January 06, 2007

Stinky barrel

Upon returning from Los Angeles, I found my barrel of 2006 Wahle Vineyard Pinot Noir notably stinky.

It smelled ok before I left, but I did notice some reduction in the wine. Reduction in this case sulfides, the smell of rotten eggs or “passing wind” or stinky things like that. A little is fine, and it keeps the wine from oxydizing or browning, something you definitely don’t want in your new wine. But mor ethan a little can turn into worse problems later on, so it’s time to act.

What do you do with stinky wine? Rack the wine off its lees, the sediments that usually are the source of sulfides.

If you recall, I pressed this wine and put it in the barrel “dirty,” meaning I didn’t let the gross lees settle out of the new wine for a day or two before moving it into the barrel.

Why go to barrel “dirty”? Doesn’t the conventional wisdom suggest that lees are the source of more bad things than good?

Yes, but lees encourage the malolactic fermentation that I haven’t innoculated for. Lees aging adds textural richness to the wine. And lees appear to have antioxident properities that I don’t think are fully understood yet. Happily, though much of the lees have settled out already, there will still be fine lees that accumulate going forward that should only benefit the wine’s progress.

Perhaps my sulfide issue is due to going to barrel dirty. I wouldn’t be surprised now that I think about it, given the minor sulfide issue I had during fermentation. But it’s not a bad problem, and if nothing else I will end up with clearer wine come bottling time for having eliminated so much sediment. Many wineries would be racking wine soon anyway, though artisinal Pinot Noir producers commonly don’t rack their wine until bottling time next summer or fall.

Racking, or moving the wine out of the barrel through a gravity siphon, will allow the highly volatile sulfides to “blow off” or dissipate as the wine moves. Other winemakers have suggest “splash racking” the wine to increase oxygen expose.

With particularly stinky wines, one winemaker told me he splashes the wine over a copper sheet, the sulfides bonding to the copper to “clean up” the wine. Another suspends a copper pipe piece in the wine barrel before racking. In wineries, you might treat the wine with more precise amounts of copper sulfate, a highly toxic chemical that I don’t believe is legal (or safe) for home use.

This wine won’t need that, especially because I’ll rack twice. Once out of the barrel, then I’ll clean the barrel and return the wine. Wineries call it a “rack and return,” which you might also do with juice during a stinky fermentation. It’s a nice, low impact way to mitigate a problem without much downside at this point.

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