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About growing grapes and making wine

Château de Bas-Beechmont, part 2

It’s been about ten days since my last post, and since then I’ve pressed the wine into two 5 L demijohns. I made the decision to press when the ferments where almost dry. I had added the EC1118 a day before I planned to press, to ensure they fermented successfully to dry.

Wineries often use ‘clinitest‘ tablets to test for dryness, since refractometers don’t work well at lower sugar concentrations. These were originally designed for testing for diabetes, but helpfully are also perfect for wine. Lacking these, I used a dipstick test that may or may not also be effective for wine.

Fermenting must, on skins
iPhone SE, built-in 4 mm (~29 mm) lens, 1/17 sec, f/2.2, ISO 400.

As predicted, pressing was an ‘interesting’ affair given the lack of an actual press, and one that took several hours. I initially began by attempting to press using the potato masher I’d been using to plunge the ferment, which did not really provide the level of pressure required. I ended up reverting to the age old technique of foot crushing — after cleaning my feet, I should add. In the event, it was a challenge to fill both demijohns; by the end I was pressing off maybe 20 or 30 mL at a time. Almost not worth it… The first demijohn received mostly free-run, plus some pressings, the second only pressings.

I was surprised — though I shouldn’t have been — that there were a lot of intact berries remaining in the ferment. I suppose I’m used to larger ferments, where the weight of the ferment would have crushed them. As a consequence, these berries released quite a bit of sugar back into the ferments, which restarted in the demijohns. Demijohns I had not bough air-locks for, so had to seal with clingfilm(!). Again, I should not have been surprised.

Intact berries can undergo intracellular fermentation, but this can only produce about 2.5% alcohol, at which point fermentation stops until the berry is crushed, and the yeasts can ferment the juice. This is not dissimilar to the carbonic maceration that is tyical of Beaujolais, but without the blanketing layer of CO2 — hence, it is often called semi-carbonic maceration. It is not uncommon in whole bunch ferments.

Demijohns
iPhone SE, built-in 4 mm (~29 mm) lens, 1/17 sec, f/2.2, ISO 400.

The free-run demijohn finished its primary ferment only a few days after, and I added another 25 g/L of sulfites. It is still bubbling slowly, however, so may have decided to undergo at least a partial malolactic fermentation. I have no way to test for this, however. This really is primitive winemaking!

The pressings demijohn is still bubbling away, two weeks after the ferments had first been inoculated. I’m used to inoculated wine ferments only taking 7 – 10 days, so I am somewhat surprised by how slowly it is progressing. I’m also beginning to wonder whether it is also undergoing a malolactic fermentation, which can occur concurrently with the primary, alcoholic, fermentation. Luckily, the grapes had plenty of fresh, lively acidity, so a malolactic fermentation would only help the wines.

It’s a bit hard to sample from the demijohns, so I don’t know how the wines are tasting. Hopefully, I will get to try them in April. As with any wine making, it is a matter of patience.

Château de Bas-Beechmont, part 1

Destemming grapes by handDe-stemming by hand
iPhone SE, built-in 4 mm (~29 mm) lens, 1/17 sec, f/2.2, ISO 500.

I have been wanting to try my hand at making my own wine for some time. I have, of course, helped others make wine numerous times, first during my oenology course at the University of Adelaide, and as a cellar hand. But I was always following someone else’s instructions, and had little input myself. Perhaps it’s an ego thing, but I wanted to try making a wine myself.

The problem for some years has been obtaining grapes. For years, I’d tried to grow them myself, but without luck. Perhaps it was the south facing slope, the lack of rain, or the poor (free-draining, eucalypt mulch) soil. In Sydney, at least, it’s possible to buy wine grapes from Flemington Market, and this is widely publicised. In Brisbane, there did not seem to be any equivalent… at least, not that I could find online. As it happened, there was. Eventually, I found that Ireland 53 at Rocklea Markets sells wine grapes for a few weeks in March, if you order in advance. Last year, I missed out by a few weeks. This year, I was ready…

After ‘phoning to confirm, I got up at 5:30 am to be at the market by 8 am on Sunday. I bought a crate with 20 kg of Riverina grenache for AU$30. There wasn’t a choice, it was a matter of what was available at the time. The quality seemed decent — a bit of rot, but nothing too serious. I don’t have a refractometer, but the fruit tasted very sweet, and the juice was rich and delicious. Being grenache, it was safe to assume it probably at least 13,5° Baumé, which works out as approximately 14% potential alcohol.

Riverina GrenacheRiverina Grenache
iPhone SE, built-in 4 mm (~29 mm) lens, 1/20 sec, f/2.2, ISO 200.

The first problem was to de-stem the grapes. Not having a de-stemmer (this was being done on the cheap!), I hand de-stemmed the grapes into a food grade 20 L plastic bucket, throwing in maybe a dozen or so whole bunches. The idea was that the stems would add some tannins and some structure, something which grenache can sometimes lack.

 

Interestingly, I noticed some of the bunches were more ‘gris’ than ‘noire’ in colour. This would be a phenomenon that would be more explicable in France, where I’d assume that a few vines of grenache gris were planted in among the grenache noir. Since grenache gris is rare in Australia, I assume it’s either within normal variation from grenache noir, or it’s something else altogether. Either way, the bunches were ripe and so went into the ferment…

Fermenting mustFermenting must
iPhone SE, built-in 4 mm (~29 mm) lens, 1/33 sec, f/2.2, ISO 25.

Finally, I crushed the grapes as best as I could, and inoculated with R56 yeast (with EC1118 on standby, in case the alcohol levels are too high for this particular yeast). A potato masher served to plunge the ferment. After a few days, the colour looked good, and the wine was starting to taste pleasantly of strawberries. So far, it had not gone volatile or oxidised (a problem with grenache in particular, and with small ferments in general). But, of course, that can always change.

The next challenge is pressing into barrel… given that I have neither press nor a barrel. While small presses and 10 L barrels are available, they are expensive. I am trying to do this on a budget, so I will improvise…

(Vinous) Complexity and Paradox in Burgundy

Pommard from the vineyards, 27th September 2013 Pommard from the vineyards, 27th September 2013
Pentax K-x, 18-125 mm lens @ 73 mm, 1/125 sec, f/8.0, ISO 200.

Some places you can’t forget. They bury themselves deep within you, and refuse to leave. Everything else is seen in relation to them – for better, or worse. I grew up in London, and the brilliant blue of a clear winter’s day, or the oppressively leaden sky of a dismal summer day, is always with me.

One such place, for me, has been Burgundy. For one reason or another, I have always visited in late August or early September. Arriving by train, from London via Paris, you first notice how Burgundy still clings to summer, even as London sidles towards the grey drizzle of winter. Changing trains in Dijon, the local train to Beaune – historically, the wine producing capital of the region, where the major wineries had their bases – local stations and vineyards flash by, as well as woodland and cornfields.

Once in Beaune, it’s hard to know what to do. Most of the famous wineries require appointments, or are outside Beaune itself, in the smaller villages, in the cellars of medieval houses, or in concrete warehouses on the edge of the vineyards. Still, as Mike Steinberger said, “there may be different paths to wine geekdom, but they ultimately all converge in the same place—Place Carnot” – so you may as well head straight there. Place Carnot is, more or less, the main square of Beaune: its heart, and its centre. If nothing else, there are bistros and restaurants, and beautiful cakes at Dix Carnot.

This little square surrounds a small park; the tall buildings seem quintessentially French. Just a street off to one side is the Hospice de Beaune, often also called the Hôtel Dieu, with its elaborately decorated roofs made from coloured tiles. Once I’m sat outside Dix Carnot with some improbably elaborate cake, I know I’ve arrived. I can plan: what wineries to visit? Hire a car? A bike? (Yes, many of the villages south of Beaune are within comfortable cycling distance; to branch out further afield and see forests and monasteries, or even just the villages north of Beaune, a car is essential).

Frankly, Burgundy is a maze, and it will take you time to get your bearings. Take the time. Visit again. You will. I feel I am, slowly. For whatever reason, I have only visited in late summer or early autumn. I would love to see the Côte d’Or blanketed under drifts of snow, or with the first buds of spring just breaking. It is a tapestry of ancient villages and tiny vineyards, each with its own subtly different aspect on the hillside, its own soil, its own climate. Vineyards just next to each other can produce profoundly different wines.

The whole region itself teeters on the edge of several climatic zones: it is part continental, part oceanic, with warm weather sometimes coming up from Provence in the south, and cold from Germany or Switzerland in the north. Even the buildings, and the towns, can start to look Provençal at times, at others, they seem northern. Burgundy is a paradox, but a delightfully vinous one.

Cycling south out of Beaune, there are small roads that wind through the vineyards towards the village of Pommard. These roads are shared only with vineyard traffic, they are ideal for cycling. You cycle past stone-wall circled vineyards, the roadside edged with wildflowers. The track meanders on towards Volnay, then Meursault, and onwards towards Chassagne-Montrachet. I have never made it further south than Meursault, so far.

If you know something about French wines, these are names to conjure with. Pommard is known for robust, tannic Pinot Noir, its neighbour Volnay conversely for ethereal, light, perfumed Pinot. Meursault is known for its Chardonnay. Even without an appointment there are small wineries with cellar doors you can visit. Most will have wines from a range of villages, and it is instructive to taste a couple. Even where winemaking techniques are the same, the flavours and aromas differ dramatically between villages.

A place like Burgundy leaves you with many impressions, as you encounter different faces at different times. Looking back through my notes, I encounter everything from pages and pages of detail on viticultural techniques, to gripes about the weather, plans that have gone wrong, or meals that were more than memorable. Like, being forced into a small restaurant on the edge of Pommard for an unplanned lunch by unexpected rain: an inconvenience at the time, particularly since I was counting my pennies, but the sort of thing I would normally dream of. Or a meal at a small restaurant just outside the city centre of Beaune, with a shared, long table, where I ended up in deep discussion with several other diners, and did not stumble out the door until eleven pm. There were people from Japan, from Brazil, from Switzerland, from Holland, from America – and me, from Australia, via Britain. The Brazilians thought that the Europeans worked too hard, and didn’t live enough – something the Europeans objected to.

The conversation spilled out onto the street outside, and, in my head at least, followed me home. What does it say when you meet people you feel you’ve known all your life, but know you won’t meet them again? Such is travel, I guess.

The next morning, Beaune was as quiet as ever. That morning, I drove to Château-Chalon, leaving Burgundy behind for the foothills of the Alps. But, as always, I knew I’d be back.

 

Clos de Lambray, Morey-Saint-Denis, Côte de Nuits, 27th September 2013Clos de Lambray, Morey-Saint-Denis, Côte de Nuits, 27th September 2013
Pentax K-x, 18-125 mm lens @ 40 mm, 1/100 sec, f/8.0, ISO 100.

 

This is a longer form of an essay I wrote for a travel writing competition (which I didn’t win!), organised by travel insurance company World Nomads. The version submitted can be seen here.