Category Archives: Winemaking

Anything having to do with wine production

Pressing Issues: Exploring a Small Portion of the Maze of Winemaking Decisions

To press or not to press? That is NOT the question. Rarely does anything in winemaking have an absolute however pressing is one of the few. Grapes must be pressed at some point in the process to release the juice or wine. However, even though grapes must eventually be pressed, it is the when, how and how much that are open to interpretation. What seems deceptively simple on the surface, when explored, reveals a maze of different combinations and outcomes.

White wines are generally pressed prior to fermentation. When pressing prior to fermentation several things must be considered. If the fruit is in excellent condition, hand-picked, and still intact, whole cluster pressing may be the best option. This can be accomplished quite nicely with a basket press or with a more modern bladder press. The latter has the added benefit of being able to control the amount of oxygen that comes in contact with the juice. In the case of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, this is a critical part of the style. By completely blanketing the press itself and the press pan with dry ice (CO2) the juice can be kept in a reductive state (non-oxidative). This, in turn preserves the high toned thiol compounds (think grapefruit and passion fruit aromas) that define this style post fermentation. The recent rise of orange wines with skin contact during fermentation are the obvious exception to this rule. For these wines, as well as other white wines where some skin contact is desired, it may be better to destem and lightly crush the fruit. This breaks open the berries and allows the skin and juice to mingle together, resulting in additional flavor compounds and tannins from the skins to be released into the juice prior to pressing.
Red wines are usually pressed during or post fermentation. The timing depends highly on the style of wine that one is trying to create. Earlier pressing during fermentation will minimize tannin extraction and lead to a lighter style with gentle structure while waiting until fermentation has finished will generally result in a fuller bodied, more structured wine. This is, of course, subject to the general characteristics of the grape variety and vineyard. When I was making Cabernet Sauvignon from Lake County, I found that earlier pressing helped control the rather aggressive tannins that the volcanic soils of the area seem to generate. If one can control the tannin extraction throughout the fermentation to allow the wine to go dry on skins without over extracting, the resulting wine ends up being both well-structured and generous without being hard or tough.  

 

The decision of how long to allow grapes to sit on their skins prior to pressing is another important one in the pressing process. In more neutral varieties such as Chardonnay, a small amount of skin contact can add extra palate texture and dimension. However, more aromatic varieties, especially Viognier and Gewurztraminer, tend to have higher tannins in the skins so in these cases additional skin contact could bring in bitterness which will then have to be fined out later through PVPP, Gelatin, or Isinglass treatments. For Rosé, the amount of time the juice spends on skins directly correlates to the depth and intensity of color in the wine as well as the resulting texture on the palate. Depending on the color content (anthocyanin content) of the variety, this time on skins can range from a few hours to a day or more. Red wines which have gone dry on the skins can be pressed immediately or they can be left for extended skin maceration with further integrates the tannins and middle palate texture. Each offers benefits to the final style of the wine but extended skin contact can be somewhat risky since the wine is no longer as protected from spoilage organisms, such as vinegar or lactic acid bacteria, as it was during fermentation.  

 

The pressure at which to press can influence the style of the wine as well as the total volume in terms of wine yield per ton of grapes. In Traditional Method Sparkling wine production pressing is one of the first critical steps in defining the character of the final wine. Particularly in the cases where red grapes such as Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier are being used, the time on skins prior to pressing is of the upmost importance. Grapes must be pressed quickly to avoid color or tannins from bleeding into the juice because these aspects can negatively impact the final wine quality. While bladder presses will generally only go to 2 Bars of pressure, some basket presses will climb up to 5 Bars. On red wines these high pressure press wines can be extremely interesting with oily textures and thickly structured palates. In general, high pressures such as this only represent 1% or less of the yield of a ton of fruit but it can add interesting elements to the total wine when used. 

 

Press cuts are another point of differentiation for wine styles. A press cut is a separation of juice or wine during the pressing process. For wineries with old style screw presses, the option of press cuts does not exist, however wineries with basket presses or more modern bladder or screw presses have the option to take as many cuts as they would like. Many Champagne houses only use the first gentle pressing, called free run juice, and perhaps part of the light press but usually they do not use the heavier pressing juice to minimize undesirable roughness in the juice. The defining points between free run, light press, and heavy press depend highly on the variety, the style of press used, and the desires of the winemaker. They can be based on pressure, time in the cycle, yield, pH, which climbs with increasing pressure, taste, or some combination of these.  

 

While all wines have been pressed at some point, the differentiation in style and quality comes from the creative combination of the decisions made from the options available. With so many different variables, it is understandable how two winemakers with similar fruit from the same region can make radically different wines.

Originally written for and published on Snooth.com. 

Ningxia Winemaker Challenge: Part 2 – Post ML

It’s been a week since I returned from China after flying over to check on my wine there.  This trip was much faster than my previous trip and I packed quite a bit more into the 8 days that I spent there.  My first three days were spent in Beijing, where I taught a WSET Diploma Unit 5 class for Fongyee Walker’s Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting.  One of those days I took some time for myself and toured the sights of Beijing, including a trip to the fantastic Great Wall of China at Mu Tian Yu and the Summer Palace.

  
 

The Summer Palace

 
After my first few days in Beijing, I spent 4 days in Ningxia.  My first order of business upon landing in Ningxia was to find out how my wine looked.  Remember, last time I tried it only one tank was pressed off and the second tank was pressed on the day I flew back home.  I hadn’t tried it at all since Malolactic had finished and I had no idea how it was adapting to the barrels.  I didn’t even know what shape the used barrels were in when the wine was added to them.  I had left detailed instructions on how to soak the used barrels using a Potassium Metabisulfite and Citric acid solution and could only pray that everything would be ok.  Fortunately, everything looked very good.  The wine is taking to the new barrels quite well and to my surprise this is the treatment that appears to be helping the wine the most.  My DAMY barrels are showing beautifully!  Having never used DAMY in the past I was skeptical at first but I was able to taste some Ningxia wines from 2014 which were being aged in new DAMY barrels and this profile seems to help support the Ningxia terroir quite well.  The used barrels are all French and are helping the wine as well however they are old enough that very little oxygen transmission is taking place which is leaving the wine a little tight and reductive at this point.  Nothing a quick rack wouldn’t get rid of however.  The portion that I left in tank, to hedge my bets a bit just in case the barrels were a disaster, is clearly not as mature as the wine in barrels but it has retained its fresh, fruitiness which should add a nice component to the blend.  Overall, I’m quite happy with where the wine is at the moment.  When I come back in the summer, I’ll be able to get a clear picture of what I want to blend for the final competition.

  

Mr Wu, the winemaker of Lansai Chateau, gets barrel samples for us to taste


 The rose needed some work to be prepped for bottling.  All of the Ningxia wines tend to have quite seedy tannins, even if the wines had very little seed contact including the rose.  I did a fining trial and also bumped the SO2 a bit so that the winery could bottle it shortly.  I’m interested to see how it turns out and also how it sells since the Rose trend that has caught the rest of the world has yet to catch on in mainland China.  My friend, Jose Hernandez, was also in Ningxia at the same time so we were able to tour about a bit and go see some of the other wineries in the area including Chandon Ningxia, Jiabeilan, and a quick visit to Yuan Shi both for their lab services and tasting the 2015 vintage from barrel.  The visit to Jiabeilan was quite fun since I was able to meet the legendary Ningxia winemaker, Zhang Jing.  She was very open, answered questions, and allowed us to taste all of her wines including a very interesting Chardonnay that had the acid of a cool climate but slightly tropical fruit of a warmer climate.

  

Jose and Zhang Jing of Jiabeilan


 My partner winery in Ningxia, Lansai Chateau, is almost finished.  They have done quite a bit of work since I was there in the fall and it is easy to see how much of a destination they are planning it to be.  The guest rooms are almost finished as is the separate kitchen and the Chinese gardens.  Soon there will be tasting rooms and a restaurant available to allow people to visit and enjoy the wines where they were made.  The winery has been designed to be a showplace and I’m sure it will live up to that hope with every detail put in place.

The entryway of Lansai Chateau with Helan Mountains in the background

 

The garden of Lansai Chateau under construction

 
 After leaving Ningxia, I went back to Beijing to have dinner with our Constellation representative, Berny Yang, more sightseeing including the Temple of Heaven and the Pearl Market, and teach another class for Dragon Pheonix Wine Consulting, this time on Constellation and branding of the Robert Mondavi family of wines. Jose and I also got together with Grape Wall of China writer and Canadian expat, Jim Boyce, to go on a wine sales tour of Beijing.  We visited a general supermarket, specialty supermarket, high end wine shop, and casual wine shop to get a sense of what the market looked like in Beijing, how wines were being sold and what was trending.  See last week’s post on the China wine market for more information from that tour.

All in all it was a very successful trip and I look forward to my next trip during the summer.

 

Tiles on the Temple of Heaven

 
 

En Vogue: Misconceptions About Natural Wines

The subject of natural wines is a very subjective one.  Who defines what “natural” means?  One winemaker’s “natural” wine is another winemaker’s concocted swill all depending on where one stands on the strictness of what the definition of natural is.  While Organic and Biodynamic are easier to define due to their respective certification programs, they are still so misunderstood by the vast majority of consumers that there are completely misinformed beliefs being circulated by the general populace.  I have a passion for Biodynamic wine growing.  It is my dream to one day have my own Biodynamic vineyard because I truly believe there is something special in these types of wine. It is sad that most people don’t understand the differences between conventional, organic, and Biodynamic farming however, I was excited to see, over the holidays, that a mainstream publication, Vogue, decided to tackle this subject (Read the full story here).  I had hoped that the writer would have demonstrated a sound grasp of all three methods and could dispel some of the myths that are out there.  Unfortunately, it was yet again riddled with blatant misunderstandings and errors.   The title alone made me cringe.

No Chemicals: This Is the Most Natural Wine You Can Drink

No Chemicals.  Really?  Can someone please let the common man know that everything.  LITERALLY EVERYTHING is made up of chemicals.  Wine is no exception and is generally made up of the following CHEMICALS.

85% Dihydrogen Monoxide (That is water for the folks who missed the class in High School chemistry on chemical naming)

13% Ethanol (or the alcohol part of the drink)

1% Glycerol ( A sugar alcohol compound that adds viscosity and mouthfeel)

0.4% Organic Acids (Tartaric, Malic, Lactic, Citric, Succinic, etc..)

0.1% Tannins and Phenolic Compounds ( Color, Texture, Mouthfeel)

0.5% Other Chemicals

The great infographic was found at Compound Interest and they dive much further into this topic for red wines if you really want to geek out.  I think their estimation of the average alcohol is probably a little low hence the changes to my list above.

Assuming I give the article the benefit of the doubt about the Chemical issue…

(because after all, those of us who know wine, know this person was referring to the 3 classes of chemicals that fall into Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fungicides), the second sentence made me groan.

“Composting instead of using pesticides?”

These two actions are not interchangeable or on an either/or type of set up.  Composting is the process of turning organic waste and other natural matter into nutrient and beneficial, microbially rich soil amendments.  Using Pesticides is the process of using a chemical to kill a desired pest or range of pest.  You can do both or neither but they are not directly connected.  The author may be referring to the Biodynamic preparations which DO need to be put through the process of composting in various containers (cow’s horns, stag’s bladders, farm animal skulls, etc.) using different herbs or ingredients for at least one season before they can be added to a spray to either be applied to the soil or directly to the vine.  It should be noted that elemental sulpur (a Chemical) is used as a fungicide and is allowed in Organic, Biodynamic, and conventional viticulture.  Hopefully this clears up the misunderstanding of the second sentence of the article.  Reading on…

“Fermenting with native yeasts? Such practices were the domain of eccentrics and hippies.”

AND everyone prior to 1857 when Louis Pasteur discovered that yeast were actually what was fermenting the wine.  Personally, I love a good native ferment, however you have to have extremely clean and healthy fruit to have it go well.  Not everyone is blessed with such great fruit particularly at the value or premium end of the wine market.  Usually the “native” yeasts used today in most wineries are some form of a cultured yeast that was released into the microflora before the winery decided to start doing “native” ferments.  Of course that also doesn’t take into account that a wide number of popular strains of cultured yeasts were just native yeasts that were identified for particularly good characteristics and produced for everyone to purchase.

“The philosophy behind this grassroots winemaking movement is to let Mother Nature do most of the work in the vineyard and to intervene as little as possible in the cellar. In other words: no chemicals on the grapes and as few additives as possible in the bottle.”

Trust me.  Viticulture is working with Mother Nature but she doesn’t do jack when it comes to working in the vineyard beyond blessing a grower with good weather or bad.  Biodynamic and Organic wine growers work HARD.  These growers have to be constantly vigilant looking for problems.  They have to walk they rows everyday to assess vineyard health. The effort it takes to keep up with a lunar calendar, alone, is not for the faint of heart.  If we left it up to Mother Nature, the vines would be climbing trees instead of trellises and the birds would make off with whatever fruit the vines were able to produce.  The very fact that we have decided to train a vine takes it out of the realm of natural and into human intervention.  The sentence in the article sounds great but it does make it sound like these types of wine just make themselves.

Then I got to these two sentences and it made me want to hurl my phone across the room…

“Modern winemaking relies on ingredients like commercial yeasts and enzymes to ferment the wine, as well as additives to deepen its color, enrich its texture, boost its acidity, and sweeten its taste. What’s more, pesticides and herbicides have become commonplace in the vineyard. Many vintners spray their grapes not only to kill pests and disease, but as a routine preventative measure even when nothing at all is wrong with them.”

Chemicals are the second highest cost in vineyard management next to labor.  No one in their right mind, conventional, organic, or biodynamic just sprays the vineyard because nothing is wrong with it.  Generally the spray is because an infection has been spotted or because a crazy storm is coming and you know if you don’t spray you will lose your entire crop to mildew.  Yes, it is preventative in most cases because if you wait until something is wrong, you are too late and the quality of wine will suffer.

The article goes on to quote Catherine Papon-Nouvel of Clos Saint-Julien in Bordeaux, Elisabeth Saladin in the Rhône valley, and Thiébault Huber, in Burgundy who all explain their rationale for their preferred growing methods quite beautifully.  Their passion is clear, as are most growers and winemakers who follow these strict methods of making wine.  It was a moment of great joy for me to read after the initial misconceptions in the article.

Then we delve back into the rest of the article.

“Natural wines can be funky,” says Caleb Ganzer, head sommelier at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, the New York outpost of a Paris bar. As in: earthy, floral, redolent of mushrooms. “They can be briny or tart. Sometimes they’re fizzy. Unfiltered wines can be cloudy. Or they can taste just like conventional wines. You’ve probably had one without knowing it.”

This is my main problem with “natural” wines.  It’s the thought of the end consumers that they have to accept flaws in the wine because they were made naturally.  Well made Natural Wine should taste as good or better than conventionally made wine. Otherwise it is just flawed and it was the winemaker’s choice to let it be flawed.

I appreciate a strong philosophy but when philosophy becomes Dogma and it leads to a drop in quality then what’s the point of your philosophy.

There.  I’ll get off my soapbox now.

If you want to read a great article about Organic and Biodynamic wines please click here for Winerist.com’s comprehensive descriptions.