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New World Wine Maker Blog - winemaking

Here’s to the Winemakers!

“I am a winemaker. Not a shepherd or a steward.” Sine Qua Non founder Manfred Krankel spoke those words during the third day of Wine Spectator‘s New World Wine Experience, and I started clapping. Then I realized I was the only person clapping in a room packed with 800 people and sheepishly stopped. I shouldn’t have.

The Wine Experience is Wine Spectator‘s annual gathering of the best winemakers in the world for three days of tasting, talking and having fun. The whole weekend provides a chance to discover some great terroirs—you can taste wines from more than 200 wineries, often from regions you’ve never tried—and chat with the people behind the wines. The winemaker or owner is often the one pouring. It’s a chance to learn from some of the best.

But I often feel like people who work in wine (or write about it) like to pretend that winemakers don’t actually matter.

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Exploring wine with Mitch Frank of the Wine Spectator

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All dressed up, but nowhere to go with your wine?

“If I was a winemaker and I made wine that tasted the same five years in a row, I would consider myself a failure.” This statement was greeted by a soft gasp of shock and then an uncomfortable silence that settled around the dinner table. The identity of the person who made the opening statement will forever remain a mystery, but I will try to shed some light upon the unique (and sometimes volatile) relationship between the winemaker, the marketing team and the consumer.

‘Death of a Salesman’ is a 1949 play written by American playwright Arthur Miller. It tells the story of Willy Loman, a failed salesman, who ultimately commits suicide. This flawed, but valiant deed marked the end of an unremarkable sales career. The reality is this: salespeople in the wine business are still under increasing pressure, as is the winemaker as well as the consumer. Seeing that the consumer has to fork out hard earned cash to enjoy some wine, it is up to the marketing team to convince the consumer to buy the winemaker’s wine. It is thus clear that there needs to be very good communication between the winemaker and the marketing team. All of this is old hat. What might not be that apparent, is that there exists two extreme opposite paradigms in the winemaking world.

Paradigm one: Based on extensive market research, the winemaker obtains information on existing markets and what their requirements are. Here the winemaker relies heavily on the interpretation and rendition of current markets by die marketing team. Past experience, current trends and forecasts are buzz words here. A quality level for each market segment is determined and wine is made and marketed according to the consumer preference of each segment. Forgive me, for I’m of course greatly reducing the complexity of the science that is involved in marketing and market research. If I may simplify even further, within this scenario the winemaker makes what the different markets want.

Paradigm two: The winemaker makes wine according to his taste and whims. The market is ostensibly much smaller than those described in paradigm one, seeing that consumers need to share the taste of the winemaker or need to adapt. During my stint in a big cellar in California, I met a highly eccentric winemaker who personified the second paradigm of winemaking. He was of the opinion that winemakers like him are part of a dying breed and winemakers should not be dictated by market preferences. In his own words: “If you like my wine, you buy it. If you don’t like it, *$#@* off!” I really liked this cowboy and I decided to stir the pot a little by pointing out that I’ve had excellent wines from wineries/winemakers representing both of the above mentioned paradigms. You can just imagine the earful that I got then…

Let’s revert to the opening statement: “If I was a winemaker and I made wine that tasted the same five years in a row, I would consider myself a failure.” Theoretically, an exceptional year will yield exceptional wine. This will probably change (improve?) the taste of the wine, if compared to a standard. The million dollar question is: Will your market accept the different taste or will you be met with a lynch mob?

You might want to ponder this whilst having a glass of wine. After all… “In vino veritas.”


Bernard Mocke is a technical consultant for Oenobrands

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The Next China for Wine

In 10 years, India’s wine drinkers will outnumber France’s total population. Here’s how Rajeev Samant and his Sula Vineyards helped light that fire.

Before becoming a vintner, Rajeev Samant struggled for more than three years to get a license to put down vines. Finally, he persuaded alcohol-suspicious authorities that the ability to grow vinifera in the region was “a gift from the gods.” A novice grower, he had no idea what to plant and where, and once he decided on Sauvignon Blanc, he had no idea if his grapes would ripen—no idea if they would even bear fruit.

Where he lives is hot—regularly over 100° F three months a year—so to say his cellar is temperature-controlled would be an understatement. Even pricing his product was problematic: When he started out in 1996, there was a $3 excise tax on every bottle, and none could legally be priced at more than four times that amount, the equivalent of $12. The winemaker overcame all that, but like clockwork, Mother Nature drops a new bomb on his vines every year. “The biggest challenge,” said Samant, whose Sula Vineyards now dominates 65 percent of India’s wine market, “is managing the monsoon.”

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Exploring wine with Ben O’Donnell of the Wine Spectator


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Practical Advice On Managing Wine Alcohol Levels

The other day I came across this fact sheet: “Reducing Alcohol Levels In Wine” published by the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI). Directed at the professional winegrower, this is the best agenda-free piece on wine alcohol levels I have read, period. It’s worth the interested reader’s time.

All of my own efforts to manage alcohol levels in our wines are mentioned here. In the vineyard every year we reduce canopy leaf area to balance crop load, and I have found that irrigating to 85% of evapotranspiration demand right up to harvest prevents runaway sugar accumulation. I have always disdained wines with over-ripe flavors, and so have always picked at the earliest date that I find the various components of the grape to be quote-unquote “ripe” – a personal definition, but one that I am happy with.

I found it amusing that the AWRI paper discusses water adds under the heading of “blending.” Adding a “reasonable” amount of water, for one reason or another, is a common practice in winemaking. We just don’t talk much about it.

I was left scratching my head over the mention of glucose oxidase to decrease the level of fermentable sugar in juice or must. I recall reading a few research papers in the 1990s about this, but didn’t think the technology ever made it out of the lab. I honestly don’t know of any winery that uses this enzyme. Nor have I ever come across a commercial preparation for use in wine. So, pace, “natural” wine aficionados.

Fermenter design does make a difference. I prefer to use fermenters with a must depth of 38″ during peak fermentation, regardless of diameter, and seek to achieve peak fermentation temperatures of around 90° F for my red wines. I have empirical evidence that this approach reduces our so-called “conversion ratio” (the percent alcohol immediately after fermentation divided by the Brix before fermentation) by up to 5%.

By contrast, I have found no consistent evidence that yeast selection has any effect on alcohol level. Whether I conduct a ferment without inoculation, or by inoculation with a selected commercial strain, the final alcohol is the same within measurement error. Incidentally, these days I start every fermentation without inoculation. If the initial Brix is high or if the ferment shows evidence of stress, I inoculate with a commercial strain I feel most suited to the variety. In effect, all our ferments are conducted by mixed strains of yeast.

The AWRI paper discusses the most obvious, the most used, and the most discussed (and often reviled) method of alcohol level management: physical removal of alcohol from finished wine by reverse osmosis or vacuum distillation. I have experimented with these methods on a limited basis with mixed—mostly negative—results. My biggest concern with large-scale alcohol removal is that the wine is nearly always rendered “hotter” by the treatment. I speculate that this is due to removal of ethanol at a faster rate than alcohols of three carbons or more by the processes.

The article mentions de-alcoholizing small parcels of wine and blending back. I have had some good results with this approach and I am experimenting with this method on an ongoing basis, because of the next topic discussed in the article: loss of alcohol by evaporation during barrel aging.

In fact, during barrel aging in our cellar the alcohol level of the wine increases by up to 1.2%-1.5% over two years. During barrel aging, the wood of the barrel acts as a semi-permeable membrane. Wine components inside the barrel migrate through the wood at various rates and evaporate from the outside surface. My a priori assumption is that the rates of migration of water and alcohol are dependent on the differences in concentrations between the inside and outside of the barrel.

Let’s say I put a wine to barrel at 13% ABV; this wine is approximately 87% water. In our barrel cellar, the concentration of alcohol in the air is essentially 0%, while the relative humidity averages about 35%. Water leaves the barrel faster than alcohol because 87%-35%=52% is four times greater than 13%-0%=13% (52/13=4); therefore, the thermodynamic drive for water to leave the barrels is 4x the impetus for alcohol to escape.

The AWRI paper discusses how alcohol levels decrease over time when the average relative humidity of the barrel cellar is 70%-90%, but also discusses the negative issue of mold growth in the cellar in this wet environment. Our barrel aging area was not designed to be wet, and we also store cased goods in proximity to our barrels. Humidification of our cellar is not an option.

My intent is to experiment with vacuum distillation of the wine I use to top our barrels. If we decrease the alcohol level of the topping wine, I believe we can slow the rate of alcohol increase in our barrels over time in our dry cellar environment.

John Kelly is the owner and winemaker of Westwood Wines, Sonoma California. This blog was originally published on his blog: “notes from the winemaker” on the 19 July 2012.

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Smooth Operator…

It all started in the mid eighteen hundreds, when a gentleman with the name of Antonin Prandtl, invented the first dairy centrifuge in order to separate cream from milk. At that stage he was working (probably with some sort of butter addiction) for himself and not for Cadbury’s…

The principle was “refined” by Gustaf de Laval in 1879 who demonstrated the first continuous centrifugal separator, making its commercial application feasible. But what exactly is a centrifuge, and how can it add value to the wine industry?

A centrifuge is a piece of equipment which is driven by an electric motor that puts an object or liquid in rotation around a fixed axis, applying a force perpendicular to the axis. The centrifuge works using the sedimentation principle, where the centripetal acceleration causes denser substances (like yeast cells, grape particles, fining agents, etc.) to separate out along the radial direction. By the same token lighter objects (juice or wine in this case) will tend to move to the top. The net result thus, a very efficient separation of solids and wine.

Centrifugation technology has become so advanced over the years that it is considered a superior method for winery solids management and eliminates the need for unnecessary handling of wines and juices (with all its detrimental effects and risks like exposure to oxygen and consequent product losses & quality), e.g. several racking’s and pre-historic filtration actions.

I believe it is important to give compliments where it is due. A very fine piece of technology is the STS family of centrifuges. This is a superior method for optimal wine recovery from grape solids, fermentation lees and fining lees with negligible dissolved oxygen pick-up during the separation process, which was considered the major downside ages ago.

 So what exactly happens? Quite simple: Dirty liquid goes in, it is separated, and crystal clear liquid comes out…and of course solid matter or sludge that has the density of peanut butter at a moisture level of 95%.

In a few conversations with winemakers who use this technology, the following advantages came up: 1) Reduced juice and wine losses, associated with racking, filter aid adsorption, or even or de-sludge actions of older or under-performing centrifuges. 2) Reduced juice and wine quality “downgrades” .This classically happens where existing lees handling processes lead to the loss of quality as a result of oxygen pick up, or contamination, or human error. This of course may lead to a loss of freshness, loss of varietal integrity and character, or even reductive taints from prolonged exposure to lees. 3) Eliminating DE (diatomaceous earth) filtration, principally the lees Filter and Rotary Drum Vacuum filter not only reduce the amount of juice and wine handlings, but is also associated with direct hard savings in reduced DE consumption which also have health and auditing benefits. Occupational Health, Safety and Environment considerations of DE and the ability to proactively demonstrate a major reduction in DE usage in the cellar is an intangible benefit. 4) A key advantage over the older centrifuges is the very low oxygen pick-up, which is as low as 0.02 mg of oxygen per litre of wine. This means the same wine can be centrifuged multiple times during its maturation cycle, without the detrimental effect oxygen may have on particularly white wines. 5) If all the technical benefits are weighed, then it is also a no-brainer to see that the application of this technology also builds a very strong business case, and the immediate effect on the bottom line.

Key applications include clarification of: White juice from recently pressed grapes – cold-settled juice lees – white wines after primary fermentations (including yeast lees) – white wines after bentonite finings (including bentonite lees) – bentonite lees – stuck or sluggish ferments – late harvest and botrytis wines where primary fermentation must be stopped – Red wine after primary ferment (including gross lees) – gross red lees – red wine after malolactic fermentation – wines after cold stabilization – cleaning of wine with in-line cross-flow).

Forgive me if I start to sound like a STS representative… but I am just wondering if all directors or all big cellars know how much money can be saved on the bottom-line if the “optimal” technology or equipment is being used “optimally”…

Bertus Fourie is a winemaker, turned Enology lecturer and creator of the Barista coffee Pinotage.


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Wine Phenols : Nonflavonoids and Flavonoids

Phenolic compounds affect several sensory components of wine, including red wine color, astringency, bitterness, and olfactory profile. Though present at low levels, their concentrations are a primary factor in the differences between wine types and styles. They are also important oxygen reservoirs and substrates for browning reactions.Their concentrations are largely due to processing considerations (for example, flavonoid content increases with increased skin contact time and temperature).

The basic phenol structure is carbolic acid (also known as hydroxybenzene; C6H5OH). Several hundred different phenolic compounds are naturally occurring in grapes, divided into two basic groups referred to as nonflavonoid and flavonoid phenols.

Nonflavonoid Phenols – The phenol content of grape juice is primarily nonflavonoid. For white varietals, nonflavonoids represent the overwhelming majority of finished wines’ phenol content as well. This is due to the fact that the majority of nonflavonoid phenols are sourced naturally from grape pulp: hydoxycinnamate derivatives present as free acids, ethyl esters, and tartrate-glucose esters. Nonflavonoid phenols levels are largely effected by fermentation; up to 20% of total nonflavonoids are absorbed by yeast, and many are hydrolized to free acid and ester forms including free cinnamic acids and ethyl phenols. Phenols arising from oak maturation are primarily hydrolizable nonflavonoids such as vanillin (oak influence on phenol content will be discussed in a following post).

Most nonflavonoids are present below their sensory threshold, though collectively they can have an impact on bitterness and astringency. Some nonflavonoids are also indicators of spoilage; for example, 4-ethyl phenol can be used as an indicator of Brettanomyces.

Flavonoid Phenols -Flavonoids have much more impact on a wine’s structure and color compared to nonflavonoids. They are found in skins, seeds, and stems of both white and red grapes; they represent 25% of total phenol content in white varietals made without skin contact, and represent 80-90% of total phenol content in red wines produced in a traditional manner. Flavonoids can exist in monomeric forms, or polymerized to other flavonoids, nonflavonoids, sugars, or a combination of these. Polymeric flavonoids make up the majority of total phenolics found in all stages of red winemaking; further polymerization yields flavenoid polyphenolic compounds (tannins and condensed tannins).

Catechins account for the majority of white wine flavonoid content (particularly those produced without skin contact), and up to 14% of total red wine phenol content. These are flavon-3-ols; catechins are negatively charged, while epicatechins are positively charged. Catechins and epicatechins are the precursors for browning and bitterness in both white and red wines. They polymerize to create procyanidins (condensed tannins).

Luecoanthocyanidins and luecoanthocyanins serve as precursors to larger polymeric forms (anthocyanins, which will be discussed in a following post). These compounds are very closely related to catechins; luecoanthocyanidins have an additional hydroxyl group, and luecoanythocyanins have an attached sugar molecule. These compounds have minimal effect on a wine’s bitterness, less than flavonols.

Flavonols are primarily found in grape skins, thus their concentrations in wines produced without skin contact are minimal or nonexistent. Quercitin commonly represents the majority of a wine’s flavonol content, though kaempforol and myricetin are also found in significant concentrations. These compounds have some effect on a wine’s bitterness.

Mike Horton, the surfer with a passion for winemaking. The original blog Wine Phenols : Nonflavonoids and Flavonoids was originally posted on his blog: the drifting winemaker.

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