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.