Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: This Could Be The Last Time

by Peter Wellington

Crush Waits For No One / On With The Show - Wed. Aug. 27, 2008

Back in May I predicted our crush wouldn't start until a week after Labor Day, but it started today. We still have a final bottling date Friday, and it's not easy to be preparing for that at the same time we're starting crush, but what else can a poor boy do? My obsession with pop culture references has complicated the writing of this. Before I'm out of time, I figured I'd see how many Stones references I could cram into one blog. Can you make the connections?

Hot Stuff - Sat. Sept. 6, 2008

After a very cool, dry spring we had a moderate, sunny, albeit smoky, summer until mid-August. The last four weeks have been scorchers, with most days approaching or surpassing 100°F. After an ideal temperature regime during last year's harvest (consistent low to mid 80's), I realize you can't always get what you want. At least the air is reasonably smoke free now. I have been saying it probably wouldn't clear up completely until the autumn rains begin. Our vacation in Yosemite high country (during the time of the fire that filled Yosemite Valley with smoke) was the only time we saw totally clear skies during a two month period. Sonoma Valley filled with smoke again just three weeks ago today, when the wind shifted and came in from the northeast.

Sticky Fingers / Stop Breaking Down - Mon. Sept. 8, 2008

We've been bringing in white grapes as fast as we can; unfortunately that's only 5-6 tons a day because the press holds 1.6 to 2 tons of whole cluster fruit and a press cycle is 3 hours. Today the first Sauvignon blanc load didn't arrive until almost 10 AM, so we were here until after 6 PM for just 4 tons (2 loads). Making whites is a royal pain – sticky, sticky grapes and pomace in the air and everywhere.  The sugar becomes like glue as it dries, making the press and everything else hard to clean. Our grape sorting conveyor keeps stopping and starting. I checked all the wiring connections and everything seems okay, so I fear it's a problem with the variable frequency controller (freak drives are expensive). The yields have been a bit light so far. A hot spell in late May shattered a lot of the bloom and after we dump grapes you can see all the dead flowers coating the inside of the bins.

How Sweet It Is - Tues. Sept. 9, 2008

Thanks to the w00t regular who expressed the opinion that a higher alcohol level meant a drier wine. I was pleased to meet you, but I'll let them guess your name. You've inspired a little more wine 101. During fermentation, sugar is converted to ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in a ratio of 51:49. Grapes / juice at 25% sugar, when fermented to dryness, will yield a wine of a maximum of about 12.8% alcohol by weight / 15.6% alcohol by volume (alcohol is lighter than water). Actual alcohol levels are somewhat lower because some sugar is converted to yeast biomass and some alcohol is lost via evaporation. Both sugar and alcohol have inhibitory effects on yeast metabolism, and the effects are additive. Dellè units are calculated as % sugar + (4.5 x % alcohol by vol.), with a sum of 80 generally considered stable against refermentation. This phenomenon explains why the very sweet late harvest wines such as trockenbeerenauslese have very low alcohol levels. Factors other than alcohol and sugar levels, including temperature and poor yeast nutrient status, can further limit fermentation. It gets progressively more difficult to ferment to dryness at higher sugar levels, and many wines above 15-16% alcohol have some residual grape sugar (RS).

The impression of sweetness in wine is affected by other factors in addition to RS. Alcohol lends sweetness, as do sugars and other compounds extracted from oak barrels. Fruity flavors accentuate sweetness and acidity counterbalances it. As cited by Scott Harvey, many German winemakers engineer balance into their high-acid, low alcohol wines with RS. Sugar, alcohol and oak add viscosity and body as well as sweetness. In this era of bigger is better many of the wines getting high scores from Parker and the Wine Spectator not only have lots of extract and lots of oak, but also high alcohol levels, low acid levels, and often significant RS.

I promised a short discussion of acidity and pH, so here's the low down: both affect perception of tartness, but pH is more important for several reasons. Total acidity measures the amount of acid present, but not it's strength; pH measures the strength of the acid – specifically the activity of hydrogen ions. This quality affects color, aromas and flavors, resistance to microbial growth and the effectiveness of SO2 (sulfites). The lower the pH, the stronger the activity of the acid. Most wines range in pH from 3 to 4 (3 is ten times as strong as 4). For reference, tart whites like Sauvignon blanc might have a pH of 3.2-3.3 and soft reds might have a pH of 3.8 or higher). Relatively low pH, low acid wines make winemakers happy, high pH, high acid wines are trouble. Winemakers can add tartaric acid (the main acid of grapes), which will lower pH, but also raise TA. If you're starting with a high pH, high TA wine, you have limited ability to lower pH to desirable levels without making the wine excessively tart.

It's All Over Now - Wed. Oct 10, 2008

I'm moving on with mixed emotions. I'll miss you, but like a prodigal son I'll see you all down the line and not fade away. I have no expectations that anyone'll get the right answer to the last trivia question, but use your imagination and let it loose. Till the next goodbye, SB.