Sunday, 30 March 2014

All good things come to an end

I knew it would come, I was uncertain of when, but the vintage period is drawing to an end and the winery have reverted to their normal levels of manning.  Sadly, as a casual employee, this means that my Vintage 2014 journey is complete.

I will miss this beautiful view upon arriving at the winery each day
It's difficult to put into words just how much I have learnt over the past 12 weeks. First and foremost, I have been able to experience first-hand each stage of the wine production process: from grapes arriving at the winery, right through to the finished wine being loaded for transport.  Each stage of the process has its own associated techniques, requiring detailed analysis and attention to particular chemical changes in the journey from juice to wine.

But there is so much more to learning about the workings of a large-scale cellar.  Such considerations as: the time each batch of juice/wine spends at each stage, ensuring tanks are not left with 'ullage' (empty space), keeping everything as clean as possible to prevent vinegar flies, ensuring fermenting wine does not get too hot when left over the weekend without chilling, etc.

a winery with history - the beautiful old barrel room
Working with the permanent cellar hands, who have all completed university level wine making courses, has been a humbling experience.  They have all imparted upon me a wealth of knowledge but also have caused me to reflect that it is very difficult to broaden your winery experience whilst maintaining a lifestyle in a capital city.

Whilst I search for my next wine industry opportunity, I will be continuing with my own self-eduction in wine.  To kick-start this, I am going to be exposing myself to as many wine varieties, styles and regions throughout the month of April.  I have challenged myself to taste a different wine for every day of the month and I will be posting tasting notes (as well as some other interesting facts) on each and every wine across the month.

I have a particularly exciting tasting event to kick off with on 1st April, so watch this space...

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Filling Barrels

I have mentioned on several occasions that there is some kind of innate enjoyment associated with working with oak barrels. I still can't quite put my finger on it, but I suspect it has to do with the beautiful aromas exuding from the wood and the knowledge of the final product you are preparing.

Since we started onto premium red production, I have had the privilege of filling barrels (rather than emptying them, as previously). Although not a particularly complicated task, I did find that height plays a critical role in how successful a person us at this job.

Unfortunately for me, being short, I found it quite difficult to get my eyes at a good angle to be able to see directly into the barrel through the small bung hole to determine the wine level as the barrel filled. This was only made more difficult when the work continued into the evening, so I was trying to juggle the filling spear and a torch, whilst standing on tiptoe. 

Let's just say: further practice required for this rookie!

filling oak barrels

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Crickets and Cava

Yesterday, I said a final farewell to many of the 2014 Vintage crew at Beaufort St's el Publico bar.  This mexican gem is an institute in the Beaufort St bar scene and I have never had a bad experience here.  Upon arrival, I was excited to learn that crickets were on the menu.

Being one who enjoys trying new things, I quickly ordered a serving (before I could chicken out), and the crunchy little critters promptly arrived at the table.  To be on the safe side, I also ordered a glass of Cava which I was certain would wash them down well, no matter the taste.  Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine produced in the Catalonia region and is Spain's answer to French Champagne and Italian Prosecco.

crickets were on the menu at el Publico
The verdict?  Initially crunch and saltiness dominate, then this is followed by a small mouthful of meaty chewiness. I found the experience similar to eating a well fried prawn head, but with a lessened danger of sharps (cricket shells are relatively soft).  The crickets went well with the cava and I actually think they make a great bar snack.

cava was a good chaser for my first ever cricket!

Friday, 21 March 2014

Red Gold

Part 2

Yesterday was the official launch of the winery's premium red, which is only released in years when there is an excellent harvest. It is produced primarily from grapes of a single row in a single vineyard.

To mark the event, a lunch and tasting were held at the winery, attended by various media, wine critics and sommeliers. Unfortunately, vintage staff were not in attendance, we were busy working away in the cellar.

I definitely felt lucky to be on evening shift this week, because once the day was over, there were plenty of half finished bottles of back vintages of all the best red and white wines.  The winemaker on shift was kind enough to let us have a quick sample of whatever we liked.

I have always wanted to do a vertical tasting of some good wines.  A vertical tasting basically means tasting the same wine type from the same producer over a series of vintages to allow comparison.   The experience was even better than I could have asked for, with some wines dating back as far as 1994.

I was in wine heaven!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Red Gold

As the vintage moves from white to red grapes, the value of the product we are handling increases dramatically. The winery is geared towards bulk white production at the 'entry level' end of the market but focuses primarily on high quality, low volume for its red wines.

When I arrived at work yesterday afternoon, I found that nearly every spare area of floor space in the vintage shed was now occupied by open top tanks. There was also a plethora of strangely shaped metallic objects and hoses everywhere, which will be setup in the tanks as cooling mechanisms for temperature control.

open top stainless steel tanks
cooling coils with brine hoses attached
I'm excited but also nervous to have the opportunity to be dealing with wine that will retail at around $100 per bottle!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


As the intake of white grapes draws to a close for the season, the requirement for casual cellar hands starts to drop off.  Sadly, this means that some people are finishing up their vintage employment to move on to new and exciting things.

For some, this signals a return to university and ongoing study, whilst others are leaving to spend their hard-earned money travelling to exotic locations.  This leaves 7 of the casual staff at the start of week 9 of vintage, with 3 of these in their last week.  It's starting to feel almost like a season of Survivor!

It is sad to see my workmates and new-found friends leaving.  On shift you spend so much time with people, it feels like you have known each other much longer than just over 2 months!

I have definitely enjoyed working with everyone. At a farewell BBQ hosted by the company last Friday to say thankyou to those who were leaving, the winemakers and permanent cellar hands commented that everyone working the 2014 vintage worked together exceptionally well with very little hassle.

Outside of work, I was also lucky enough to spend some time hanging out with most of the crew. I have been privileged to glimpse a snapshot of the global language of wine, seeing how those from other wine industries around the world have quickly integrated into the Western Australian wine industry. 

Of course, meeting all these amazing people from multiple continents has reinvigorated the travel bug within me.  Now I just need to find an excuse to go and visit!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Whipped Cream

When working 12 hour night shifts, you can always expect there to be a few strange occurrences that just simply would not occur during normal working hours.  It is also very easy to see things in a different light when your natural circadian rhythm has been turned on its head.  

sometimes coffee is the only solution
So, when I walked into the yeast culturing area at about 2am on a back shift and saw a carton of whipped cream sitting on my work bench, I was more intrigued than surprised.

My first response was to laugh, then to crave a nice iced coffee and then finally to seek an answer to the question:  what on earth does whipped cream have to do with making wine?

Turns out, whipped cream can be used as an antidote to control a ferment that does not want to behave itself.  In this case, there was a job underway to transfer some fermenting chardonnay from a stainless steel tank into oak barrels and, despite the delicate pumping operation in place, the yeast were getting too excited, causing excessive froth.  A small dash of whipped cream assists in breaking down the froth and preventing the subsequent loss of good quality wine.

When in strife, add whipped cream!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Doing a Des

Every workplace has an idiom or two with a background story based upon a person or event that has become infamous.  Yesterday, I learnt one of these - a phrase that is now recognised in cellars across Australia: Doing a Des

Someone can be said to 'be doing' or 'have done' a Des if they manage to perfectly estimate volumes when filling or emptying tanks, barrels, etc.  

The story goes that Des was a cellar hand who always seemed to be able to achieve perfect estimations of volume.  However, turns out he actually either added water or dumped wine at the end of the transfer to suit!

Monday, 10 March 2014

A Frantic Finish

It was difficult to predict how busy the last night of my first week of nightshift would be.  Sometimes the last shift of the week is very quiet if crushing is finished by the afternoon, but if crushing continues into the night, it can become a very hectic race to get everything finalised before 6am on a Saturday morning.

Turns out this week crushing ran very late, so it was all hands on deck early Saturday morning to get everything cleaned up for the weekend.  The major task is to strip and sanitise each of the five grape presses.  For each press, this involves roughly the following steps:

1. Arrange a confined space permit.
The task requires two people - the person inside the press doing the stripping and cleaning and someone who is the 'standby person' to ensure that you remain safe whilst inside by monitoring the atmospheric conditions and checking there are no other untoward events.

2. Shovel out the bulk of remaining grape skins
Even after the contents of the press have been discharged, there is always a fairly significant buildup of grape skins remaining.  It's much quicker and easier to first shovel out as much as possible.

3. Remove all the stainless steel drain bars
The press contains a number of rows of stainless steel bars with fine holes through which the grape juice drains.  They get quick clogged up with grape skins, so each one needs to be unbolted, removed and hosed down.  A time-consuming task.

4. Thoroughly hose out the press
Once everything has been removed, the entire internal cylinder must be hosed clean so that there is no grape skin residue.  The most difficult part of this is removing grape skins hiding in the folds of the bladder.

5. Reinstall the drain bars
Once the drain bars have been cleaned (by the standby person), they pass them all back in for re-assembly.

6. Sanitise the press
Similar to the method for cleaning tanks, a wash of caustic soda, followed by neutralisation with citric acid is undertaken to remove any remaining contaminants from the press surface.

my first time stripping the press
Overall, steps 1 to 5 of this process took me 2 hours and 20 minutes (it was my first time assisting with this task).  Supposedly, an absolute gun at a press 'strip and sani' can do it in 1.5 hours, but that's really pushing the boundaries!

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Fining Trials

Last shift, I was delighted to gain a small insight into one part of the winemaker's role from a sensory perspective.   

As each wine reaches its final stages of preparation, the winemakers need to decide the quantities of fining agents (if any) that will be added to the wine during cold stabilisation. This is their last chance to 'fine tune' the wine and ensure the mouthfeel, body and astringency are at their optimum for the desired style and character of the wine.  The decisions are made based upon a fining trial.

Each trial works just like a mini science experiment.  There are a number of samples of the wine all lined up in wine glasses. The first is a control sample with nothing added (for comparative purposes). Then there are series of between 4 to 6 glasses of wine with increasing amounts of each fining agent. 

setup for a fining trial
The winemakers go along and taste every glass, then write down which levels of additive they feel are the optimum. They also have to keep in mind that too much additive can 'strip' the colour and flavour out of the wine.

Interestingly the two winemakers running the trial came up with totally different opinions on the amount of each additive that was best! 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Lovely Lees

I have decided that I have a love-hate relationship with lees. They are so important for providing some complexity in Chardonnay, yet at the same time they really are a pain to clean out of the bottom of a tank!

In 'wine-speak'  complexity is used to describe the dimensionality, or layers present in a wine.  Less complex wines are generally very fruity and simple, but as the wine becomes more complex, it is possible to identify many different aromas and other unique characteristics.

So why exactly do the lees add complexity to a wine?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Adjusting to Night Shift

Week seven of Vintage 2014 sees me starting my first round of full 12 hour night shifts. I have worked nights before, so I wasn't too phased by the prospect, but I was interested to see how I would go with the distraction of being in my own house during the day (rather than in a demountable on a mine site with nothing to do but sleep anyway). 

My first night shift did not get off to a good start. I rode my bike to the train station and patiently waited for the train (which was late), only to discover that there was no chance I would be able to squeeze on between all the city commuters, let alone fit my bike on as well!  So I had no choice but to jump back on my bike and cycle as fast as possible back home, then drive to work.  Needless to say, I only just arrived in time for start of shift!

Luckily, the rest of the shift was fairly smooth sailing.  We have a full schedule of grapes this week, meaning that the yeast area is a constant hive of activity and this is a great way to keep busy, which is exactly what works best to keep my eyes open on the first night shift.  

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Quality Local Wines

Something I love about living in Perth is the great local wines you can source.  Over this weekend, my husband and I have enjoyed two great wines from Swan Valley wine producers.

Firstly, the Upper Reach 2007 Reserve Chardonnay.  We picked this up last year as a back vintage from the Upper Reach winery at Baskerville.  It was a lovely golden yellow colour and smelt like peaches and cream.  Even better, it tasted like lemon sherbet and went great with our parmesan biscuit snacks.

Upper Reach 2007 Reserve Chardonnay
For lunch, we were patiently slow cooking a beautiful locally grown leg of lamb, so what better to match it with then a nice old cabernet malbec.  The C. W. Ferguson is produced by Houghton winery in honour of a man who was one of the pioneers of the Swan Valley wine region.  With a very deep colour, the wine is surprisingly smooth but has a great pepper and spice hit that contrasted perfectly with our melt-in-your-mouth lamb.

C.W. Ferguson 2007 Cabernet Malbec