I wasn’t planning to make wine at home this year. After setting the goal of working harvest at a winery and then lining up a good position, I figured I wouldn’t bother making my own stuff.
Then the opportunity presented itself, unfortunately due to the rain and the subsequent break in the harvest. I suddenly had time, and after a few calls I had lined up some pinot noir from Courting Hill vineyard in Banks, west of Portland on a beautiful south-facing slope.
The vineyard elevation is 350-480 feet, similar to the estate where I worked. There, pinot noir grapes in the last week of September were beautiful, well above 23 brix and delicious with moderate browning of stems and seeds.
After the rain, I would have liked to wait to pick, but working at the winery was my priority. I wanted to be available for any good picking day for the next few weeks, if not a few bad ones so I could do cellar work. So I picked on Sunday morning, October 2, in showery weather two days after the big rain that turned summer to fall.
What did I get? 204 lbs. of pinot noir at 22 brix, diluted probably but still not as ripe looking as the other fruit I’d seen before the rain. More green in the stems and occasional seed. I tried to find the ripest fruit in the upper block where I could pick. The Courting Hill site is pretty far north for Willamette Valley pinot, so it might have been smart to pick later to get as much ripeness as possible. But I saw lots of grapes from many vineyards after I picked, and 22 brix would be right in the ballpark of what you’d expect to see. I can’t say there weren’t vineyards with higher brix in October, but I wonder how many got to 24.
I crushed and destemmed on site into a Rubbermaid bin. There was no rot or other disease, but I added approximately 70ppm SO2 as I learned at the winery. The sulfur at crushing is intended to protect the must as it soaks for a few days before fermentation starts.
I would have added less if none at all, as other winemakers suggest. But as with many decisions I made with this wine, I chose to practice the techniques I was learning – many of them from Germany and France, and largely intended to let terrior speak through the wine.
I learned about Jayer’s methods in Burgundy, adding more sulfur at the crusher to allow for a cold soak, to extract color and flavor before alcohol is present from fermentation. And allowing extended maceration, typically up to three weeks from crushing to pressing, with the intention of allowing the tannins to grow longer and smoother than you might get in a wine pressed earlier.
So I practiced. After picking Sunday and adding some dry ice to really cool the must down, I let the must soak until Thursday night when I inoculated the bin with a pail of must I had started with some liquid Assmanhausen yeast that morning. Fermentation took off within two days, and I put a heater near the bin out in the garage to keep the air temperature up – and hopefully the fermentation temp up – due to the cold weather.
The ferment peaked a few days later with a cap temp of 86F before punching it down into the juice. The juice peak was 85F, but only for a short while. The temp was probably only over 80F for a day, after I turned off the heater one morning when the day was supposed to warm up significantly. It never happened, and when I got home late that night the must was down to 77F. I turned the heat back on for the rest of the week, but the temps were slowly downhill from there. I wanted more heat to cure the wine a bit, give it some depth and hopefully burn off some of the greenness I expect in the wine. A bigger fermentation is the solution, so that’s on the docket for next year.
Early in the week I chaptalized a bit, to raise the brix by .5 but mainly to extend the fermentation. I added plain table sugar to a small amount of juice, then stirred that into the bin. The wine was essentially dry by Friday, but I let it sit until Monday night before pressing. The total skin contact time was 16 days. With a bigger fermentation, I would have waited longer but I was concerned about oxidation and allowing too much volatility into the wine.
Fermentation smells followed the arc I noticed on pinot noir fermentations in the winery. The crushed must smells sweet and a bit green, like most crushed grapes. The early fermentation shows lots of CO2. Then you move into the more maturing smells of wine, rich fresh and preserved fruit along with yeast. After the fermentation peaks, there’s a "roasty" period where you get coffee and other roasted scents. The best lots from before the rain were really nice during this period, just beautiful to smell. Then as the fermentation ends there is some volatile acidity pungency from the shallow cap, more vinous smells that wines pressed too early seem to lack (in favor of sweet candied fruit). In my wine, I noticed all of these stages. Actually, I was most excited by my wine during its own "roasty" period. The smells were very ripe but earthy and vinous. The wine is still very young and is expected to go through many phases, but I’d love to see that quality back in this wine before its bottled.
I pressed with a small stainless steel press rented from a local homebrew supply shop. I ended up with a 50-liter barrel and two 1-gallon demi-johns of wine for topping. The barrel I also got used from a guy at the shop. It’s four year old Slovenian oak, a small cask and perhaps prone to oxidation. It’s in my basement, which is cool and somewhat humid, but not a perfect cellar environment. We’ll just have to see how it goes.
So far, the wine tastes a bit harsh and astringent though it does have some pinot noir fragrance, so I do have some hope. I’ve seen wine change dramatically over time before bottling. But I don’t expect too much from this year’s wine. It’s a nice experiment, one I’ve executed pretty well to this point but too bad about the less than ideal ripeness and the small fermentation size. I’m not sure where I’ll get the money to make a full barrel next year or where I could do it. But I’m going for it and now I think I have every reason to expect I won’t f#*! things up.