Posted by Colleen | Cellar Activity | Posted on May 21st, 2012
The following is a grapegrowing/winemaking update from our winemaker Richard Sowalsky:
Grapevines throughout the Napa Valley have finally emerged from their winter dormancy, awakening to produce the green growth and fruiting clusters that will soon become this season’s winegrapes. To ensure that the highest quality wine is produced at harvest, springtime finds abundant activity in the vineyard similar to the frenzied activity at harvest – no rest for the weary! One reason for this intensive work is that the neatly trimmed and tidy grape vines play against type. In their natural habitat, the plants act more like true vines, sending out vegetation which clings to any vertical element in its vicinity (such as a tree or rock face), moving ever upward in search of additional sun exposure for photosynthetic energy. These wild vines also exploit height to spread their seeds through presentation of fruit where birds are most likely to dine.
This natural strategy, while clearly advantageous to the grapevines, presents a number of challenges for the winegrower. Shimmying up trees and cliffs to harvest fruit for winemaking, while a healthy if somewhat perilous activity, is time consuming, especially if the vines are few and far between. Also, individual vines in the wild will spread many small clusters throughout the vast architecture, making the harvesting of sufficient fruit to produce wine on a commercial scale essentially impossible.
Now, if all of this wild growing behavior actually resulted in better winegrape quality, then it might be advantageous to pursue as close to a wild style of growth as possible. However, vegetatively sprawling, shy yielding vines do not produce superior wines, in general, because the energy of the vine is typically unbalanced in favor of growing support and light-capturing structures (the canopy) at the expense of the production of fruit with optimal wine chemistries and sensory characteristics. Essentially, since all birds and other wild grape eaters care about is sugar for energy and all the vine is trying to accomplish is propagation, just enough resources are put into fruit production as required to optimize seed ingestion and dispersal. Winegrowers have developed ways to flip this formula such that more of the vine’s resources are directed to the fruit, increasing production and accumulation of the non-sugar elements in the grapes such as flavor and aroma compounds, tannins and pigments.
Thus, the preponderance of the efforts put forth by a fine winegrower are directed at taming the natural tendencies of the grapevine for the betterment of the final wine. But, the vines never lose their call of the wild. One of the times during the growing season when this is most apparent is a few weeks after budbreak (when the vines emerge from their winter dormancy and begin their annual cycle of growth) until bloom (when the grape flowers burst open and self-pollinate). At this time, meristem (the stem cells of a plant from which all of the green tissues grow and develop) begins to multiply and differentiate in areas of the vine which have had leaves at any time in the past, because the meristem resides in the leaf angle (the area between the leaf stem and its attachment to the plant). At this time of year, it quickly becomes obvious that during the history of even the most immaculately pruned and trained vines, there must have been leaves almost everywhere on the plant, since shoots begin to grow all over the place, including from the middle of the trunks and even from the rootstock!
Excessive shoots on a vine can have a number of negative consequences, including (1) limiting the growth of so-called primary shoots (the stronger cluster-bearing shoots pruned and trained to be optimally positioned for quality) by diluting the inherent resources of the vine; (2) excessive leafiness leading to canopy shading and humidity in the fruit zone which, in turn can increase disease pressure, limit effective photosynthesis (through shading of interior leaves) and harm fruit development (by limiting sunlight to the clusters); and (3) poor fruit set after pollination due to hormonal imbalances in the vine. Thus, after the winter activity of pruning, where the desired growth potential of the vine is determined by removal of all but a limited number of the most promising meristem buds on the dormant vine, suckering is the next vital step in assuring vine balance, leading to sufficient shoot growth to ripen a healthy and moderately exposed crop of high quality winegrapes. Timing is key: if done too early, more suckers will be encouraged to grow and the activity will need to be repeated; if done too late, the primary shoots may be stunted for the remainder of the season. Growers throughout Napa Valley are seizing this time of perfect weather and optimal vine growth to “git” those suckers – yet another step in the handcrafting of the best wine possible.
January and February are traditionally considered to be the “slow season” at Clos Pegase, because that is when our production team stops to take a minute to catch their breath after the past Harvest.
That doesn’t mean that the cellar is a ghost town. The action shifts from the crushpad in September, to the cellar in November through the beginning of the new year, and inevitably the focus lands in the lab in January and February.
While our winemaking team keeps an eye on the vineyards, glancing at the weather report and its lack of rain (the exact opposite of what we did in October of 2011 when we desperately wished for rain to stay away), they are keeping their other eye on the wines that we are getting ready to bottle, not to mention the wines from 2011 that are in barrel (gotta make sure everything is progressing in the right way, you know!)
In order to get a better idea of what type of things go on in the cellar in the “off-season” I headed in to chat with Winemaker, Richard Sowalsky, where he was full of production-world gems.
This time of year, Richard explained, malolactic fermentations are usually wrapping up in the cellar and the team has been keeping close watch to make sure the acid levels are at the desired levels, achieved via this process. What are the desirable levels? So glad you asked.
Before I tell you, I will admit. I’m a rookie at this production stuff (me: grapes get smashed, juice ferments to alcohol, bottle it up and enjoy. Simple. Now we know why science wasn’t my strong suit.) So I wanted to know what this malolactic fermentation stuff was all about.
This fermentation, or more accurately, chemical conversion, is the process during which malic acid is converted to lactic acid. For everyone reading this who
feared chemistry was a communications major like me, this is like converting the tart taste of apples to the less tart taste associated with sourdough bread. You introduce some “desirable bacteria” into the wine (or use bacteria naturally on the grape skins or in the winery) and they take care of the conversion, a process which naturally de-acidifies the wine. Without ML (as I call it, so I can sound like I know what I’m taking about after my crash course with the production team) many of the wines would taste sharp- great for wines known for crisp acidity like sauvignon blanc; not so great for cabernet sauvignon or merlot.
This conversion happens with almost all wines in our portfolio, with the exception of our Sauvignon Blanc, Vin Gris Rosé and The Portico. (Our SB is known for its crisp acidity so if we allowed malolactic fermentation to take place, that lovely acidity would be gone. Insert sad face here.)
But back to the science of this winemaking stuff. It was at this point in the conversation with Richard that he drew me a couple of molecules on a piece of paper, complete with carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This was in order to illustrate the ML conversion. I’m going to spare you this part, because it was here was I finally understood what he meant when he referred to this process as the “malolactic coma.”
Basically, he went into a whole bunch of science-related topics about bacteria eating carbon chains and stabilizing the wine and I was furiously writing notes down, stopping him every couple of minutes to clarify what he’d just explained.
And I was still confused.
In order to save you from entering into the malolactic coma yourselves (you’re welcome for taking one for the team), I’m going to just give your the jest of it, with some history mixed in for good measure:
Wine has three types of acids in it:
- tartaric, which is pretty stable and acceptable in the wine
- malic, which is unstable and can be less desirable because of the tart flavors it imparts (unless you’re making sauvignon blanc, or another “crisp” varietal)
- citric, though this is found in very minute amounts.
So, you have these types of acid in the wine and malolactic fermentation is the method that leaves the tartaric acid in tact but more importantly converts the malic acid into lactic acid. During ML, the citric acid also runs the risk of becoming diacetyl. Diacetyl is what causes the super buttery, nutty, oaky flavors in wine that overpower everything else. And if the wrong type of “desirable bacteria” is introduced, diacetyl could be an issue.
Enter the history part of this lesson.
Back in the day, in the Champagne region of France, they were making lovely sparkling wines, but diacetyl (read: buttery, oaky flavors) was overshadowing the delicate bubbles. Some smarty wine scientists then developed a good bacteria that could be used in the ML process that would not leave diacetyl behind as a bi-product and thus, a “desirable bacteria” was born. Then all the winemakers from the Champagne houses rejoiced.
But back to our story.
We choose to mimic the Champagne method of ML because it allows us to emphasize the vineyard fruit and the place from which our grapes come, rather than obscure the quality fruit. Since we age everything in oak barrels, we still have some of the hallmark qualities of varietals (toasty oak, vanilla, etc.) but can better balance those qualities with the fruit characteristics, giving our wines a sense of place while keeping it in balance.
So that, my friends, is the short version of malolactic fermentation, believe it or not.
Trust me, be very glad you didn’t get the whole science version. I’m still recovering from the high school chemistry flashbacks induced by those molecule drawings…
With the buzz of Harvest behind us, we thought we should take minute to recap all that Harvest 2011 entailed for Clos Pegase, as it is much more than picking grapes that goes into our craft.
Given the anticipation that preceded the actual commencement of Harvest of 2011 (anticipation, in that we checked weather reports for rain daily, making sure our efforts to leave grapes on the vine as long as possible to get the utmost ripe fruit weren’t thwarted) we did in fact start seeing activity on our Crush Pad on September 27; this was a mere 5 weeks past when we might prefer to bring in fruit, had the summer weather cooperated, but so goes the agricultural industry on which we hang our hats. Our production team, like many others in the valley, had a very condensed grape-picking window, that ultimately culminated in the last fruit hitting our crush pad on November 1.
From there, it’s hardly fair to think Harvest 2011 is complete. Alas…if only bringing the fruit in was the half of it…
Post-fruit picking, there was much to be done in the cellar, namely in the form of pump-overs and punch-downs. Pump-overs refer to every Harvest worker’s favorite thing to do, ever. (Insert sarcasm here.) Just ask anyone who has ever performed this task. I dare you to find someone who doesn’t groan at the thought. They take heavy hoses, hook them up to tanks and get that fermenting juice from the bottom of the tank moving to the top, where the grape skins have formed a layer. This layer is known as the “cap” and pouring the juice over it ensures optimal extraction and prevents bacterial spoilage. They do them 3-4 times a day per tank (did I mention that at times we have upwards of 40 tanks in use?) and they vary in length of time per pump-over based on tank capacity. Pump-overs are time-consuming, arduous and very necessary.
Then of course, there are punch-downs, which are equally as fun in the eyes of Harvest workers. Punch-downs are another way of circulating the juice in tank so that is comes in contact with the skins. By busting up that cap of skins at the top of the tank and mixing the juice around, less air is introduced to the wine as with a pump-over. Punch-downs are also considered to be a much more gentle technique, though if you’ve ever tried to bust through a cap of grape skins, it certainly is a workout for the puncher.
The whole method of “processing” grapes could be likened to having kids, I would imagine. Each varietal is like a child that needs individual attention. There are feedings, changings, baths, etc., which seem almost manageable because there is only one child at a time in “normal” harvest years, where varietals are spaced out over a few more days.
In 2010 and 2011, however, the varietals came in a lot closer together, or as twins, if you will (or triplets on certain days). They all need attention and you’re being pulled in different directions, but it all has to be done. To this “non-harvest” set of eyes, it looks like organized chaos, not unlike the Duggars, of 19 Kids and Counting fame, executing a family meal (or just about anything else) together. So you sleep a whole lot less, you come in at 2am to stop fermentation on the Portico, because it just so happens that is when the Brix get to the level at which they need to be to fortify the wine and you barely have time to breathe.
But you do it because
that’s what parents do you’re passionate about your craft.
Then the holidays roll around and that hardly counts as a break because, really, holidays aren’t exactly what one might call “stress-free” so that leads us to January and February. And it is there you find the production staff, finally taking a minute to come up for air, while still putting the finishing touches on wines for the upcoming bottling year.
All that to get quality grapes turned into artisan wines.
It’s totally worth it, wouldn’t you say?