Feeling a bit inspired after tasting a few of our more recent attempts at making good, wine it seems appropriate to document some aspects of the process.
Wine making for us started back in the 1980's on our first farm "Mundroola". Back then it was the hippy in us that made all sorts of fruit, herb and vegetable wines. Some of these were an acquired taste and some made you feel as if you were "shot out of a cannon" (quote from The Good Life series). Then there was a bit of a break of a few years while we relocated and settled in, planting wine grapes and an orchard. Back into it, but this time with real grapes, floundering with off flavours and lack of success.
A wine maker dropping off a large purchase of his wine, tasted these failed efforts, asked about the processes and informed us as to the problem(s). Then some early minor successes followed by more success and yet more experimentation. Then a philosophy developed. It isn't possible to just make wine or food, there has to be a guiding brief, something to refer to when faced with challenges and choices.
Marcel Pagnol summed it best in Jean de Florette:
"Well, look: after having worked hard - I mean intellectual work - after meditating a long time and philosophising, I came to the irrefutable conclusion that the only possible happiness was to be a man of Nature. I need air, I need space to crystalize my thoughts. I am more interested in what is true, pure, free - in a word authentic, and I came here to be authentic... I want to live in communion with Nature. I want to eat the vegetables of my garden, the oil of my olive trees, to suck the eggs of my chickens, to get drunk on the wine of my vines, and as far as possible to eat the bread I make with my wheat."
There are many excellent books on vineyard management, grape cultivation and the technical side of converting grapes to wine. What there appears to be a shortage of, is information on the ethereal aspects of these processes. Sometimes the technical explanation, points to the execution of the more delicate operation but it is so obscured in scientific language, only the more experienced and highly trained practitioners are capable of discerning the step. For amateurs, the plainer language bears more fruit.
Reading mountains of books, magazines, web pages, blurbs on the back of bottles and sales brochures over many years results in the accumulation of pages of notes on aspects of making wine which don't seem to rate a mention in most technical books on the process. These notes stem, many times, from a phrase or sentence identifying a simple, minor step in the process which seems insignificant when on its own, yet plays an important part in the entirety.
For the most part, for us, these practices come from French winemakers especially those small timers who make a barrel or two or three in a tiny village. Some come from artisan winemakers in various parts of the world looking to return wine making from pure science to a pure craft. Because they are comments within a commentary, they often don't contain measurements such as percentages, litres or kilograms. And they aren't always quantified.
These are the statements such as:
"This year we added a higher portion of whole bunches because of the maturity of the fruit".
What that statement means, once investigated and the facts compiled, is that normally they add in about 10-20% whole bunches in an average year and sometimes none. But this year, the fruit ripened exceedingly well and they needed to add in 40% whole bunches to get more tannin from the stems to balance the wine.
When those comments are taken in mind and the textbooks re-examined, it is possible to equate the statement to facts in the texts. Looking at the chemical composition of grape bunches shows the stems as a source of some tannins. Adding too many produces a harsher flavour. You could avoid stems all together and add powdered tannin to taste (as many wineries do) but then this story is about staying as close as possible to the natural process.
Sometimes the concept behind the statement can't be traced to a hard number and it becomes a matter of trial and error and guesswork. It is valuable to remember that nature is complex and equating everything to a number is often impossible. It becomes a matter of gut feel, experience and faith.
This is about the romance of wine making. This is not about using the laboratory to manufacture a pleasant scent, colour and flavour. This is about working with nature and bending with nature to produce the best possible result which reflects the variations of that year. Every year is different and sometimes challenging. The goal is to have a palette of ideas and options which can used or left during the process of steering grapes towards wine.
The next set of notes will be:
Making Good Wine: The Vineyard