So, we’ve established that it’s harvest time and talked about the importance of hangtime – getting the grapes in at the right time – but haven’t said too much about the role of the sugar, acid and pH in your glass of wine.
I wrote a fairly detailed article about this for Snooth, so I’ll just go over it once, lightly here today.
Sugar (Brix): As you know, the sugar converts to alcohol during fermentation so it’s pretty-darned important. The predictable outcome at the end of fermentation is that just over half the sugar converts to alcohol. So, if the winemaker picks grapes that are 24% sugar (or 24 degrees brix) he can expect to end with about 13 or 13.5% alcohol.
Alcohol gives wine most of its body or weight. A Cabernet from a poor growing season that’s low in alcohol will probably feel rather thin and unsatisfying on the palate. On the other hand, if the alcohol is too high the heat may tickle your nose or feel really hot on your palate. It’s not supposed to draw attention to itself – it’s just supposed to be there. High alcohol also gives the wine a sense of sweetness.
Acid: Maybe the term isn’t attractive to you. It makes you think of battery acid or something awful like that. But when it’s balanced with the other components it’s an incredible asset. It keeps the color bright, makes even a full-bodied style seem lively, helps the wine to age and makes it food friendly. In the vineyard, as the sugar goes up, the acid goes down. In a warm climate, like Napa Valley, we worry about not enough, which can make the wine flat tasting – doesn’t leave you wanting that next sip – and short lived. No one talks about it, but wineries routinely adjust the acid in the cellar. Cool climates worry about painfully tart acidity. So, again, it’s a question of balance. Continue reading →
That’s what it’s all about, this time of year, and hangtime is an easy one because it’s literal. It refers to the length of time the grapes hang on the vine before they’re harvested.
If you’ve grown tomatoes, you know that when the tomatoes first appear on the vine in early summer they’re hard, green and you don’t even think about tasting them because you know that they’re sour. As the summer goes on they plump out, soften up and begin to change color which tells you the sugar is on its way up and the tart acid on the way down. Well, it’s just the same with grapes.
The best winemakers want the grapes at peak maturity, just like a great chef needs to buy the best meat and produce. There’s only so much you can do with average-quality ingredients in a restaurant or a winery. This is where hangtime really comes into play.
In our warm climate here in the Napa Valley, the sugar builds quite readily and the acid softens quickly too. Since the sugar provides the alcohol and alcohol gives wine much of its body, it’s important to pick at the right moment. But, is the flavor development in line with the increase in sugar? Not always, in a warm climate. Sometimes the sugar reading (brix) screams “PICK ME!” at the winemaker, but the flavors haven’t quite turned the corner.
Doesn’t sound very winey, does it? Is it about the proper way to arrange your chapeau or ?
Cap management is a term that’s used only during harvest, but it’s an important one.
As you know, all of the color and most of the flavor and tannin in red wine comes from the grape skins. With very few exceptions the juice of a dark variety runs clear.
TRIVIA! The few varieties with red juice and flesh are called teinturier (ten-toory-AY). The best-known example in the wine world is probably Alicante Bouschet, which is often part of a field blend and can also be used when the winemaker wants to ramp up the color.
Back to our regularly scheduled programming: The thing is that the darned skins keep going up to the top of the tank, buoyed by the carbon-dioxide gas produced by the fermentation. If the “cap” of skins is allowed to stay at the top, color and flavor extraction isn’t good and it also tends to get hot up there. You don’t want it to get so hot that it starts killing the yeast.
Which introduces two other wine words:
1. Pump over: The most common way to get the cap mixed in is to pump the wine from the bottom of the tank up over the top. The schedule might be anywhere from two to four times a day depending on how active the fermentation is. This is a great technique for tannic wines because the process has an aerating effect, which can soften the tannins. Some winemakers purposely augment the aeration during pump overs. Continue reading →
A little wildness in the cellar, eh? Very apropos as we’re well into the 2012 harvest, by now, and tanks and barrels are busily bubbling away as we speak.
In a recent post I managed to record a one-minute description of how wine is made – whew! In that post I mentioned that wine was probably discovered by accident because yeast is everywhere, just like bacteria. And, all you need to make wine is grape juice and yeast. Wild yeast strains come in with the grapes and often take up residence in the winery.
The vast majority of wine is made by inoculating the juice or must (crushed grapes) with cultured wine yeast. It’s the best way to make sure the job gets done and, these days, also because the winemaker can select a specific yeast that brings out the black currant character in Cabernet or the floral nature of Muscat. They can select heat and cold tolerant strains, low-foam strains, yeast that tolerates high alcohol…
But in fine wine production, some winemakers choose to go native – they let nature take its course rather than adding wine yeast. It’s a calculated risk. Since the winemaker doesn’t know what kind of yeast is at work, or how much of it is present there’s a chance that he’ll have a “stuck fermentation” which means the yeast has petered out before the job is done, leaving him with a tank of sweet Cabernet – yum! Continue reading →
When I wrote the last post about field blends, I recommended one that’s produced by David Coffaro in Dry Creek (Sonoma County).
Then, I remembered the great afternoon my husband and I spent there a few months back. We’d never heard of him – there’s a Cafaro Cellars that we know of here in Napa Valley, but this is different.
After spending a few days at Sea Ranch and just loving the David Coffaro field blend we had with dinner one night, we decided to visit their tasting room on the way home.
It’s a very low key tasting room, but the wines! Truly a treasure trove…
For those of you who frequent tasting rooms and have tried enough Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet to fill a lifetime, just check out this vineyard map (you may have to scroll down to make sense of it). When’s the last time you tasted Peloursin? My answer to that question was “never” – until, of course we went to the Coffaro tasting room. Peloursin is an obscure red from the south of France. The only reason I know anything about it is because it’s a parent of Petite Sirah. The other parent in Syrah. Continue reading →
Will you look at the color and size of these things? I was taking one of my favorite walks, by a who knows how old vineyard, and spotted these crazy-looking, neon grapes.
Could it be that I’ve laid my eyes on Flame Tokay grapes, in person, for the first time of my life?
And look at the vine’s next-door neighbor. Nice, normal looking black clusters. Could be Zinfandel, Grenache, Carignan, Petite Sirah, Barbera, Alicante Bouchet… Who knows? It’s a field blend.
In the first wine boom in California (late 1800s) there was a great deal of Italian influence and many of the grower/producers were inclined to plant several compatible varieties all together. They’d harvest and vinify them all together, too, so the blend was pre-made.
Since different varieties ripen at different rates, they’d end up with less mature fruit in the mix, which would keep the acidity lively and very ripe fruit, too, for rich fruity flavor, and everything in between. And they knew that including a little Barbera in the vineyard would also bolster acidity, where if they wanted more structure, Petite Sirah was the go-to grape. This choir of different varietal aromas and flavors coming together provided a kind of instant complexity and natural balance. Continue reading →