as breeds are to dogs.

If you drink wine, you quickly become familiar with the names of the more popular varieties, particularly if you drink New World wine where the grapes are commonly found prominently displayed on the front label.  If you study wine, you get to know even more varieties as you learn about increasingly obscure regions and grapes.

In 2005, Deborah and Steve De Long came up with an idea to promote lesser known grape varieties, and what resulted is The Wine Century Club.  You can apply for membership by listing 100 grapes you’ve tasted, along with the wines in which they were found.  There are subsequent levels of membership if you taste 200, 300, and so on.  It’s free, and is essentially bragging rights for wine geeks.  The De Longs are also responsible for the Wine Grape Varietal Table which I love, as well as some excellent maps.

So I’m attempting to join that club and I am finding it an interesting challenge.  On the one hand, it should be easy, given that Wine Grapes profiles 1,368 different grapes being used in commercial wine production.  In Australia alone, Vinodiversity lists over 100, so in theory I wouldn’t even have to leave the country.  Easy, right?

First off, there are a small number of varieties that dominate wine production.  If I head to my local wine merchant here in Adelaide, there’s no end of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir, but if I want a bottle of Carignan, I have to dig substantially deeper.  Second, it’s not always clear which grapes are in a wine.  Most European wines don’t list grape varieties on the label, requiring some online research (or the type of expert knowledge you get while studying for the WSET Diploma).  Finally, most grapes are known by more than one name, so you can’t list both Frontignac and Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains because they’re the same grape.  Still, if you drink enough wine and keep track, it shouldn’t be too difficult to eventually hit a century, right?

If you just want to tick boxes, sure.  Last year I enjoyed a Prosecco which I had assumed was made exclusively of that grape.  It turns out it also contained small amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Bianchetta, Perera and Verdiso, which means in one bottle I picked up six grapes.  Between that bottle, a classic red Bordeaux blend, and a bottle of red Châteauneuf-du-Pape which can contain up to 18 grapes, I could be up to 30 grapes tasted in three bottles.  While only a handful are commonly used, scores of grapes are permitted in Port.  There’s even a wine from Mario Giribaldi called Cento Uve which contains over 150 different grapes, and so in theory you could do a century and a half with a single sip (were it not explicitly forbidden).

However, this site is about wine education, primarily my self education as I document my drinking.  In this context, listing a grape as part of a century should mean that I’ve tasted it, I’ve researched it, and that I know more about it than I did before I encountered it.  However, I’m not comfortable describing how a grape tastes if I’ve only had it in a blend.  Despite it having been a component of the Prosecco from last year, I couldn’t give you a tasting note for Verdiso, or really tell you anything about it.  So for my first Wine Century, I am only going to list varietal wines.  That makes it more difficult, but not impossible.  Does that make it better than doing a normal Wine Century?  No, just different, and if I go for 200 I’ll certainly start to count grapes tasted in blends.  For now though, there are two main complications with this extra level of challenge.

First, wines which one might think are varietal can actually be blends.  Labelling laws vary widely across the world, but in many places even when a variety is displayed prominently, it is permitted that some percentage of the wine may be made from other grapes.  I’ve encountered that several times, including a “Gamay” which actually contained some Pinot Noir and a “Carignan” which contained Carmenère and Malbec.  They weren’t labelled that way to mislead, and the websites for the producers had full details, but if you’re looking to stick to varietal wines, it can be frustrating.

Second, there are some grape varieties which, while common in blends, are less frequently found as varietal wines.  Pinot Meunier is a classic example, in that it’s very often found in Champagne, but typically alongside Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir.  Also, since it’s not considered as noble as those two grapes, if a Champagne producer made a varietal Pinot Meunier, they might be hesitant to draw attention to that fact..

So that’s what I’m trying to do now – a Century of Wines, all varietal.  I haven’t quite hit 80, and I have every confidence I’ll finish 100 before the year is half through.  I had been planning on a second part to this post regarding the practicalities of tracking 100 grapes, but really it’s down to keeping good records as to what you’ve been drinking, researching the wine in question to verify which grapes are in it, and being adventurous as to what wines you drink.  You may find you have to go out of your way once you get past 50 or 60 varieties, but making use of things like the Wine Grapes Varietal Table and Vinodiversity are great for finding less common grapes.  Finally, forming a tasting group with other people interested in doing the same thing can make it not only easier, but more sociable and entertaining.

Birthday Wines!

So hey, it’s my birthday!  My age is something of a private matter, but let’s just say that even though it wasn’t declared vintage, Port from the year of my birth is drinking nicely right about now.  It was a great year in Champagne and Burgundy, but the Bordeaux vintage was ruined by rain during the harvest.  Given that I’d take a good Pinot Noir or Chardonnay over a Bordeaux blend most days, I’m fine with that.

For some people, birthdays are about looking back over the years, taking stock and being grateful.  For the less mature, such as myself, it’s about getting presents, and I’m especially pleased the gifts from my wife.  Thanks to her, I am now in possession of varietal wines of Ondenc, Petit Meslier, Pinot Meunier, and Clairette.  I’ll give you all the details when we open them up and I write about them, but I haven’t had such a haul since I found a half dozen new varietal wines in Vancouver in September.  I also have Vinodiversity and Wine Grapes to thank, as these wines all feature in both, and I look forward to telling you all about them.

“Natural” wine

The other day Jamie Goode @jamiegoode, a wine journalist for whom I have a great deal of respect, tweeted “Why is natural wine so divisive? Lots of people enjoy drinking them. There are many that are profound. No reason to get upset.”  My knee-jerk reaction would have been to reply “There’s no such thing” but rather than try to have a discussion 140 characters at a time, I thought I might put together what I intend to be a more thoughtful response.

[He has since posted an article as well, though I wrote this post before I saw it.]

Let me start by saying that I judge wine first and foremost by what’s in the glass, and I encourage producers to use whatever methods they think will result in the best wine.  When it comes to wines described as “natural”, I have enjoyed some a great deal and others I have enjoyed much less, but that is also true of wines in general, irrespective of how they are made.

When it comes to the term “natural” however, I do have some opinions.  I think it is neither a useful nor appropriate term to adopt for the non-interventionist approach to winemaking.  Even before the term became something of a movement in the context of wine, it had been completely devalued by its use with regards to food in general – see Cheetos for details.  The way the term is used to describe wine is no more useful than with food as there is no definition or regulatory organization.  Anyone can describe their wine as “natural”, irrespective of their viticultural or vinification practices.  Given the proliferation of “natural” on food labels, there is little reason to believe won’t happen with wine should consumers favour wines so labelled.

If that’s why the term “natural” isn’t useful, why is it inappropriate?  Start to finish, wine is not a natural product.  The vineyards where I work contain two types of fruit – blackberries and grapes.  The blackberry bushes appear randomly across the property, grown from seeds dispersed by animals, and producing fruit each season for anyone who braves the prickles.  I think “natural” is a fair description of the bushes and their fruit.

On the other hand, the grapevines are specifically selected clones, grown from clippings, with thousands of genetically identical vines set in neat rows, densely spaced, and carefully pruned over each season.  There is nothing natural about how the vines were cloned, planted, and cultivated.  If blackberries are the equivalent of free range eggs, grapes for wine are the product of battery caged hens.

With regards to the winery, if wine were a “natural” product, there would be no winery, because there would be no need to “make” the wine.  It’s romantically been said that wine is made in the vineyard, but the baskets, bins and trucks that turn up at wineries each vintage contain grapes, not wine.  Even the least interventionist winemaking starts at the harvest and continues through crushing and pressing, none of which could be considered natural processes by any stretch of the imagination.

Am I being too literal, or worse, pedantic, since that is how vines have been cultivated and wine produced for millennia?  For those who think the term “natural” should mean whatever they want it to mean, undoubtedly.  But really, this whole controversy is about terminology.  Winemakers should always be free to make their wines by whatever methods they choose.  However, when they hypocritically label those practices as “natural” they’re not only being dishonest, they’re also disparaging producers not using those methods by establishing the dichotomy of “natural” versus “unnatural”.  That is the root of this issue as far as I’m concerned.  No producer should object if their neighbour refrains from using SO2 or cultured yeast, because it’s up to consumers to decide which wine they want to drink.  However, it’s unacceptable for anyone to call their practices “natural” when they are so clearly not, and worse to the tar fellow winemakers as “unnatural” by comparison.


Eggcentric Winemaking

There was some buzz last month when Champagne Drappier announced it would be the first house in the region to produce wine in an egg-shaped oak fermenter from Taransaud costing roughly €30,000.  Wine can be fermented in many different types of vessels, from tanks, barrels and amphora to vats of wood, concrete or plastic, with a multitude of other options in between.  The decision as to which vessel can be down to the style of the wine being made, budget, or even just materials at hand.  In some cases the choice is evident in the finished wine.  Barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc is a very different beast from the same variety tank fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel.

So what would motivate a producer to use an expensive, egg-shaped fermenter?  According to Michel Drappier, “The ‘egg’ proportions represent the Golden Number,” referring to a mathematical ratio evident in a regular pentagon which can be aesthetically pleasing in design but which is thought by some to have deeper, mystical significance.  (There’s a nice animation of this from Nomblot who came up with one of the earliest egg wine vessels, made of concrete.)  Taransaud apparently feel the same, and they mount their oak egg-shaped fermenter on a pentagonal platform to emphasize the connection between its shape and the golden ratio.

What numerology has to do with fermenting wine is less clear, so perhaps we should turn our attention to what science has to say about why eggs are egg-shaped.  Not all eggs are asymmetric tapered ovals which may or may not have come before the chicken. Eggs are often round, as is the case for many reptiles and fish, because a sphere is geometrically the strongest shape for a structure.  A variation on the sphere, bird eggs are tapered for a several reasons.  The more oval an egg, the less distance it will roll, and birds who nest on cliffs where rolling eggs are the most at risk have the most tapered eggs.  A clutch of such eggs also fits snugly in a nest, allowing them to share warmth, and a tapered shape is more easily pushed through a cloaca by a laying hen.

If we apply what science tells us about egg shapes to winemaking, it’s clear that there are some advantages.  If, for instance, the cellarhands at Drappier are especially clumsy, an egg-shaped fermenter has a better chance than most of not breaking when they drop it.  Furthermore, if the pentagonal platform proves especially confounding for a forklift driver, the fermenter shouldn’t roll too far when it gets knocked over.  Unfortunately the platform frustrates the notion of tightly packing multiple fermenters for warmth – a hexagon, as found in honeycombs, would have been ideal – and I don’t think it’s worth considering how the mechanics of egg laying might be utilized in wine production.

Does that mean egg-shaped fermenters have no advantage beyond insurance against clumsiness?  There’s actually a middle ground which I think is very well explained by Darryl Brooker, the winemaker at CedarCreek Estate Winery, whose Ehrenfelser I covered last week.  He’s recently invested somewhere between €3000 and €5000 in a concrete version from Nomblot and as he puts it, “it’s a really cool shape and people just love to see it, but more importantly it makes really great wine.”

The fact that it’s a cool shape needs no explanation but he does say a bit more about winemaking.  As wine ferments, there is natural circulation of the liquid, and to a lesser extent any solids (lees), as carbon dioxide rises to the surface.  The continuously curved interior of the egg-shape allows the contents to flow freely, keeping lees in suspension (as opposed to settling on a flat bottom), giving the finished wine greater texture and mouthfeel.

While certainly a desirable quality in some wines, it must be said that lees stirring (bâtonage, if you prefer the French term) has been practised for centuries to achieve similar results.  So if you factor out the numerology, you are left with a cool shape, some automatic lees stirring, and protection against clumsy cellarhands.  Hardly the greatest innovation in winemaking this century, but absolutely the most entertaining when painted at Easter.