November 20, 2015

Red ferments, waiting, punchdowns, doing nothing

Last time I wrote about making white wines. Essentially, that means pressing the grapes right away and fermenting the juice on its own. This method keeps the white wines pale in color and free of astringency that the skins and other solids would give to the wine.

With red wines, you ferment the juice in contact with the grape skins, pulp, seeds, maybe even the stems depending on your preference. The point is to extract lots of things from the grape solids to provide color, flavor and texture to the red wine. Only after fermentation is done do we separate the new red wine from the grape solids.

A fermenter bin full of destemmed Pinot Noir grapes

I'm not sure how to describe my wine making methods other than to say I take a simple approach. I don't add yeast, nor do I add any yeast foods, texture enhancers, and whatever else you can find in the winery supply catalogs. I don't cook that way and I don't think the best wines are made with the intention of totally controlling the outcome.

This harvest, fruit quality was exceptional, meaning there was so little rot or other issues in the grapes that you knew right away on each harvest day that things were going to go well. Think of the nicest fish you've ever cooked - perfectly fresh, like a dream, so you know all you need to do is prepare it simply and the meal couldn't be better.

Making wine is no different. Not every lot of grapes may have the integrity for such a simple approach. Rainy years are particularly difficult as molds and other things can start growing in the grape clusters, potentially hurting the quality of the wine. In 2015, the story of the harvest for me was a consistency of fruit quality from every site I work with so that, as usual, nothing really had to be done.

Pigeage or foot treading the gapes for gentle extraction the old fashioned way.

What does that mean? Fruit is sorted and destemmed (in most cases) into well cleaned fermenter bins. The next day I will do one pump over, or remontage, where I pump the grape juice from the bottom of the vat and spray it gently over the surface to mix and aerate things, much as you are adding oxygen to bread dough in the kneading process. That oxygen feeds the yeast to promote a strong native fermentation.

Then I do nothing. For days.

Ok, I wait, and of course I check on things each day, take temperatures, smell, generally assess how things are going. But I don't punch down the grape skins, mixing things in the fermenter. Instead I'm waiting for fermentation on the surface to build to a point where carbon dioxide production from that activity is strong enough to really make you notice.
The view as I punch down a fermenter of Pinot Noir

Only then do I punch down the fermenter for the first time. In some harvests that can take up to 10 days of waiting. This year, fermentations took off after 5 or 6 days, most likely because even with our cooler than expected September weather, ambient temperatures were higher than you'd see in a normal year of harvesting in early October. Even slightly warmer temps means slightly faster starts to fermentation, one of the many little attributes of each vintage.

Before anyone worries - what, fast fermentations? That sounds bad! - let's not get ahead of ourselves. I'm saying that my natural fermentations run on their own schedules each year, and this year things started a bit more quickly than usual. However, the most significant difference in my red wine making this year compared to prior years is that fermentations lasted longer than usual.

As fermentation continues, I will punch down (mix) the fermenters only once a day, and then not even every day. Wine making school will tell you this will ruin a wine. Without enough mixing, vinegar bacteria or other issues will take hold. My experience is different, and I've found that punching down only a handful of times over the entire fermentation period allows the delicate texture of the wine to come together. Think of lace - work it too much and it tears. Treat it gently and you preserve a delicate, beautiful integrity that means everything.

Close up of the foamy goodness of native yeast fermentation of Pinot Noir.

Some years, even if fermentation takes 10 days to start, after another 10 days the wine is dry (finished fermenting) and the fermenter is ready to drain and press. But this year, even with quicker starts to fermentation, nothing fermented too fast and many of my fermenters took 24 and up to 28 days from harvest to be ready to drain and press.

The dark, already pretty clear color of free run Pinot Noir.
That extra contact time with the grape solids often gives a wine more savory, complex flavors and aromas beyond fresh fruit qualities. The potential downside of longer "skin contact" could be increased tannin, perhaps even bitterness, and perhaps losing too much freshness. It's a balancing act, but with warm summer and perfectly healthy fruit, I found that the added skin contact time for the new wines helped draw out a vinuos quality in favor of loads of fresh, dense fruit. Some of that is good, too much is not really wine but fruit juice.

By contrast, the lighter colored, murky press wine that needs settling.
As usual, when draining a fermenter and pressing the grape solids, I let the new wine settle for a couple of days before filling barrels. The goal is to allow a good bit of the suspended solids to settle out, so that there's some but not too much lees (sediment) in the barrels as the wines age.

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