The Life of a Winemaker

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barrel

a peek inside this season’s winemaking processes
BY BETH MAXEY
PHOTOS BY CAROLE TOPALIAN

 

I have sold wine, studied wine varieties, written about wine, and, perhaps obviously, drunk a bunch of it. I thought I knew the wine-making process. In late summer, the grapes are harvested. After that, the grapes are crushed. Fall brings the press, and fermentation continues as winter sets in. But what happens in the spring? My first guess was vacation for the winemakers, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I spoke with Kit Singh, winemaker at Lauren Ashton Cellars in Woodinville. The way he describes it, springtime is as busy—if not more so—than the other seasons. Before our conversation, I’d imagined the springtime winery was chilly and calm and full of quietly resting barrels. Kit’s winery seemed like a bustling commercial kitchen combined with a chemistry lab. “Every winery is a little different,” Kit said, “but the big thing that happens in spring is bottling, and getting wines ready for bottling. The important part is making sure the wines are totally dry and stable.”

 

The first fermentation begins as soon as the grapes are crushed, in the fall. At Lauren Ashton Cellars, the secondary, or malolactic, fermentation often happens in the spring, when temperatures rise and the wine warms. These warmer temperatures help to get fermentation going again.

 

“Sometimes for the malolactic fermentation we have to inoculate the wine with yeast,” Kit said, “other times there is a native strain. In either case, the goal is to ferment out all of the sugar in the wine so that fermentation is complete and the wine does not continue to ferment and change in the bottle.”

When Kit said this, I remembered the times I’d tasted a slight fizz in a wine that was not meant to be bubbly. My reference books taught me that these bubbles were caused by an error in the malolactic fermentation: too much sugar left for the yeast to ferment after the cork was already in the bottle.

“So what happens after the malolactic fermentation?” I asked.

“Racking,” Kit said. “After fermentation, yeasts and grape solids are in solution in the young wine. Over the winter and early spring these solids settle down to the bottom of the barrel or the tank. Racking is the process of removing these solids and other impurities in preparation for bottling–or in the case of some reds—preparation for an extra year of age in the barrel. But you have to be careful. With each racking the wine is exposed to oxygen, which changes its profile.”

 

I figured bottling was the last step after racking, but again I was wrong. Kit said, “After racking there is fining and filtering to continue to clarify and stabilize the wine. Then in the late spring, when that is finished, we put the wine in bottles.”

 

I was curious if this process was different for reds and whites, and Kit elaborated. “There is always something happening. This spring [2013], we are bottling our 2010 reds, which have spent a year in the barrel. We are preparing our 2011 reds for a year of barrel age, and we are fining, filtering and bottling 2012’s whites.”

I knew what fining and filtering were supposed to achieve—a clear, stable wine with minimal sediment—but I’ve never known what exactly happened. “What do these stages actually look like?” I asked.

“There are a number of different processes of fining and filtering. Take cold and heat stabilization for example,” he said. I had to interrupt him here—cold stabilization? What was that? “Well,” he said, “After the yeast and the sediment have been racked out of the wine, there are still proteins and acids that need to be removed. Tartaric acid for example. Have you ever looked into your wine and seen a crystalline sediment that looks like shards of glass?” I remembered peering at crystals in the bottom of a cold glass of Roussanne and knew immediately what he was talking about.

“That’s tartaric acid,” he continued. Kit’s background is in chemistry, and as he walked me through the process, it showed. “In cold environments—like your refrigerator—the tartaric acid combines with calcium in the wine, forms that crystal, and precipitates to the bottom of your bottle or glass. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the wine, and actually tartaric acid has some important roles in the winemaking process, but we don’t want it crystalizing in the glass. So before bottling in the spring, we chill the wine to -2 degrees for a few weeks and collect the crystals in the tank.” OK, then. We’re firmly in chemistry classroom territory, so I went ahead and asked, “What can you tell me about heat stabilization?”

 

“All wines have naturally occurring proteins,” Kit said. “They come from the grapes. Think of an egg. What happens when you cook it? “It becomes solid,” I ventured. Right,” Kit said. “The same things happen with wine. If the wine gets exposed to heat, the proteins coagulate and the wine becomes hazy. Sometimes this will happen if a wine spends too much time in a hot car. So we perform a similar process. Before bottling we carefully raise the temperature on the wine so that any protein coagulates. Then we filter it out. You can think of it as clarifying a stock.”

 

All of a sudden what seemed like a complicated process was clear. Just like a chicken stock, wine needed to be strained of the solids before it’s ready for use. The more carefully it’s strained, the better the final product—assuming that good chicken and flavorful aromatics were used to make it. With the stock analogy clear in my mind, I asked, “And then you bottle?”

“Yes, we bottle after fining and filtering,” Kit said, with what sounded like relief. “By the time the wine gets in the bottle it will be delicious, stable, and ready to cellar for years.” And then, of course, the winemakers move on to the next vintage.

 

Spring Barrel Tastings

The Columbia Gorge Winegrowers offers a spring passport weekend that includes barrel tastings.
columbiagorgewine.com

The Yakima Valley AVA hosts a spring barrel tasting event at the end of April.
wineyakimavalley.org

Walla Walla, Wenatchee and Lake Chelan AVAs host theirs on weekends in May.
wallawallawine.com | wenatcheewines.com | lakechelanwinevalley.com

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