Category Archives: Winemaking

Anything having to do with wine production

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.

Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend but Crystals are Annoying. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about crystals lately, specifically Tartrate Crystals.  These are the fine, sand-like crystals you may find in the bottom of your glass after emptying the bottle into it, particularly in white wines.  In reds they are commonly found in the “sediment” in the bottom of the bottle and unlike white wines, no one seems to be incredibly concerned by their appearance in reds.  White wines however, can turn into a snow globe of these tiny particles if winemakers are not careful.  Which brings me back to the crystals themselves.

What are Tartrate Crystals?

The main type of acid in wine is called Tartaric acid.  This acid exists in wine to different degrees depending on the variety and climate in which the grapes are grown. Tartrate crystals are Potassium Bitartrate, which the lay person probably knows better as Cream of Tartar.  If you make a lot of Meringue you are probably very familiar with the powdered form.  Potassium Bitartrate forms when Potassium ions in the wine bind with tartaric acid molecules and precipitate out (fall out of solution).  The greater the alcohol content of the wine, the less stable these compounds are in the solution and the more readily they are able to fall out.  Cold temperatures speed up this process although it does occur naturally over time if the wine is allowed to age in the cellar for a lenghtly period.

What do Winemakers Need to do About Them?

This highly depends on to whom a winemaker is selling their wine.  These crystals are not harmful and do not represent anything wrong with the wine.  In many cases a wine that has the crystals is a sign that the wine was treated very gently in the cellar.  Most wineries will chill the wine down to extremely cold temperatures, 28 degrees F or so, to push the crystals to fall out in the tank so as not to alarm their customers.  Others will use electrodialysis to reduce the amount of Tartaric acid present in the wine.  The question is, however, what do winemakers need to do about these crystals.  Nothing really. All of this effort is to eliminate something that is purely cosmetic.  Every year millions of gallons of wine are put through some sort of cold stabilization process.  This uses a vast amount of energy, regardless of the method chosen, not to mention the cost of all that energy. PG&E did a study in 2008 which determined a full 25% of a winery’s total energy costs were directly related to cold stabilization and clarification.  I have often wondered if it would be cheaper in the long run to put out a Public Service Announcement (PSA) rather than continue to treat the wine. Maybe, just maybe this would help a few people understand a bit more about the winemaking process and how it is completely natural for this to happen.  Do I think winemakers will stop stabilizing? Most likely not but I do really love the ways that some wineries have chosen to address this issue.  My favorite is Jordan Winery in Sonoma.  You can read their PSA here.  They specifically address the fact that to completely stabilize a high end wine would result in lower body and flavor concentration and they choose to educate their customers rather than sacrifice the quality of the wine.    So here is my PSA.

Dear Wine Consumers,
   This Holiday season you may encounter some unknown substance that may resemble sand or small bits of glass in the bottom of your white wine glass.  Do not be alarmed. These are most likely harmless “wine diamonds” or Tartrate Crystals. If you are still concerned and want to find out for sure, perform this simple test.  Take the bits in question and put them into hot water and stir vigorously.  If they dissolve, they are harmless tartrate crystals.  Please go back to enjoying your wine.
Thank you for your time and remember, friends don’t let friends drink bad wine! Happy Holidays!

 

Confessions of a Wine Yeast Wrangler

I have a confession to make publicly.  I am a Yeast Wrangler. In every fermentation, every harvest, I try to get inside the minds of these tiny fungi and discern what they want to eat, how they would like to be treated, and what temperature they would like their environment to be. They make the wine and winemakers try to keep them happy. They are like the ultimate prima donna who refuses to work unless everything in their environment is to their liking. If something is out of place, they immediately let you know by sending off Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S), which smells like rotten eggs, to voice their displeasure. If their needs are still not met they will shut down and die off resulting in a stuck fermentation. If one considers that winemaking is the physical act of converting sugar into alcohol and Carbon Dioxide (CO2), then I am a yeast wrangler and they are the winemakers.

In light of this, the selection of the strain of yeast or yeasts that will be conducting the fermentation is critical. Next to the date of harvest, it is one of the most impactful decisions a winemaker will make over the course of a wine’s life. Yeast can control alcohol levels, fruit emphasis, and style. They can also influence mouthfeel, acid levels, and Malolactic (ML) bacteria growth. Much of the later part of the life of a wine can be enhanced or hindered by the choice of yeast at the beginning. To that end, there are nearly endless choices available to a winemaker to choose for fermentation including “native”, selected or cultured strains, and a few options in between.

Going “Native”

Using the indigenous yeasts found in the vineyard and winery can be a double edged sword. On the positive side, they can add serious complexity and mouthfeel to a wine. They already exist in the winery therefore they don’t have to be purchased, which is helpful since the cultured strains can be pretty expensive. The downsides are they can be very difficult if the native strain is not a strong one, if the fruit is not perfect, if the nutrients they need are not carefully doled out, if the potential alcohol is too high, and if there are other yeast or bacteria strains in the fermentation which the dominant native strain does not get along with. These risks can be mitigated if one knows the reactions of their native strains well and knows their vineyards well also. There are now many examples on the market of excellent native fermentations including the Franciscan Cuvée Sauvage Napa Valley Chardonnay and all the selections of the delicious Bedrock Wine Company in Sonoma, CA. It should be pointed out here however that most “native” strains are the strain of yeast a winemaker may have purchased in a previous year that has still been hanging out in the winery or which dropped in from a cultured yeast fermentation from a neighboring tank.

Seeking Some Culture

Cultured yeasts are extremely widely used and many strains which we would consider cultured now were isolated as native strains from different places around the world. One of my personal favorite cultured Pinot Noir yeasts is RC212 which was isolated in Burgundy and named for the famed Romanée-Conti vineyard. Cultured yeasts offer some insurance against stuck fermentations due to high alcohol and have known characteristics such as nutrient needs, foaming potential, or H2S production so a winemaker is better able to keep them happy from the start of the fermentation to the finish. Beyond that, some cultured yeasts are bred for specific characteristics such as high Thiol production (think guava and grapefruit flavors of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc), alcohol tolerance of 16% or higher, or high polysaccharide production which adds to mouthfeel and tannin perception. If you have enjoyed a glass of wine from a larger producer chances are good that it was produced using some strain of cultured yeast.

Best of Both Worlds

Of course, in winemaking as in life, things are not always black and white. Sometimes a winemaker wants the complexity and character of a native fermentation but the predictability of a cultured strain. This can be achieved through two main ways. The first option is to allow “native” yeasts to start the fermentation and then part way through add a smaller dose of a cultured strain to ensure that the fermentation will finish. The second option is to purchase a mixed strain such as Viniflora’s Melody which is a 60:20:20 blend of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Kluyveromyces thermotolerans, and Torulaspora delbrueckii. These mixes theoretically mimic what would be found in a native fermentation except the strains are chosen that will complement each other. This ensures the different strains will not end up in the yeast version of Gladiator, with no single strain winning the fight to the death.

Regardless of the yeast option chosen it is critical that those strains remain happy and healthy throughout the fermentation and that is where the yeast wrangling part of a winemaker’s job comes into play. They have similar needs and, while some require more coaxing than others, both can adequately do the job if all those needs are met. It is harvest time now in the Northern hemisphere so for the next two months anyway you can find me roping fermentations into line and figuring out what each tank of yeast wants.

Originally Written for and Published on Snooth.com on 9/17/2015