In my recent post wrapping up the 2009 Vincent Cellars harvest, I wrote that elevage had begun. Elevage is what winemakers call the time from the end of primary fermentation at harvest through to bottling. In the case of pinot noir, that's typically one or two years where the new wine cures into a finished beverage.
During elevage, red wine is typically in wood barrels, occasionally being moved from barrel to barrel to aerate the wine and draw it off its sediment. In some situations, red wine undergoes malolactic fermentation in tank before barrel aging. Otherwise, during elevage the only time wine is usually not in barrel is when barrels are combined and wine held in tank to mix properly mixing prior to bottling.
Malolactic fermentation tends to happen pretty quickly after new wine has been fermented. "ML" fermentation is the natural process where sharp malic acidity in new wine ferments into softer, creamy lactic acid. Before ML, red wine usually tastes sharp and raw. After, the wine tastes more finished and rounded, adding more roundness and polish through further barrel aging.
A few weeks now from harvest, my new wines in barrel are beginning their ML fermentation, which should be done in a month or two. ML is helped by warmer than usual cellar temperatures, so the barrel room is kept near room temperature until ML is finished. Then things are cooled down, the new wines sulfured and left to age quietly in a chilly cellar.
Each barrel is topped up every couple of weeks, to account for evaporation that slowly takes place during elevage. The first topping just happened, and it was significant as the newly filled barrels quickly soaked up about a liter of wine each. Topping regularly is key to keeping the wine from turning to vinegar, and happily the amount of wine needed to top your barrels each isn't nearly so much as here at the beginning of elevage.
Tasting the barrels is also essential as you go through harvest. A key thing we're looking for at this point is reduction, which is a fancy way to say "stink." You know how some things, like a sleeping bag, need to be aired out every once in a while, to somehow magically get rid of stinky aromas and otherwise freshen things up? Wine's like that. Wines in barrel sometimes start to smell funky, and usually moving the wine from its barrel into another fresh barrel and help air it out and let some funky, "reduced" smells air out and go away. Sometimes things get more complicated, but that's more complicated than we need to get into here. We don't wash the wine, but like you would wash a really stinky sleeping bag, there are things to do in the winery to help a really stinky wine regain its freshness.
All in all, it's a great time for winemakers. Harvest is done, and it was a great harvest at that. Everyone I talk to is legitimately excited about the quantity and quality of the 2009 harvest here in the northern Willamette Valley of Oregon. No marketing shtick there. Just honest passion about a successful year.
Now everyone's getting ready for Thanksgiving open houses, the traditional time for Oregon wineries to open their doors and host crowds of happy tasters. Blends are being assembled for wines soon to be bottled. Open house crews are being scheduled. Those who aren't already living it up on holiday in France (ehem, Scott Wright!) are planning their travels. Winter pruning crews are probably sharpening their tools but waiting until the new year to get to work.
And I'm collecting names for my mailing list and looking at a ton of tasks to complete before spring, all exciting and just what I want to be doing. None the least of which is planning for harvest 2010. It's never too early.