Message in a Bottle
Posted by Colleen | Harvest | Posted on September 2nd, 2010
Winemaker Richard Sowalsky put together some harvest notes on the impending crush at Clos Pegase. But before we see what Richard had to say about the status of our cellar, here’s a quick video snapshot of what’s up in the vineyard:
And now, Richard’s notes…
We have just wrapped up bottling season here at Clos Pegase, so I thought I would share with you a bit about the process, which is quite different from most of winemaking. Bottling is essentially a mechanical process of moving wine into small salable containers which can be more readily transported to end consumers than wine in bulk. The process of filling and assembling this package, however, is perhaps one of the more stressful and least artful part of the winemaking process. Many possible issues can arise, and the process must be monitored diligently to avoid damage to the wine at all costs as well as ensuring that the packaging elements perform as desired, either functionally or aesthetically.
Think about it. We spend a vintage year farming the vineyards to perfection so that we receive a pristine crop of grapes, adjusting farming practices based on vintage conditions to achieve best results. Then, we nurture the wine for up to 22 months from fermentation through aging. We taste the lots religiously, test them analytically, and do whatever is needed in the Cellar to elevate the raw materials to their peak expression. All very nuanced stuff.
From a wine health perspective, the goals of bottling are threefold: (1) put the promised amount of wine into the bottle, (2) ensure that the winemaking has been done in a manner so as to exclude spoilage organisms from the wine during bottling, and (3) minimize oxygen in the wine during the physical process of bottling to ensure initial freshness in its youth and a long life ahead.
The fill volume is accurately delivered into each bottle by the filler, and is measured physically in the Lab to fulfill our legal obligation to deliver the amount of wine specified on the label.
Wines are tested prior to bottling for any yeast or bacteria that might change the flavor of the wine over time or otherwise change the wine in an unpredictable manner. If discovered, these organisms can be eliminated by a number of different processes, including removing contaminated lots from a blend, using fining agents to “capture” the contaminants, or filtration to physically exclude the organisms from the wine. Fortunately, no microbes that can survive in wine are bad for human health (too much acid and alcohol), but their by-products can be bad for human senses and thus cannot be tolerated.
Oxygen in winemaking is a double-edged sword. It is critical for yeast health and survival during the fermentation process. In controlled doses, it can be useful in red winemaking for changing tannins from being bitter and astringent (mouth drying, puckering and rough) to supple, round and mouthfilling. It also helps to fix color. However, oxygen can destroy aromatics and introduce sherry-like aromas into table wines, not desirable unless, of course, one is making sherry! Oxygen can also “spark” a miniscule population of spoilage microbes to become a thundering herd, and alter their behavior from innocuous to detrimental. So, the last thing a winemaker would want to see is more than two years of hard work undone by an unintended introduction of air into the wine at bottling. Since this process can easily go awry as wine is moved from the bottling tank through the filler and into the glass, we monitor the situation constantly, and use inert nitrogen gas (the non-oxygen component of air) throughout the process to ensure oxygen is excluded. There is no room for error here.
Another potential source of oxygen in the wine is through the closure. Synthetic corks are notorious for allowing too much oxygen into the bottle during aging, and are thus used for early drinking wines (and are NOT used at Clos Pegase!). Stelvin screwcap closures and corks will seal the bottles tightly while allowing extremely miniscule amounts of oxygen enter the bottle over time, producing the desired rate of bottle aging expected by consumers; this is only true, however, if the screwcaps and corks are properly applied, and we have tests to determine that as well (bottling is a lot of work—did you figure that out yet?).
Last, but not least, we need to finish the bottles with the decorative and informational elements that will let you know you have purchased a world class wine from Clos Pegase as well as letting you know a bit about what that wine might be. Foils and label artwork render the package more attractive and inviting, as well as providing a clear visual identity for our winery (the gold coin replica on the top of the foil, Odilon Redon’s Pegasus painting on the label). Label text provides important information on vintage, variety, appellation, vineyard designation and wine descriptive text in addition to alcohol content and wine volume. It is important that this investment in artwork is not breached by the bottling process, rendering labels blemished or unreadable. A lot of our energy during bottling is spent focusing on package integrity and aesthetics.
Needless to say, I am always a happy camper once the wine is in the bottle safely and properly, and shipped off to our warehouse. There, it will sit in a temperature-controlled environment for a time until we feel it is at its most perfect moment for release, at which point we make it available to our customers to purchase and enjoy!