Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Oenologist's visit

The harvest is in -- excepting the late ripening Mourvèdre which is slated to be brought in Monday, five days after the other varietals. It is a time for attentive and daily cellar work. Sugar is transforming into alcohol. Daily the density of the liquid is measured: sugared liquid is heavier than water (thus numbers in the thousand plus); and alcohol is lighter (numbers in the very high 900s). Daily the total acidity is measured (by the lab), as well as the sulfites (those naturally present, those combined with the liquid, and those floating freely), the temperature and the presence of malic acid which will transform into lactic acid. Yeasts are working on the wine, but also indigenous bacteria. It is a highly methodical surveillance of a natural and occasionally shifting process. Each year, each grape, each day is different.

This year, for many, the sugar quantity is high. The grapes are very sweet. But, the tannic ripeness wasn't commensurate (phenolic ripeness). As such, the precise timing for the harvest was not an easy decision. And, in the cellar, the numerous consequences of this must be handled with care. If the malo-lactic acid transformation begins before the alcoholic fermentation is finished, this provokes problems, and must be attended to quickly -- urging the vintner to intervene and speed up the alcoholic fermentation by raising the temperature of the vat, for instance.

A few of the tanks have already finished their alcoholic fermentation. Six-eight days was sufficient. The temperature during this period was controled--kept relatively cool; the yeasts were efficient in their work, and the sugar has been fully transformed into alcohol. However, at this point, depending on whether the end product is a vin de pays, or an AOC wine, more or less extraction of matière is desired. Thus, for that which will become a higher-end wine, the solids, le marc, is left with the juice to macerate for another week or more and so, thus extracting a maximum of density and concentration, polyphenols and other good things. To encourage this process, the tank may be heated, and the liquid stirred up by pouring it out into a neighboring tank and pumping it back atop its solids.

When JP sits down with the oenologist, he has already removed samples from every vat in his cellar. They go through every wine, tasting, smelling, and noting what next to do with that particular wine. All these samples will then be off to the lab, who will efficiently get the results back to JP that same evening so he can get to work immediately on the next appointed task. This is a period in the year when the words Saturday and Sunday have little meaning! The wines need attending to.

So, I helped him immediately get to work removing the cooling insert from the grenache, adjusting the tubes and pumps to do the délestage, which can resemble the traditional technique of pigeage, slightly differing from a remontage. As I've just learned, the first lightens the vat: you remove all the liquid, allowing the solids to fall completely to the bottom of the vat, then you send the liquid back atop, breaking the solids, and fully mixing them in. Pigeage is that great technique (be it with your feet or a wooden tool) where you crush grapes to release their juice. And remontage is a continuous process of removing liquid from the bottom of the tank and sending it back in on top, yet keeping the quantity in the tank at the same level throughout.

We went up and down rickety ladders (a new stairwell is to be built to facilitate this, but at the moment, the building of such is in the stage of proposals from various ironworkers). We carried buckets. I cleaned tubes and overflowing tanks. We hosed down and scrubbed, double-checked temperatures, and removed the heating element from the Carignan. The clairette will need to be nudged towards finishing its alcoholic fermentation pronto as the volatile elements that the malic acide transformation creates will potentially cause problems.

There's always something to do.

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