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What’s up, friends. How is everyone? I’m grand, thanks for asking. My arms are aching from packing all your festive orders. Keep em coming, I want to get hench.
So guess what – I had a little taste of celebrity this week. I was recognised from our Instagram post about the wine school blog… at wine school. Two very nice guys who are doing the WSET for funsies on the side of their actual jobs recognised me and Ruth. One of them said they read the blog in a work meeting and couldn’t stop laughing. You should probably do that too (or, I don’t know, pay attention in your work meetings. You do you). Beyond feeling like a big deal in the wine world, their recognition will also keep me on the straight and narrow because they’ll know if I got something wrong/made something up and will check me on it at school the next week. Thanks for keeping me honest, guys (and hi, if you’re reading! Stop reading, listen to your meeting).
Celebrity sightings aside, let’s get down to it. If week two was all about how to keep those grapes grape-ing, week three was about what happens when they actually get to the winery. A lot, apparently. The more I learn about wine, the more respect I have for vignerons. They have so many enemies.
Public enemy number one: oxygen. You know how you stick a cork back in your wine when you haven’t finished the bottle (can’t relate)? That’s to protect it from the devil, oxygen. And it’s not just a threat once the wine’s in the bottle – it sticks its greedy little fingers in at every point in the process. Oxygen can be a good thing, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s stick with the bad bits for now. Oxygen is the mortal enemy of producers who want their wine to retain primary fruit characteristics. The grapes are at risk the second you pick them off the vine, which is why some winemakers pick grapes at night (spooky) when the temperature is lower, meaning the chemical reactions happen more slowly. Once they get to the winery, they are kept in airtight vessels which are filled with nitrogen or carbon dioxide. On the flip side, the best friend of these winemakers is sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide is a particularly interesting topic for those of us who like our wines natty, because that essentially means that little or no SO2 made it anywhere near the wine. But look, no shade – sulfur dioxide revolutionised winemaking, it's just déclassé at the moment. All trends come back around.
However, some winemakers think that oxygen contact is the thing to increase complexity in their products, and that those completely oxygenless wines are bland and lame. Whatever, I’m not getting involved. If you stick your flag in the second camp, you might mature your grapes in a big ole oak barrel, which, while watertight (duh), is not airtight. When oxygen is our friend, it can soften tannins, and help tertiary flavours like leather and earth develop. It can also change the colour of the grapes, kind of like a mood ring. Okay, not much like a mood ring, but just for the visual. The winemakers can control how much oxygen is let in both through the size of the vessel they choose (smaller = more oxygen) and the amount of time the grapes are in there for. They can also ramp up the oxidative effects by not filling the vessels all the way to the top, which is a common technique for sweet wines and gives you these notes of toffee, caramel and nuts. Yum yum.
The type of vessel you stick your grapes in is a many-pronged decision. Inert vessels (stainless steel or concrete) don’t impart any flavour to your fruit, they just sort of sit there holding it all in. Stainless steel is banging because it’s easy to clean and you can make it into any shape or size you want, probably even like, a rabbit shape if you thought that would help. But then if you want to regulate temperature, you have to add a bunch of stuff to it, like sleeves round the outside or rods down the middle. Concrete, on the other hand, does a stand-up job of regulating temperature all by itself, because it’s so darn thick.
If you do want your vessel to give a little extra oomph to the grapes, then oak’s your man. Oak can add all kinds of flavours to a wine, but here are just a few: vanilla, smoke, cloves. Christmassy! But oak barrels will only hand over their flavours for around the first three usages – after that, they’ve got nothing left to give. So if you want an insanely vanilla-y, smoky, clove-y wine, you’re looking at a pretty expensive operation, forking out for new barrels every five minutes. Most winemakers use a combo platter of new and old barrels to mature their grapes in, and then blend them all together in varying proportions for the final product. Alternatively, if you’re a real cheap-o, you can use oak chips or staves for the same result (ish).
But before you even get to maturation, there’s a whole load of other junk you have to do. Let’s do a whistlestop tour of it, shall we?
So first you gotta press those babies. This separates the liquid and solid parts of the grape, and can be done in a pneumatic press (where a big balloon inflates inside the press and smashes the grapes to smithereens) or a basket press, where a metal plate descends from the heavens and does the same thing. Or a vigneron takes his shoes off and jumps in there himself, foot-stomping them all to smithereens. Either way, there are smithereens. If the grapes are super delicate, the vignerons might get kids (usually their own, or maybe some kids they found on the street) to do the stomping so the grape seeds don’t split and release their gross, bitter juices into the mix.
Then it’s fermentation time. That’s basically the conversion of sugar into alcohol, thanks to a little guy called yeast. Winemakers can either rely on the natural yeast found on grape skins and floating around the winery, which is nice and wholesome, but can be unpredictable since they don’t always know exactly which yeasts are doing the work. Or they can go down the local Sainos and buy some cultured yeast, for a more consistent, predictable result.
Keep reading the word ‘lees’ when you’re perusing the Natty Boy website and have no idea what it means? Well, I’m here to give you the (gross) answer – they’re dead yeast cells. Once the yeast have eaten all the sugar (or been exterminated by the winemaker, for reasons too long to go into right now), they drop to the bottom of the tank, and then the wine is immediately squirrelled away from them to keep from being infected by their grossness. Fine lees, i.e. the smaller particles, are less gross, and can actually add flavour and texture to white wines, so some producers will keep letting them mingle with the wine for a while before getting rid of them. The getting-rid-of process is called fining, where an agent (egg white, for example – sorry vegans) is passed through the wine to pick up all the bits of sediment and drag them down to the bottom. This is followed by filtration, where the wine is passed through a big swathe of material, and then a little sieve to make it nice n smooth. Here in the natty wine world, you’ll often see wines that are unfined and unfiltered coz the producers love all that gunky sediment, and think it adds character. Drinking it builds character.
Finally, the wine meets the bottle (or the bag-in-a-box, which I have no problem with, having quaffed three of them at a festival this summer). Then it jumps into a van or onto a plane and makes it way onto your table. Or the table at dan’s. Simple, right? The more I learn about wine the less I want to be a winemaker. I’ll stick as a wine drinker, thanks though.
Rounding off this week with some more recs!
During the tasting portion of this week’s class we slugged back some Chardonnay, so here’s some options for you: one for the economist, one for the discerning, and one for the baller. We also drank some snazzy Syrah, so here’s one of my faves, and here’s another.