For most activities in life, we create a plan. Ideas are formed, steps are taken, success is had. Winemaking has a close process. Grab some grapes, ferment those little dudes, keep them relaxed in some fancy containers, bottle the juice, drink it up. However, when working alongside mother nature, you need to roll with what she dishes out. Even though a plan has been set, there are plenty of times when the next step is in a completely different location than expected. You learn to adapt, take one step at a time, and learn from what would normally be a consistent journey, but instead has become something that needs more attention.
The harvest in 2013 was epic. There was no mold, flavors were on spot, weather participated. Yet sometimes the unexpected happens. Every year is different. You can pick a varietal in the 3rd week of August one year, next year it will be the last week of September. Many trips to the vineyard have to be made to keep an eye on the brix (sugar levels), which help us determine the time we want to pick the fruit. With a sudden heat spike in early September, the brix for the Viognier shot up fast, we ended up picking them weeks earlier than the year before. The grapes were harvested early morning, driven to the winery, weighed, and pressed right away where the juice was pumped into a tank.
The tanks are fitted with a wrap that pumps glycol through the sleeves which lets us chill or heat the tank. We wanted the tank at a lower temperature to inoculate the juice by adding yeasts and nutrients. They were added a few days later, and the slow process of fermenting white wine had begun. Thinking the tank was all good, we checked the tank after the weekend and noticed the tank was super cold, late 20’s cold. The combination of the super cold tank and cold nights slowed down fermentation to a crawl. Normally with whites we want it to go through a two month fermentation period. Once it is dry, no sugars, we pump the juice into barrels to smooth out the flavors. Except with the cold tank, which we returned to a warmer temperature, it barely moved. After the holidays it was at 9 brix, about 24g/sugar. That is one sweet beast. Too sweet for our blood and liver. Wine like that can be sold, bottled as something sugary sweet, dumped, or fixed. We went for the fix it route.
To fix it, we needed to restart the yeast, which turns the sugar to alcohol. But with the high brix, we needed to change the alcohol level. We shipped a large percentage of juice to get de-alced, where the color is stripped from the liquid, then joined again. The alcohol level then goes down, but we do lose some liquid in the process. The flavor stays the same. The wine is then returned to the winery where a new yeast is added to restart the fermentation. Focus on detail is extremely important for this part. Every temperature, every measurement of yeast, every small step has to be perfect, to get the wine back on track. Sugar levels are monitored constantly.
When the grapes are going through fermentation, sugar levels can be checked once a day. When doing a restart, it is done every hour. The yeast can go crazy and be done in a few hours. We stayed focused monitoring the levels and being idle when not checking numbers. And low and behold the wine lived. It made it through the restart fermentation. The wine is now dry and for the next couple of months will relax in neutral barrels until it becomes the desirable wine we were looking to make.
There is definitely a romantic side to making wine….early walks in the vineyards tasting grapes, swigging from the first bottle off the bottling line, doing a punch down and moving the grapes around. But sometimes, something out of the ordinary happens, and you got to go in your bag of tricks to fix an issue. Being a hands on winery, where we are constantly observing the sleeping vino, lets us keep track of the journey the wine makes. From grape to bottle, the adventure is always different, but the results are pure bliss.