Sunday, 23 November 2014

Wineries of the Okanagan Valley - Part 4

There is a little pocket of the world called Naramata Bench whose pristine beauty is difficult to capture in word or on camera. Even if you don't have an interest or taste for good wine or artisinal produce, you still must visit. And there is really no excuse, as it is eaily accessible from Penticton.

It will not surprise anyone that my initial reason for visiting was to explore the wineries of the Naramata Bench, of which I had heard good things. Being around one hour north of Oliver, this (unofficial) subregion of the Okanagan Valley experiences a cooler climate than the desert floor. I was looking forward to what the terroir of the region would tell me about the area and comparing this to the many wines I had now sampled further south.

My first stop was purposefully directed at La Frenz, with their Australian winemaker and excellent reputation for quality. I was chuffed to see they had a 'Shiraz' (rather than a 'Syrah') - a nod to Australian roots. They only had a selection of their extensive list open for tasting that day, which was a shame, as I had been really keen to sample the Viognier. Never mind, the 2013 Chardonnay was a hit. I found that it wasn't trying to be something that it was not: there was bountiful stonefruit and a hint of pineapple well balanced by vanilla, toast and cream. By far my favourite wine was the 2012 Reserve Pinot Noir and this has remained one of the finest examples I have tasted in the Valley. 

Next up was Red Rooster Winery. To be perfectly honest, I found the name slightly off-putting but the cellar door staff were wonderfully welcoming and well-educated, putting my mind at ease immediately. I enjoyed discussing the finer points of the flavour profile of their newly released 2012 Cabernet Merlot (I found some black olives and charred coconut hidden in there) and I rather enjoyed the smokiness and meatiness coming through in their 2011 Syrah. It was exciting to find another winery utilising a ceramic egg in their winemaking arsenal and I ended up walking away with a bottle of the 2012 Riesling which was 'egg fermented'. I found it just had some extra oomph in terms of both colour and citrus integration, and was excellent value at $17 a bottle.

Next, I turned my attention to some of the smaller producers in the area. Howling Bluff winemaker Luke Smith was pottering around during my visit and kindly stopped for a quick chat about Vintage and how it was progressing. From his small list of offerings, the 2013 Pinot Gris really shone. The nose had some zesty lemon pith and grapefruit, and then the palate blossomed into a complex array of fruit: red apple skin, citrus zing. Luke then referred me on to a lovely little operation perched high up on the hill called Terravista. I am very glad I did not bypass this stop, as I stumbled accross the Spanish varietals Albariño and Verdejo, of which I am quite a fan. It apears they are the only winery in the Okanagan cultivating these grapes so far.

I was attracted to the simple and striking logo of a painted 'V' utilised by Van Westen Vineyards. The place had a sense of purpose and style about it, despite being housed in a rustic looking barn. Starting with the whites, the 2012 Pinot Gris exhibited honeydew and melon backed by great minerality and acidity. The 2012 Viognier was also classy, having the tropical fruit profile of the region but much drier than some of the other versions I have tried, which seem to use residual sugar to create a rounding effect.

Van Westen's Bordeaux blend wine is simply called V. I preferred the 2009 over the 2010, despite the year being more challenging (hot weather followed by an early frost). The nose was aromatic with delicate cedar character and the palate was luscious with butterscotch and dark spices. I found the 2010 was slightly richer and warmer, perhaps less elegant but with excellent length. 

Lunch was at Lake Breeze. I cannot say I was a fan of their wines, finding them slightly watered down in texture. But I was not at all phased by this, as the food and view were to die for. I selected the mediterranean style cheese and charcuterie board and was quite happy to sit there for a good hour nibbling and enjoying the vista of Okanagan Lake from their lovely garden restaurant.

Another winery worth visiting in the area is Nichol, which has the oldest vineyards in Canada. Their 2011 Syrah was dark and gamey with some secondary and herbal characteristics showing. But in general, I found their wines highly acidic. They are located right at the end of the route, with superb views and a lovely open tasting room.

My day around Naramata was a bit of a whirlwind trip. If you venture here, ensure you allocate more time than I had available to really appreciate the location. There is not a single winery along the route that does not have an amazing view of the lake and mountains. Trust me - you won't want to leave.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Red Wine Stains

Many people have a morning ritual. For the past two weeks, mine has looked something like this:

At one point, we had around forty 1-tonne Open Fermenters (OFs) that I was required to 'massage' each morning. The idea is that the grape skins which have risen to the surface need to be gently put back in contact with the fermenting grape juice to encourage tannin and flavour extraction. 

Sometimes you can be lucky. If the juice has been fermenting for a while, the grape skins have broken down somewhat and a metal plunger can be used to push down the cap. However, in the earlier stages of fermentation, the cap is quite tough to get through and a more manual technique (ie. arms up to your armpits) is required.

Let me tell you, no one will ever think that you have not been working hard after conducting plunge downs for a few hours each morning! Your hands and arms will very quickly stain a lovely dirty-red colour and you will find that skin dryness to the point of cracking and bleeding will occur after only a few days of this practice.

The best part about looking after the OFs every day is watching the ferment progress. Each OF has its own unique flavour profile and every day I have discovered new flavours developing and transforming. For example, one morning there was an OF of Cabernet France that smelt exactly like Vegemite. I contacted the Assistant Winemaker, as I was concerned this might be detrimental, he said it should 'blow-off' over time and, true to his word, two days later, the ferment was smelling like the fruit from a cherry pie straight from the oven. Yum.

We are now at the point of draining and pressing off many OFs and putting them into barrels. It is very exciting to taste each pressed wine as it goes into barrel, where it will remain for months at a time to complete fermentation, both of sugar and malic acid.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Looking after the High End Red Wine

After 10 weeks of harvest, we are finally nearing the last stages of fruit intake for the season. It has been a marathon of grape varieties: from early picked Chenin Blanc for sparkling wine, through bulk Pinot Blanc and small batches of Chardonnay and Viognier (to name a few of the whites). Then we waded through a sea of Merlot, interspersed by Petit Verdot, Malbec, Syrah and others. Now we are approaching the finish line with the later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache.

For the highest quality red fruit, we have a different setup to the usual sorting table and destemmer/crusher. This setup is meant to be gentler on the fruit and is more labour intensive, requiring three people to process small batches into Open Fermenters (OFs). 

One person is responsible for loading fruit from a bin onto the conveyor. The next person is perched up top on the destemmer picking out leaves and the third person has a sort of 'go-go gadget' arm that they use to pick out any leaves or stems that manage to find their way through the maze of the destemmer and in with the berries.

Crusher/Destemmer Setup
In winemaking terms, the central stem of a grape cluster is called the rachis and the smaller protrusions which attach to the berries are called pedicels. Some winemakers do like to include some of this stem material in the wine, but that is a whole discussion in itself. Here, we have been trying to minimise the amount of stem material in the Cabernet Sauvignon to prevent 'green' or 'herbaceous' flavours. Leaves are even worse, as they can create oxidative characteristics. 

Discarded Rachis
Whilst I was standing for hours on end out in the cold picking leaves and stems out of the Open Fermenters (OFs) into which we were processing, I was wondering how effective my role actually was, as there is no way you can effectively remove all the stem material that makes its way in. Oh well, I guess every little bit counts!

Collected Cabernet Sauvignon berries
(and a few stems that escaped sorting)
Once the OF is adequately full, we generally leave them closed up and protected with a blanket of nitrogen gas to sit for a few days of cold soaking. Then, once ready, we warm them up ready for inoculation.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Fall in Canadian Wine Country

Did you know Thanksgiving is celebrated much earlier in Canada than in America? I didn't. But I'm definitely not complaining, as it resulted in a day off work with pay! They pay you here on public holidays even when you are a seasonal worker, as long as you have been with the company for more than 30 days. 

To top this off, I was lucky enough to be invited to two consecutive Thanksgiving dinners - bonus! The first dinner was of the more traditional variety, which is what I was hoping for. We arrived just in time to witness the turkey going into the pot. Basically a cylindrical pot of boiling oil (peanut in this case) was heated to around 350 degrees and then the whole turkey was plunged into it for about half an hour. Perhaps the thought of all that oil is offputting? Well, I recommend you try this at least once in your life, as the resulting succulent, juicy and tender meat will have your diet worries melting away in no time.

Along with the turkey, we enjoyed all the usual trimmings and side dishes: roasted vegetables, Waldorf salad, a plethora of sauces and, of course, lots of wine. As this dinner was at the home of an Assistant Winemaker, there was an excellent selection of both local Okanagan Valley and Washington State wines, of which I took full advantage (for educational purposes of course).

The only thing missing from a lovely dinner and evening was... pumpkin pie! They had decided to opt for apple pie instead, much to my disappointment. I have always wanted to try this strange take on a sweet, but luckily one of the cellarhands had an excellent cook for a girlfriend and she surprised us with a pie on Halloween. Although I don't usually go in for sweet things, this was quite enjoyable and my mug of spiced chai brought out the lovely cinnamon flavours.

Speaking of Halloween, I was interested to see how much hype there would be. Every shop seemed to have at least one aisle dedicated to all the gimmicky, ghoulish adornments and costumes. And of course, pumpkins were everywhere. But this elaborate display set up in an acquaintances home really took the cake for me - it was complete with a lights show and dancing skeletons!

Apart from all the traditions, what I really have loved about experiencing fall in Canada is witnessing the change of seasons. Unlike in Australia, where you don't notice a huge difference until the height of Summer or Winter, the change here has been marked. Day by day, sunrise was later and the clouds crept closer. Now we are lucky to see the sun for one day a week, but there is no lack of colour, with the gorgeous yellow, orange and red hues of the vine leaves making up for it.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Red Wine and the Basket Press

Basket presses look romantic - in a rustic, Old World kind of way. But maybe that's just the wine nerd in me. Unfortunately, the fanciful picture of frolicking knee deep in grape skins is soon forgotten when you go through the process of using one!

Our hydraulically powered basked press
When to Press?
Once the red juice has been allowed to ferment on its skins for the desired period, it's time to drain and press. This may be once fermentation has been completed, but it can also be whilst some sugar remains. The winemaker will decide when the time is right based upon the style of wine he is looking to make, and will consider the acidity and tannin structure of the wine as it has been developing throughout fermentation.

Preparing for Pressing
Using the basket press is not just as simple as dumping in some grape skins and jumping up and down. It is quite a drawn out and physical process, even with a more modern, mechanised version of the ancient, foot-trodding design.

Firstly you have to drain the free run liquid out of the fermenter vessel that was being used (usually either a tank or an open-topped fermenter). This can be challenging, as the grape skins and seeds tend to find their way into the valve openings and clog them up nicely. The job can involve the use of 'advanced' equipment, such as wire brushes, and likely ends with a big squirt of red wine on your clothes, or in your face if you are unlucky.

Next is to dig all the remaining grape matter (skins and seeds primarily) out of the tank. This is the part that goes to the basket press so that more must can be extracted. It is very tempting to just jump inside the tank to make digging out quicker and easier, but this is a big no-no, as the tank will be choc full of carbon dioxide produced during fermentation, and it would not take long to die from lack of oxygen.

In fact, there are many such instances that have occurred around the world and it is especially sad when you hear stories of multiple fatalities as co-workers go in to try and rescue their counterparts and end up meeting the same fate.

Ok, sometimes you do have to stomp just to fit it all in...
Pressing Time
Once all the grape matter has been collected, it is loaded into the press (in batches if there is too much to handle all at once). Then it's pressing time. In the case of a hydraulically powered press, such as the one we are using this vintage, the pressure can be set to varying levels. It is usual to start at a lower setting and gradually work up to higher settings in 20 minute intervals.

At each interval, it is possible to taste the wine and discontinue pressing once the level of bitterness becomes excessive. The idea is to avoid overly harsh tannins in the final product. Often, the pressed liquid is kept separate from the drained must so that blending of the two can be conducted at a later date. Most likely, the proportion of pressed will be less than free run in the final product, but it is still a very important component for adding structure and longevity to the wine.

Anyone for grape skin cake?
Once pressing is complete, the leftover compressed cake is called pomace. There are a multitude of ways that pomace can be recycled, such as in use as a fertiliser or in distilling to make a grape spirit (good old grappa). If you are interested to learn more about the varied uses for pomace, an introductory article can be found at

Despite this drawn out process, I still think basket presses are awesome. Perhaps it is because such an ancient technology is still widely in use today, with little modification from the original design.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Red, Red Wine

It is that point during harvest where we are nearing the end of our white grape intake and moving onto the red varietals in earnest. The daily routine has shifted from multiple press loads per day, and frantic racking. Now it's all about pump overs and plunge downs.

One of the fundamental concepts in the production of quality red wine is maceration. This means the extraction of tannin, flavour and colour compounds from the grape skins into the must. If this were not allowed to occur, you would end up with a greyish coloured wine with little flavour or structure. The degree of maceration that a wine undergoes can be somewhat controlled by the winemaker by manipulating two key variables:

1. Temperature
Heat speeds up the process of maceration by assisting in breaking down the cell structure of the skins and allowing the desired compounds (phenolics) to be released. Alcohol can have the same effect, acting as a solvent in which the organic compounds break down.

2. Skin Contact
It is up to the winemaker to decide how long the must will spend in contact with the skins. This can be anywhere from hours (for rose wine) to months, even once fermentation has been completed. This decision will be based primarily on the style of the desired end product.

Carbon dioxide generation from fermentation causes grape skins and other grape components to rise to the top of the must and form a 'cap' in the fermentation vessel. This results in limited skin contact, so mechanical methods are required to re-mix the must with the skins. 

Of course, in the world of romantics, this would all be achieved by gently stomping on the grapes.  Not quite the efficient method but I have, in fact, been doing some plunge downs which simply involve me sticking my arms down into the cap of the open fermenters and pushing down until juice comes up from below.

For larger quantities of wine held in stainless steel tanks, a pumpover is the most common method used for breaking up the cap. Basically, the bottom valve of the tank is opened up and the juice is allowed to drain into a collection tub, from which it is then pumped back into the top of the tank. This results in wetting or breaking up the cap and promoting increased contact between must and skins.

Besides conducting plunge downs and pump overs, my role in the lab requires me to regularly monitor the temperature and sugar level of the fermenting red must. This information is used by the winemaker to determine the regularity and length of the pumpovers based upon whether the wine is at the desired temperature and how well the fermentation is progressing. 

Sometimes the wine will be slow in reaching the desired warmth. We do have temperature control jackets on each tank, but when there are grape skins in the tank as well, they can limit the efficiency of the heat transfer from the jacket into the must. In this case, we need to conduct a rack and return whereby as much of the must as possible is drained out of the tank away from its skins and pumped to another tank. This tank is then set to warm to a certain temperature before the must is pumped back into the tank where the skins are waiting. Of course, this process is a luxury that can only be afforded if you have enough tanks in your winery!

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Wineries of the Okanagan Valley - Part 3

I always approach a day of wine tasting with excitement and anticipation. On this particular day, I knew I was in for an especially enjoyable day, as my housemate and I had the loan of a car for the afternoon, so no struggling up ridiculous inclines on our bikes or turning up to cellar doors parched and drenched in sweat!

First off the rank was Covert Farms Winery. This family owned estate is nestled in a gorgeous little pocket just north of the town of Oliver. Being both a winery and general produce purveyor, Covert Farms produce all their fruit and vegetables organically, including their grapes. Winemaking is carried out with no sugar additions and minimal use of sulfur.

Our friendly French hostess at the cellar door took us through the full lineup of wines and I was immediately taken by the unique flavours of their 2013 Sauvignon Blanc Semillon blend. I felt like I had stuck my nose into a bunch of freshly picked flowers from the garden, whilst treading dewy grass underfoot. The palate had some lovely mineral and white pepper notes, with just a dash of herbaceousness.

The reds were a little hit-and-miss but the 2010 Amicitia was delightful. Being a bordeaux blend with some Syrah thrown in as well, it exhibited rich black fruit overlaying an earthy and rustic background, definitely giving a sense of closeness to nature from organic treatment. There were some spices and bitter herbs on the palate which made the wine very savoury, but I feel it would pair wonderfully with some simple Mediterranean style fare.

lovely timber style decor at the Cover Farms cellar door
Just down the road, we stopped at Hidden Chapel Winery, where there actually is a hidden chapel built by the original owners, who were very devout. Visitors can drop by the chapel for a look and some quiet reflection if they so desire. However, I was more interested by their underground cellar, and was even more delighted when the winemaker/owner offered to take us on a private tour (it was late in the afternoon on a Sunday and they were not particularly busy). The cellar has been built into the side of a hill and covered by a specifically topographed 'earth mass' for temperature control. Basically, the layer of earth covering the cellar keeps it at a very consistent temperature throughout the year - great for the environment and the bank balance in the long term!

The Amazing Grace 2013 Riesling was a shock to the senses, in a good way. On the nose I was surprised by very herbal aromas of pepperberries, and campari bitters mixed in with a distinct green apple flavour. Another lovely wine was the Nuns on the Run 2011 (Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon) which was all cherries and savoury spices, with a dash of tomato leaf thrown in - more like an Italian Chianti really. Finally, the Shotgun Wedding 2012 (Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot) stood out with its viscous, earthy mouthfeel, minerality and fine grained tannins, finishing with lingering dark chocolate espresso.

a cellar with a difference
As the name suggests, Quinta Ferreira Estate Winery make "Canadian wine with a Portuguese twist". Having fallen in love with Portugal and its wines on a trip there a few years ago, I had been very interested to visit this establishment and see how similar their wines were to what I had experienced in Europe. The whites were good, but unfortunately they had sold out of those I most wanted to taste. What did impress me was that they have a policy of releasing their wines after a period of bottle ageing, and it is always nice when someone does the hard work for you! I am sure this helped to make their reds that bit more luxurious and approachable at the same time. Both the 2009 Merlot and 2009 Merlot/Cabernet blends had excellent structure: I found black olives, cacao and pepper mixing with black cherry fruits. The age meant that there were some leathery secondary characters creeping in as well.

From Portugal, we moved on to France, at Le Vieux Pin (which means the Old Pine). The owner is a lover of fine French and Italian wines and has managed to create a 'little France' and 'little Italy' through his two Okanagan winery endeavours, the other being La Stella, which I am yet to visit. His winemaker, Severine Pinte, is also French, which helps.

Tasting at Le Vieux Pin
Let me just say, I was blown away by the class the place exuded, and not in a pretentious way either. The range of wines is short and succinct and gives you a sense that this winery know what styles they do well and where they are headed. I loved each and every wine that was available for tasting, so I will just give you a very brief rundown:

2012 Sauvignon Blanc - complexity and richness incorporated by 50% French Oak for 4 months with battonage

2012 Ava 
Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, blended in 500L french puncheons and 1/3 new barrels with 8 months battonage.
Toasty, smoky lees and a gorgeously silky palate.

2012 Syrah Cuvee Violette
From a vineyard near Tuc el Nuit lake which produces more floral characteristics.
14 months barrel, 20% new wood, co-fermented with Viognier.
Floral nose, rich berries, some toast - bbq, vanilla and spice, white pepper - a very pretty wine.

2011 Syrah
From a different vineyard further down the Black Sage Bench
Very savoury wine with some French flair coming through - meatiness, barnyard. A bolder style.

2011 Equinoxe Syrah
The cream of the crop - a barrel selection from the two Syrah vineyards, with the aim to combine the best of the floral and savoury characteristics.
The result? Rich dark fruits and outstanding complexity of spices.

Oops - we bought a few too many wines today!
This day of tasting around Oliver in the Okanagan Valley was full of suprises, including the dent to my rather small Canadian bank balance that resulted from my overexcitement! I figure, I have 6 weeks left here, so if I average 2 bottles of 'education' per week, I will be right on the money, so to speak...

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Which came first - the wine or the egg?

You may or may not have heard of a relatively new technique (or some would say trend) in winemaking where a concrete egg is used as the storage vessel. If you have not, then you are probably reading this thinking that I am crazy. Others would argue that this concept is not at all new and is, in fact, the ultimate fusion between ancient winemaking traditions and modern winemaking technology. 

Cast your imagination back around 7,000 years to Georgia, where it is claimed that wine was first produced on a significant scale. Here, they make their wine in clay pots (quevri) buried below the ground, and have done since any of them can remember. Grapes fermented and matured in this way are said to produce wine of exceptional flavour and complexity, reflecting the local terroir (the ultimate goal of a winemaker). 

Now, it is not just the Georgians that have been onto something good with well-insulated winemaking vessels. Many old French wineries still use concrete fermenters to this very day. From memory, I can even remember spying some old concrete tanks at Henschke in Australia.

Allegedly, the egg-shaped tank was originally commissioned by French winemaker Michel Chapoutier in 2001 in liaison with French vat manufacturer called Nomblot. However, after a falling-out of sorts (the details of which I will not bother you with here), Nomblot commenced manufacture but Chapoutier missed out on the rights. Chapoutier was an advocate for the biodanymic approach to winemaking and believed, based upon a series of trials over 2 years, that an egg-shaped concrete vessel could concentrate energy into a sort of vortex, which he saw as beneficial to the quality of the wine.
The Americans picked up on the technology as early as 2003 and it looks like the Canadians have not been far behind. I am excited to say that we have not one but three concrete eggs in use at our winery, and I am aware of other producers around the Okanagan who have them in use.

Our brand new 1600L concrete egg
Now, this whole concept may sound a bit far-fetched, but I did ask our winemaker to give me a run-down on why he chooses to ferment and mature some of his wines in concrete eggs. Here is a summary of the perceived benefits of the concrete egg:

1. Concrete is inert but porous.
This means that the vessel does not impart any flavours into the wine but does allows micro-oxygenation to occur. Basically, you get the benefits of rounder mouthfeel that an oak barrel provides, without imparting any additional flavours into the wine which can mask the natural expression. You also keep the intense fruit flavours, which is what stainless steel is prized for.

2. Concrete is a natural insulator. 
This means that the material assists in maintaining a consistent temperature for the contents both during fermentation (which is essential for a happy yeast culture) and afterwards, when wanting to ensure the wine is experiencing optimal ageing conditions and minimal disturbance.

3. The shape of the egg creates a convection current.
Some claim that thermal layers within the egg, due to its shape, creat a convection current whereby warmer wine is constantly rising and cooler wine falling, resulting in an extremely well-integrated end product. Furthermore, if fermentation is conducted inside the egg the resulting vortex continually and naturally mixes the lees, leading to better mouthfeel in the wine, without the labour-intensive process of battonage.

Identical 600L concrete eggs
If any of the above has convinced you that there may be some benefits in the use of these mysterious concrete eggs, you may be wondering why more wineries have not jumped on the bandwagon. Well, it comes down to cost and practicality. 

From what I understand, the capital outlay of purchasing an egg works out at approximately $10/L of wine. On the other hand, over time, this may outweigh the ongoing cost of purchasing new oak barrles.

Another point is that concrete is much harder to sanitise than stainless steel, as it can tend to be slightly basic in nature and requires neutralisation with Tartaric Acid prior to use. Also, there may be more risk of microbial contamination and, as a result, more care is required in maintaining the vessel.

The debate of the egg aside, the fact is that I am lucky enough to be witnessing these crazy vats in action first hand. This week, we have just put some Rousanne and Viognier into our eggs, so I look forward to keeping you posted on my observations of the development of these wines over the vintage.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The laboratory: where wine-changing decisions are made

Once cold, crisp morning, I turned up to work and was just gearing myself up to assist with loading the press, when I was told that I would need to help out in the laboratory. And not just for a few hours or for the day - for the rest of harvest!

Well, my first response was, "Sure. I am happy to help out, but you do realise I have absolutely no experience working in a wine lab?"
To this end, I was informed that the lab operations could be learnt but computer skills were harder to come by (I guess the thought process went that I'm an engineer so I must be ok on a computer).
And that was that...

Working in the lab is like working at the control centre of the cellar (at least it is at this winery). The lab is actually just a bench and some cupboards in the main office, which also houses the winemaker's desk and the general job desk where the work orders for all jobs in the cellar are prepared. So the Winemaker, Assistant Winemaker and Lead Cellarhand are in and out all day and I learn a lot about what is happenning and what decisions are being made, just from being in the room with them.

The best learning, however, comes from being able to monitor the maturity of the grapes, the progress of the ferments and the quality of the wine.

Preparing a sample of grape berries for analysis
At Road 13 Vineyards, they have definitely not scrimped on cost when it comes to lab equipment, despite the size of the winery.

Free Sulfur Monitoring
Daily sulfur checks are very important for freshly pressed juice that is being held in tanks for settling prior to fermentation. Small amounts of sulfur are added to each juice tank immediately after the grapes have been pressed to assist in minimising oxidation. Depending upon how long they remain settling in the tank, prior to being racked to a new tank for fermentation, it may be necessary to top up the sulfur. 

Instead of a drawn out process involving a series of test tubes and a Bunsen burner, which takes 10 minutes per sample, I have a titration machine which gives me the result in about 1 minute. Lucky me!

Sugar and Acid Content
Sugar content is measured in Brix in Canada, whereas it is Baume in Australia, which is a little confusing. I still prefer Baume as it is easily related to potential alcohol conent. Sugar content, pH and Total Acidity, are the defining figures required to assist a winemaker in deciding when to pick grapes. Of course they still need to make more subjective decisions based upon flavour development, which can only be determined by tasting out in the field, and there is no 'right or wrong' answer, it comes down to style, preference and experience.

Again, I am absolutely spoilt with a fancy machine to measure these factors using Infrared Spectroscopy Technology. At work, this expensive little box is called The FOSS (Named after Nils Foss, who founded a worldwide industrial analytics company). It is so easy to use! Basically, I pipette a few drops of the sample in question onto the receiving glass plate, close the lid and press start. There is some ticking and whirring for about a minute and then Voila, all the results pop up on the screen for me!

Fermentation Monitoring
The fermentation monitoring is a bit more hands on, with temperatures and sugar levels being measured using more traditional tools: a thermometer and hydrometer. I don't mind at all, as I get to go around and taste all the ferments each day to learn how they are progressing and start to understand how the flavours are developing as the sugar is converted to alcohol.

I must also check that there are no 'stressed ferments'. This can occur when the yeast are deprived of nitrogen, which is one of their essential nutrients. If this occurs, they can start producing Hydrogen Sulfide (stinky rotten egg gas) which can have a detrimental effect on wine quality. If this is detected in the early stages, it can be rectified by adding some DAP (Diammonium Phosphate) which contains the nitrogen they require. You just have to be careful not to add too much becauase if there is any remaining that the yeast do not use, it can become a fuel source for other unwanted bacteria.

Siphoning out ferment samples from the barrels

Although my lab experience is definitely not going to make me a titration guru, I am very lucky to be gaining such an invaluable insight into the decisions behind the wine production and the resulting styles. 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Wineries of the Okanagan Valley - Part 2

It was another sunny weekend in the Okanagan, but slightly cooler. Great weather for another cycling wine tour, with free sweat management from a rather gusty fall wind. Due to the fairly large distance and even larger hills separating each winery, I only made it around to 3 on this particular day (well 3 locations, 4 wineries). Each one was so unique and its wines in contrast to each other that it really felt like a full day of wine education.

Jackson-Triggs and Inniskillin

Due to consolidation under the Constellation Brands umbrella, these two well-known stalwarts of the Okanagan Valley are housed in a joint complex, both for production and cellar door sales. Although it was clear that interior design was still in progress, the cellar door staff Chris and Sofia were open and welcoming, taking plenty of time to showcase their wares during my visit and offering valuable insights into the production and viticulture.

The Jackson-Triggs Okanagan winemakers are Australian, Brooke Blair and Derek Kontkanen. Wines come under Reserve, Grand Reserve and Sunrock labels. I found the Sunrock range most interesting, as they claim this is the hottest vineyard in Canada, down south near Osoyoos. The reason is due to a large rock behind the vineyard which reflects the sun down onto the sandy soils.  I was most pleased by the Sunrock Shiraz, which took me back to Australia with its pepperiness and vibrant red and black fruit flavours.

Inniskillin are doing good things with Chenin Blanc. In a bone dry style, the sweet fruit aromas found on the nose turned to a crisp, citrus finish. There was an added level of complexity not often found in your typical run-of-the-mill fruit forward Chenin. Then I discovered the 2009 Pinotage. Probably the only other producer of this grape variety in the Valley apart from Stoneboat (read my review here), it was intensely perfumed with rich red berry aromas. Peppery tannins were mellowed out by some dark wood notes. One of those wines I would love to sit back and sip on a cold, reflective winter night.

Both Jackson-Triggs and Inniskillin produce highly lauded Icewines, both made from Riesling and both having won major international gongs on multiple occasions. It was very interesting to compare the 2013 Jackson-Triggs offering with the 2011 Inniskillin version, as it demonstrated how the flavour profile in such a concentrated and luscious wine develops over time. Personally, I preferred the older of the two wines, tantalising with its grilled pineapple flavour and a hint of kerosene from the Riesling. In saying that, the orange peel and candied ginger of the younger wine was also quite alluring.

Fairview Cellars

Continuing with the plan of catching wineries before they closed for the winter, I decided to venture far up above Highway 97 into the 'highlands' of the Golden Mile Bench to a quietly tucked away winery aptly named Fairview Cellars. 

Striking mural on the wall of Fairview Cellars
This was a winery whose reputation proceeded it. The vigneron Bill Eggert, is known in these parts as 'the Cab guy' due to his reputable wisdom surrounding the cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon. The focus here was on Bordeaux grape varieties.

In general, I found the wines to be lighter bodied, elegant styles but some did lack a bit of tannin structure. The exception to this was the 2011 Two Hoots which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Although being quite opaque, the aromatics of blackcurrants and cedar were in full song and the medium body was supported by some rustic, if not slightly stalky, tannins.  It was a nice touch that they had a back vintage up for tasting, which was the 2007 The Bear - a Bordeaux blend. There was some rich black fruit dancing around the developing secondary characteristics of leather and pipe smoke and the tannins were enjoyably peppery.

Unfortunately quite a few of the wines were sold out, so the selection was limited, however I was assured these may still be available in bottlehops and restaurants around the area.

After my struggle to reach the heights of Fairview Cellars, it was a rewarding glide down to Intersection Winery, just off Highway 97 on Road 8. I ride past this winery every day to and from work, so it was good to drop in and see what they are up to here. The place is very new and the cellar door felt rather empty and echoing, but this was counteracted by the lively conversation I enjoyed with the two cellar door staff (I was the only taster there late in the afternoon).

Having no pre-conceived notion of the wine quality at Intersection, I was honestly taken aback. I enjoyed their entire range, both for its freshness and thoughtfulness, with some rather clever tweaking of traditionals. Their French trained winemaker Dylan Roche is definitely of the school of innovation. 

Without overloading you (or giving all their secrets away), I will stick with what I thought they did best: Viognier and Merlot.

2012 Miles Edge WhiteViognier is the minor constituent of this 30:70 blend with Sauvignon Blanc. The wine is medium bodied with fresh stonefruit aromas and the Viognier serves to round out the palate and minimise herbaceousness.

2012 Reserve Viognier Marsanne - This 80:20 blend has all sorts of fruit flavours, from nectarine and orange peel, through to lemon and lime. Gorgeously textured and ready to pair up with a rich dish of your choosing.

An interesting point of difference with the Intersection Merlot is that it is made in an unfiltered style with grapes found in both Alluvial and Sandy soils. They do a combined version and one each of the two different patches.

2011 Unfiltered Merlot - nice berry flavours but very drying tannins

2012 Unfiltered Merlot Alluvia - a merlot with excellent concentration of both fruits and tannins. Layers of minerality add to the complexity of this elegant wine.

After my second successful jaunt sipping my way through the local cellar doors, my opinion has not changed. The Southern Okanagan Valley is in the midst of an innovation boom. They are still searching for the varieties and styles that will one day define this quality wine region. Perhaps I would add Viognier and Merlot to my list of potentials.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Fermentation is in full swing!

Finally, the day arrived where I walked in to work in the morning and I could smell the ferments! This is when you know vintage really is in full swing. We also had to have all the doors open for a while due to the buildup of carbon dioxide inside the cellar!

What a strange week it was. It started off with the enjoyable job of transferring the first ferment of the season into barrel. Having practised a few barrel transfers the week previous, I was ready and excited to take on the task. The difference when transferring a ferment, as opposed to finished wine, is that the yeast can get a little over-excited with the movement and influx of oxygen. And when yeast gets excited, you get a whole lot of foaming, which can result in overflow of tanks or barrels if you are not extra careful. 

My poor attempt at a barrel-filling selfie
So although the task was fun, it was a drawn-out process running the pump super slowly to ensure everything stayed in the barrels. I definitely had a sense of satisfaction as I finished filling the last barrel without any loss of Chardonnay and popped in the fermentation bung.

After an absolutely outrageous Tuesday, with three white presses followed by destemming of three batches of pinot noir (all in one very extended shift), my mood had swung to exhaustion. Fortunately, I had time to regain my composure over the remainder of the week, as some light rain put a dampener on grape picking and our rate of pressing slowed down.

I did hear along the grapevine though that there will be sunny skies this weekend, so no doubt it will be all systems go again for Week 4. All I can hope is that we stick to three lots of fruit per day!

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Wine Review - Moon Curser Tempranillo 2012

Tasting Note

Luscious deep plum colour. Bold cherry aromas with lashings of savoury spice and vanillin. Opulent dark fruits on the palate and already some toffee and leathery notes developing. Quite powerful for a tempranillo.

Tasted: 22 September 2014

Alcohol: 13.8%

Price: $29.00
Closure: Screw Cap
Winemaker: Chris Tolley
Viticulturist: Brian Dorosz

Okanagan Valley - Osoyoos

After a long weekend of driving and sightseeing, it was a relaxing and easy-to-prep meal of paprika spiced lamb chops with which I enjoyed this wine.

Cellar Door Visit
On my way back from a wonderful long weekend in the Kootenays, I just couldn't help myself but stop by at least one winery as I re-entered the Okanagan Valley. I figured, being the the furthest South East by car from my home in Oliver, Moon Curser was much less likely to receive a bicycle visit, particular as it is perched up on the slopes overlooking Osoyoos.

To give you an overview of the vibe at this well-branded winery, I could not put the words together better than they did in their visitor brochure:
'Named after moolight-evading gold rush smugglers, Moon Curser pursues clandestine (and some would say fascinating) grape varieties like Touriga Nacionale and Tannat, with an occasional Syrah or Bordeaux thrown in for diversion'.

During my visit, the winemaker's father was behind the pouring bench and he took the time to patiently answer my questions. Through this, I learned that most of their vineyards are within 'tractor distance' of the winery (bar the Pinot Noir) and that they have a few alternative varietals, primarily sourced from the institute at UC Davis in California.

Here is a quick summary of a few other wines from Moon Curser that I particularly enjoyed:

Afraid of the Dark 2013
This was the only white wine currently available (a sign of popularity). Being a blend of Roussanne (44%), Viognier (37%) and Marsanne (19%) one would expect an aromatic nose. It had it in spades with delicate stonefruit, guava and floral notes all present. This transpired to citrus flavours in the mouth, creating a fresh finish to the wine.

Pinot Noir 2012
Possibly the last year the wine will be made due to sale of the vineyard. The wine had a bruised plum colour and aroma combined with some earthy notes (mushrooms) and a real savouriness. On the palate, I could not find much fruit but there was a strong flavour of smoked almond and also strong tannins. Very different offering to the other pinots of the Okanagan that I have tried.

Contraband Syrah 2012
Some of the free run juice from this wine is taken using the saignee (bleeding off) method to produce their rose, which results in a wine of intense concentration. Surpringly, on the nose I found cinammon and giner spices as well as some candied orange peel. The wine had excellent structure with deep fruit flavours and finely tuned tannins. My favourite of the tasting.

Dead of Night 2011
Made up of 50% Tannat (Moon Curser were the only growers in the Valley until this year) and 50% Syrah, the nose had some violet and tobacco aromas mixed in with black fruits. Again, I detected some smoked almond flavours coming through. The tannins were slightly 'furry' but I suspect they will settle down and mellow out over a few more years. Keep an eye out for a possible 100% Tannat in future...

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Wine Filtration Fun-damentals

As vintage starts to heat up, we have been trying to clear as much storage room as possible in the winery tanks, ready to accept grape juice for ferment. The week just gone has been a flurry of filtering and bottling activity, primarily for contract parties.

It has been an excellent learning experience for me to participate and assist in this process, as I have not had much to do with filtration of wine previously. In saying that, I have had a lot to do with filtering mineral slurries in my past work in the mining industry, so many of the technical concepts are very similar. 

Basically, when a wine is being filtered prior to bottling, the primary goal is to remove particulate matter that may still be suspended in the liquid, so that it does not end up in the bottle. In some applications, this can serve to assist in sterilising the wine by removing any bacterial particles and in most cases it can improve the aesthetic value by ensuring customers are not put off by any 'floaties' in their wine.

Filtration is a mechanical process whereby the wine is pumped through a medium in which solid particles can be trapped for removal. There are two major considerations which must be taken into account to maintain the quality of the wine during filtration.

Oxygen Contact
Firstly, it is essential to minimise the amount of oxygen contact, or aeration. To cut a long story short, chemical oxidation of wine can result in the formation of acetaldehyde, which causes browning, loss of fruity aromas, and formation of aldehydic odor (similar to nailpolish or vinegar). Oxidation can be minimised by injecting nitrogen air into the flowing wine to displace oxygen from the system, a process called sparging.

Filtering Speed
The speed at which the wine is pumped also needs to be moderated to ensure that all the wine has the opportunity to contact adequately with the filter medium and also so that the filter medium does get 'clogged'.
Setting up the Pad Filter

Filters come in different shapes and sizes. I have been using two different types of filter this vintage. The first is a plate and frame style Pad Filter where the pads are made from Diatomaceous Earth (they can also be made from cellulose). This is a form of 'rough filtration' and the passing size we were using was 100 micron, which is adequate for removing larger particle sizes from the wine. 
Finer filtration can be achieved using a Membrane Filter (also known as a Cartridge Filter).  The ones I have been using have sieve-like discs which can remove particles down to as small as 1 micron, so very fine filtration. For this reason, membrane filtration can be used to finish or sterilise the wine.
Membrane Filter
The hot topic when it comes to filtration is whether or not this process can detract from the quality of the finished wine. It is suggested that some of the aroma and flavour components from the wine can be stripped during the process, leaving the wine as a less complex version of its former self.
According to UC Davis Enology, the equilibria between aroma compounds re-establishes itself afterwards and the intensity returns. Their studies show that 'expert tasters are not able to recognize filtered versus unfiltered control wine'. However, they do concede that 'unfiltered wine may allow continued microbial activity, which may change the character of the wine if it is aged significantly post-fermentation'.
Whether you believe UC Davis or think the jury is still out, the degree of filtration, if any, is always carefully considered by the winemaker.

I can now set up and run the filtration process myself and have been tasked with this on a number of occasions, even with reserve wines. It has been an unexpected insight that I did not count on having the opportunity to undertake during vintage.

If you are interested to read more about the details of wine filtration, an excellent summary is available from UC Davis.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Wineries of the Okanagan Valley

One of my goals whilst working and living in British Columbia's 'Wine Country' is to get around and taste at as many of the wineries as possible. My second weekend in Oliver was a chance to kickstart this venture, with my housemate along for the ride - literally.

Having obtained an excellent brochure detailing when each winery was open, tasting fees, other facilities, etc., we decided to select the wineries that were shutting down for the winter and tick them off the list first to make sure we did not miss out. We were also limited to the local Oliver area as we were planning a day out on our bikes.

We decided it would be fun to stop at each others' respective place of work so we could relate more to each other. So for that reason, our first stop was on Road 7 at Tinhorn Creek, where my German friend is doing vintage. There were two things that struck me immediately about this winery: 
1. The hill is even steeper than at Road 13!
2. The cellar door and restaurant are absolutely stunning - both in terms of views and design.

After strolling through the vineyards and past the pond designed in the shape of the Tinhorn Creek symbol, we entered through the huge wooden doors into the foyer, where we were immediately offered a complimentary glass of Gewürztraminer. I honestly felt a little underdressed in my sweaty cycling gear!

Immediately to the left and right of the foyer were two halls that lead out to viewing chambers overlooking the cellar. Here you could watch the winemaker and his cellar hands at work as well as read about which wines were being stored in which tanks and how they were treated. This was a great touch as it immediately put you in closer connection with the winemaking process and the journey of the wines themselves. 

Onto the main tasting hall and we were cheerfully greeted by Wes who kindly allowed us to taste more than the usual 4 complimentary tastings (helps if you are working in the industry). Tinhorn Creek separate their wines into two ranges: the Varietal Series, which as the name suggests are single varietal wines and the Oldfield Series, named after their founder and CEO Sandra, which are their signature blends. I was primarily a fan of the 2012 Cabernet Franc, which exhibited bold red fruits with a strong line of cedar and good tannin structure. The Oldfield Series Pinot Noir 2010 was also to my liking for a smooth and soft style with a hint of stalkiness to pepper it up a little.

View from the tasting room at Tinhorn Creek

Although the range at Tinhorn was sound, it was their excellent use of the landscape that really impressed. The tasting room balcony looks out to a gorgeous little amphitheatre where regular concerts are held. Nearby, a series of small rows of vines exhibit examples of each varietal grown at the estate and visitors can sample grapes straight off the vine. What an excellent way to engage your audience! By the end of the visit, my head was buzzing with new ideas to take back to my role as a cellar door manager in Australia!

Standing outside Road 13 Vineyards Castle

It was with anticipation that we ventured onward to Road 13, to my winery. Another sweaty hill climb later, we arrived to a friendly welcome from the cellar door staff at the castle tasting room. 

I know this may sound biased, but I was honestly impressed by the range at Road 13 Vineyards. Even their entry level 'Honest John' series showed poise and style at an exceptional price point. The Honest John's White is a blend of German varietals - Bacchus, Riesling and Kerner and the Honest John's Rose contains Merlot, Gamay and Viognier for something a little different (I noted that the winemaker likes to add a dash of Viognier to quite a few of his wines).

From the main 'Road 13' range, I tasted my best Riesling yet in the Okanagan, with beautiful kaffir lime flavours and a dry finish. But it was the Chardonnay that stole the show with its fresh, crisp citrus characters and fine use of oak. The other standout would have to be the 2012 Seventy Four K, a co-fermented blend of Merlot, Syrah, Malbec and Viognier. The fine tannins, rich black fruit and oaky resin created a silky mouthfeel and it slid down the throat a little too easily! The name of this wine comes from the fact that if you strung all Road 13's vines out in a row they would stretch for 74km.

Again, we were allowed to taste everything that was open, but this unfortunately did not include the 'Jackpot' range, which is their upper eschelon of reserve wines. I will, however, be planning a visit to the executive tasting lounge where you can taste these wines paired with some local delicacies - watch this space!

C. C. Jentsch Cellars

We almost reached our next destination at C. C. Jentsch Cellars without a pedal stroke, after cruising back down the Road 13 hill and around the corner. Walking in the gates, I could see the evidence of recent grape crushing occurring and this put me in the mood for chatting about wine production. Gordon was well spoken and informative, clearly having a great understanding of the winemaking process, complimented by his background as a chef and viticulturist.

I have already mentioned my love of their rose The Dance and you can read my review of this wine here. It was not surprising that this was my favourite wine, as the winemaker Amber Pratt has a reputation for good rose. 

The Chase, which is the sister wine to The Dance, was also an interesting Bordeaux blend, containing Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot all rolled into a medium-bodied food wine with blossoming red fruits and approachable structure. The 2012 Syrah followed suit with the uplifted red fruit characters and delighted with a whiff of smokiness and a dash of black pepper.

Although not planned as our next destination, the series of signs advertising artisan breads and cheeses which were dotted along the road leading up to Platinum Bench Estate Winery were enough to convince us to stop. Unfortunately, the bread and cheese were the highlight of the visit. 

Artisan bread and cheese at Platinum Bench Estate Winery

The small cellar door with its sweeping wooden patios was an inviting spot, but unfortunately, it was too small to handle many visitors. On top of this, we were treated rather off-handedly by the cellar door staff, who seemed more interested in getting people in and out rather than fully engaging with their visitors. Also, their signature style, the Gamay Noir, was served slightly chilled, which made it difficult to ascertain the flavour profile appropriately.  The single vineyard Gamay Noir Block 28 (reserve version) was a step up and had some rich, ripe and juicy fruit, but I really could not see it lasting the distance in terms of structure. 

To give Platinum Bench credit, it was a nice touch that they had four of their artisan bread varieties paired with four of the wines for the tasting, and this perk was free. I feel that for those looking for some easy drinking, refreshing wine and a great pitstop to pick up picnic fare, the visit is worthwhile.

'Heavenly Tastes...Earthly Rewards' is the catch cry of Church & State Wines. I loved the fresh upbeat vibe we discovered here and the friendly staff at the outdoor tasting bar. Again, the industry connection was advantageous in that we were permitted to try more than the usual four samples. I was most impressed by their Coyote Bowl Series and could not choose a favourite between the 2010 Coyote Bowl Cabernet Sauvignon (cedar, blackcurrant and peppercorns) and the 2012 Coyote Bowl Chardonnay (oak and vanillin punch with lovely stone fruits). With an excellent range and consistent quality accross the board, they were definitely a close contender to Road 13 for my favourite winery of the day.

The Coyote Bowl at Church & State Wines

We were pretty over cycling up and down hills by the time we arrived at Stoneboat Vineyards. So I'm not sure whether it was just that the two sparkling wines were thirst quenching or if they really were as fresh, fruity and vibrant as I perceived at the time! Either way, the Piano Brut (Pinot Blanc and Muller Thurgau) and the Rose Brut (Pinot Noir), both made using the Charmat Method, were a great change from the still wines we had been sampling all day.

Pinotage is the hero grape at Stoneboat Vineyards, one that I have not encountered anywhere else in the Valley so far. The style was very different to the smoky, dark fruit flavours I had envisaged from previous sampling of South African Pinotage. The Solo Pinotage Reserve 2012, of which only 95 cases are produced, had rich red aromas, with hints of chocolate and cinammon and a taut structure. And then there was a Pinotage Icewine 2013 which is actually the only one produced in the world (according to Stoneboat). Although I don't usually go in much for sticky sweet wines, this wine had fresh raspberry acidity which made it enjoyable and not cloying.

Cute Cellar Door at Stoneboat Vineyards

At the end of a glorious Saturday of wine sampling and cycling, I was left with two impressions of hte Oliver area, which perhaps may be a reflection of the Okanagan Valley in general.

Firsty, it is excellent to see each and every winery experimenting with different varietals, styles and winemaking techniques. This is a good sign of ongoing innovation and a quest for success.

Secondly, I feel that the region has yet to distinguish itself as having one or two signature varietals, as so many other wine regions around the world have. I am sure this will evolve with time and assist in defining the identity of the region. It would seem that Chardonnay and Syrah are perhaps some good contenders, but I am still forming a full opinion on that and further tasting 'research' is required...