Preparing for the Harvest

September 9, 2014 | By | Reply More

The harvest is here, or at least it’s close. Our Viognier grapes should be ready to harvest next week (I had thought a week ago we’d would have harvested yesterday), and the Merlot and Cab Franc won’t be far behind.

My Viognier at the end of August, partially obscured by bird netting, is looking fabulous

My Viognier at the end of August, partially obscured by bird netting, is looking fabulous

So, I’ve been scrambling over the past month or so to get ready. With a few notable exceptions involving John Updike, virtually all of my reading lately has involved winemaking. And the free time that I haven’t devoted to reading about wine chemistry or winemaking techniques have been spent assembling the equipment and supplies I need to make wine.

And it seems that I need a lot. I think the average cost of a bottle of wine from this vintage will approach the price of a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem. There’s a part of me that wonders if it wouldn’t have been smarter to have spent all that money buying someone else’s wine. But really, where’s the fun in that?

The learning curve has been pretty steep, and I’ve made a bunch of mistakes — even though I have yet to harvest my first grape. After learning all about free and bound SO2, pH, fining and a hundred other things, I realized I was all but clueless on a number of practical matters, such as which yeast to use for each grape variety. For hobbyists like me who are buying yeast in quantities of 50 to 80 grams at a time, the options are more limited than they are for commercial wineries that are turning out tens of thousands of cases of wine. But that’s a relative thing. There are still 40 or 50 different yeasts available in small quantities from companies like More Wine and Midwest Supplies.

I still remember a class at King Family Vineyards where winemaker Matthieu Finot invited us to taste wines from three different barrels. They were all distinctly different, and I was truly surprised when Matthieu told us that they were all made from the same grape variety from the same vineyard bloc and vintage, and that the only difference was the strain of yeast he had used. Clearly, yeast matters!

The Vineyard Goddess and I went to a lot of trouble to pick what we thought were exactly the right clones for each of the grapes we planted – and some of the clones we wanted were not easy to get – and the right root stock as well. So, it only made sense that we should go to the same lengths to get the right yeast. After lots of reading and lots of anxiety, I selected Rhone 4600 for my Viognier (and I think also for the Petit Manseng), Bordeaux Red (BDX) for the Petit Verdot, MT for the Merlot, and BM4x4 for the Cab Franc. And then, on reflection, I ordered something called BA 11 for the Viognier, even though I already had the Rhome 4600. Here’s the writeup on More Wine‘s web site for the BA 11:

BA11 was selected in 1997 near Estacao Vitivinicola de Barraida in Portugal. It has excellent fermentation kinetics, even at low temperatures. It promotes clean, aromatic, estery characteristics during fermentation. BA11 intensifies mouthfeel and augments lingering flavors in both still and sparkling white wines. BA11 encourages the fresh fruit aromas of orange blossom, pineapple and apricot. In relatively neutral white varieties BA11 brings out tropical fruit, cream, vanilla and spice. With fruit from hot climates, BA11 can really help to “flesh out” a wine by its’ volume and mouthfeel enhancement. This strain is good by itself, as well as being a great structural component to a blend. Best results from 50 to 77 degrees F, and alcohol tolerant to 16%.

Sounds pretty good, right? Well, for now. I’ll probably wait until I’m running the crusher before I settle on the yeast. Oh, and I still haven’t decided which yeast strain to use for the Petit Manseng.  Maybe the Rhone 4600? Well, I was feeling pretty good about the future of my wine when I realized I hadn’t yet ordered malolactic bacteria, the stuff that converts tart malic acid to softer lactic acid, generally just in red wine. Not to worry. I went back to the More Wine site, did some research, and ordered enough ML bacteria to soften an ocean of malic acid. Well, maybe not an ocean.  But at least the dozens or so (yes, I am an optimist) gallons of red wine I will be producing this year. It turns out that ML bacteria packages, once opened, can’t be saved. So for each of the three reds I’ll be making, I had to order separate batches of ML bacteria, at about $33 a pop.

I’ve ordered a half-dozen glass carboys and an array of other equipment.

And that’s barely scratching the surface of the purchases I’ve made in the past few months. I’ve accumulated lots of lab equipment, including an instrument that measures pH, sulfur dioxide, and titratable acidity. I bought a high-precision scale, an assortment of flasks, beakers, air-locks and stoppers, and four new plastic fermenters: two that can hold ten gallons of must and two that can hold 20 gallons. I already have a number of 7.9 and 6 gallon fermenters, so I’m feeling ready for a harvest of almost any size. And I’m really praying that I can actually fill at least one of the 20 gallon tanks.

There are also a few additives that are necessary, and some that are not, strictly speaking, necessary, but are helpful enough that I’ll probably try them out. In the can’t-do-without category are yeast foods. There are a few different ones available, both for mixing with the yeast when it’s being prepared for inoculation and for helping the fermentation along in the days that follow, but I settled on Go Ferm and Fermaid K.

Other additives include Tartaric Acid for making adjustments in the acidity of the must, Albumex Bentonite and other fining agents, and oak cubes, which substitute for the oak barrels that I don’t have. I could go on about additives, but I’ll stop here for now. In the next post, I’ll cover the big items, such as the crusher-destemmer and the construction of my garage “barrel room.” For now, though, I’ll close with a short list of the books and online publications I’ve found most useful.

First, I can’t say enough about the folks at MoreWine. In addition to all the stuff they’ll sell you — and they have a well-organized site that includes quality equipment and ingredients at reasonable prices with lots of information — they have a series of free booklets and guides that I would probably have been willing to pay for. The guides to red and white winemaking run nearly 100 pages each, and are full of practical information. In addition, they have guides to SO2, the use of inert gas, bench trials and a number of other subjects. After reading a bunch of other books, I found these manuals provided the down-to-earth practical information I needed to go from the vineyard to the bottle.

David Bird’s Understanding Wine Technology was also quite useful. It provides a good overview of almost every imaginable topic in winemaking, and gets into considerable detail.  If you’re wondering how yeast works its magic or what carbonic maceration does, this is a great book.  It isn’t the practical, down-to-earth kind of manual that MoreWinemaking provides, but it includes a wealth of information and it’s a joy to read.

David Pambianchi’s Techniques in Home Winemaking is probably the most detailed and thorough book on subjects of interest to home winemakers that I have ever encountered.  This is a book that I have perused, rather than read, but I’ve used it to get loads of technical details on topics of interest.  I’m thinking it’s a must-have for any home winemaker.

One of my favorite books on viticulture and winemaking is Authentic Wine by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop.  Split roughly in half between the two subjects, this book  helped me understand what kind of winemaker I wanted to be.  It covers lots of important subjects, like Brettanoymyces and free vs. bound SO2, but it also gets into some of the philosophical issues, like how much intervention in the cellar is okay.

The very first book I read, some four years ago, was Jim Law’s The Backyard Vintner.  It doesn’t go into great depth on any subject, but it provides a more than adequate overview of all the important topics in viticulture and winemaking in very accessible prose.  Jim Law owns Linden Vineyards, one of Virginia’s great wineries, and the articles on the Linden web site are also well worth reading.  (And while you’re at it, check out Jim’s articles in the last two issues of Grape Press, the publication of the Virginia Vineyard Association, as well as an article in the next issue, which should be out by the end of September.)

And finally, the second book I read, just after Jim’s book, was Jeff Cox’s, From Vines to Wines.  This is an excellent guide that covers everything from planting your vines to bottling the wine. If you’re not sure how to prune second year vines or how to rehydrate yeast, this book has everything you need.

There are many more books, I’m sure – I actually have a couple sitting on my shelf that I haven’t yet begun to read – on the subject of winemaking, but these should be enough to get anyone started.  I wouldn’t say they’re a substitute for classes or hands-on experience, but they’re certainly an important supplement.  God knows, I’ve found them invaluable.       

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Category: All Posts, Winemaking

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