April 06, 2008

Homebrew, and a Belgian

This past vintage was a tough one for this homebrewer, though things may be turning out better than I feared.

Last October was pretty rainy here in the northern Willamette Valley. I picked chardonnay in the middle of the month that was nicely ripe and pretty clean despite the conditions, and I was hopeful I'd make my best white wine yet. The next day I got pinot noir from another vineyard that simply wasn't that ripe. Things didn't look good for my 2007 red wine.

My goal for the chardonnay was simple - make a clean, early drinking white wine aged in glass that would be ready for the coming summer. I picked the most industrial of industrial yeasts, EC-1118, for its reliability with little impact on the final wine. Of course, things don't always turn out so well, and months after harvest I had a couple carboys of juice that wouldn't finish fermenting. What happened? Who knows, but I brought the carboys into my kitchen to try to encourage the yeast to finish off the remaining sugar.

One month later, nothing. Two months later, nothing, except my growing fear that the sugar fermenation wouldn't ever finish, the malolactic fermentation would begin and then end ruinously as the lactic bacteria eat the remaining sugar instead of malic acidity, producing nasty volatile acidity.

Then three months later, today, I find the carboys are finally dry and actually taste pretty fresh, one moreso than the other but that's ok. This is an experiment, and I'll end up bottling them separately to see how they do. I have another small amount of chardonnay that finished fermentation in the fall and has been happily resting all winter. All together, they should provide some interesting lessons before the coming harvest. Considering that I expected this chardonnay to be total failure, I'm now very hopeful for something at least decent.

With the red grapes, I knew I'd have trouble with dilute, unripe flavors due to the rain, so I took off a few gallons of juice after one night of soaking on the skins to make rose. That also allowed the remaining juice to gain a bit more density as the color and flavor from the skins still had largely not been extracted. And I had nicely pink juice to make rose, something I messed up a little the year before by leaving my rose on the skins too long and ending up with a color closer to light red than the pale salmon I really like in most rose.

The rose juice fermented quickly, also with EC-1118, and has been resting all winter like the small amount of chardonnay. Today I tasted it for the first time in months and it's really nice, crisp if not a bit tart with nice purity though simple flavors. I'm interested to see if this doesn't end up being more nervy than most local rose, more like European versions that emphasize minerality and austerity rather than sweet, gummy fruit. We'll see, but I'm excited.

And the red, now in barrel for nearly six months, is smelling better than ever. I've been fighting H2S as the wine goes through its malolactic fermentation, so I've gently stirred the barrel with a copper tube periodically to encourage the stinky smells to bind with the copper and stop smelling. It's working I think, as the wine shows more generous fruit and spice on the aroma than I've ever noticed. Rich, plush wine this isn't. But gone (mostly) is the aroma of farts and other stinky things. In the mouth, this wine still lacks fruit though I'm hoping things continue to change as the malolactic fermentation concludes. It may never appeal too much, but if the flavors come around like the aroma, I'll be very pleased. At this point, I have much more hope than I did a few months ago.

The lesson with all these wines? Patience truly is a virtue. The old sayings tell us that the farmer must not miss anything in the vineyard, lest the grapes suffer from rot or mildew. Yet the winemaker must be willing to neglect wines in the cellar, that is to resist the temptation to muck with the wines before they've had a chance to do their thing, for lack of a better phrase. I'm learning that. Often, the best thing to do in the cellar is wait. Though that's sure easier when you have many barrels of a wine and you can afford a few clunkers. The homebrewer has just one, and it's tough to sit there and wait for things to get better on their own.

My reward? A cool bottle of Duvel Golden Ale from Belgium. Poured into a wine glass to allow the aroma to develop, it's urine yellow in color with a frothy, white head and a malty, yeasty aroma that simply captivates. In the mouth, there's a pleasant tang from the yeast and a long, lightly sweet flavor that's, rightly, golden. I could drink a lot of this, except it's 8.5% alcohol. So one is plenty. And plenty good.

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