By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Regional Editor
The combination of my three previous years’ experience making wine at home and this year’s epic growing season has created incredibly high expectations for my personal 2010 wines. No longer am I content to just make a wine that is “not bad.” Once again I'm getting pristine fruit from some of the Niagara region's best vineyards and I have no excuse not to make wine just as good if not better than the pros. This season I’m sticking to grapes that I know and love: pinot noir and cabernet franc.
Leading off this year’s lineup is my most fanatical and gratuitous home winemaking effort to date. Inspired by the barrel of pinot noir I made in 2008, I’m having a go at making a barrel of pinot noir with a friend again. The idea for this wine was to source grapes from a vineyard we’ve both worked with on the upper slope of the Escarpment that would ultimately yield small grapes with thick skins.
Our main concern was finding ripe fruit that still had enough acidity to provide the backbone for a Burgundian-style pinot so we could avoid adding tartaric acid in the winery for stability. We also wanted to use the term terroir as much as could so we planned on letting it spontaneously ferment with native or wild yeasts. We also looked to keep the fermentation temperature below 80º F to reduce extraction and prolong the duration of its fermentation.
The fruit came in at 22.2 brix with a 3.25 pH and a TA (total acidity) of 6.75. Since other blocks from the same site came in at 24 brix with lower TA we were actually excited to have those sugar levels. We de-stemmed the grapes without the crushing mechanism installed and pumped them into a large bin. After a three day dry-ice cold soak we let the must warm up naturally.
Having never successfully achieved a spontaneous ferment with anything but apple cider we were quite nervous, but after five days or so it got going and fermented all the way without any problems. I tasted the pressed juice this past weekend and was pretty excited by what it’s showing already.
Being the undeniable cabernet franc junky that I am, there was never any doubt that I was going to make as much as I could fit into my containers. This year I opted to use a 120-quart cooler to ferment my Escarpment-sourced cab franc, for three primary reasons. First I like the idea of its ability to retain the heat generated during fermentation. My goal was to max out at about 28º C to get decent extraction of color and tannin from the skins. Secondly I would rather use a shallow vessel so the cap (skins) has maximum contact with the juice between punchdowns. And finally, I appreciate the fact that I can move a cooler around easily and can use it the other 10 months out of the year when I’m not making wine.
Since I was so impressed with the wild ferment of my pinot noir I simply added juice from the pinot to the cab franc and warmed the must up by adding two growlers full of hot water into the must. How did I know this was going to do the trick? I didn’t. I just knew that by not adding meta-bisulphate to the must I didn’t have a long window of when it could just sit around and not be actively fermenting before it would start oxidizing or initiating some sort of spoilage.
The growler method worked like a charm (see photo to the right). Within hours, there was biological activity directly around the warm containers. In the bottom half of the photo you can see that the cap is already pushed up as early as the next morning.
To me, making cab franc in the Niagara Region just isn’t exciting unless I can compare Lakeshore grapes with Escarpment grapes, so I was eager to get my hands on some fruit from my neighbors at Schulze Vineyards. I’m familiar with their philosophy of long, cool ferments and thought it would be fun to do just the opposite.
For this project I enlisted my trusty $40, food-grade garbage can as the fermentation vessel. Its drawback is that since it is more cylindrical in shape, there is reduced amount of skins constantly in contact with the juice, making it harder to max out extraction. The benefit of this glorified trash can is that I can wrap a heating blanket around it to bring up the temp to exactly what I need to.
Since these were machine-harvested grapes there was an added step in this ferment as I was picking out stems and leaves throughout the initial overnight cold soak and first few days of fermentation. Luckily by the time my year-old son decided to crank up the heat to medium without me noticing, most of the greenery was already pulled out when the ferment hit a yeast-killing 34º C (93º F).
According to my hydrometer, the instrument used to measure sugar percentage in must, I lost about 10 brix in one day. Not as originally planned, but it did work towards maximizing extraction. Since that reading I removed the blanket completely and it is now in the mid 60s F (around 18º C) and slowly finishing fermentation.
So, yeah, I’ve been somewhat obsessive this year with two parts of my home winemaking: I’m looking to control fermentation temperatures as much as I can to either maximize or minimize extractions and I want to only use wild yeast ferments when possible. So far I’ve been pretty satisfied with achieving both of these with my 2010 vintage.
Winemaking is a long process, though, and I’ve learned in the past with wine that ultimately resembled tortilla chips in taste that meticulous methods need to be followed through all the way until it’s in the bottle.