2017 is not going so well for many producers. If you read Cameron’s last blog you‘ll have heard that severe frost affected many parts of France, such as the Languedoc, Bordeaux, Chablis, Jura and Champagne regions. Losses are up to 90% of the harvest to come, which is obviously heartbreaking. England was not spared and some producers suffered significant damage too. It reminded me of the role of reserve wines.
The quality of last year’s harvest was fantastic: A perfect balance of flavours, sugar levels and acidity. The wines were a bit “difficult” to work with, for example, the malolactic fermentation has taken longer than usual. However, at last it has now been completed through all the lots, and whilst we get the wines ready for bottling by fining and stabilising the wines, we have also started to work on the blends. It’s a very exciting moment in the year of a winemaker.
The majority of must/juice from our recent harvest has completed alcoholic fermentation. Now, we wait for our malolactic bacteria culture to be ready, so that we may use it to inoculate all the tanks so that they undergo malolactic fermentation, to soften the acids, which we expect to be completed early in the New Year.
We are often asked why we use commercial yeast rather than just letting indigenous (or native) yeasts naturally do the work. There are various reasons why we use commercial yeast.
Given our increasing crop yields, our four-tonne Coquard grape press was not sufficient to cope with the upcoming harvest, so we ordered a new eight-tonne press to give us sufficient capacity to allow us to process more fruit in a day. In previous harvests, our picking window has been less than two weeks, so with increasing yields over the next few years we’ll continue to grow and add new presses until we have a total of four eight-tonne presses.
The wines from our 2015 harvest have completed their second fermentation in bottle, and we have been put to rest in the cellar for a few years, until the wines develop the fantastic flavours from the yeasts autolysis (fresh bread, brioche, nutty).
Every year the French winemakers organise the Vinalies, which is a professional national tasting that assesses both French and foreign wines. The first rounds of the tasting have each region of France tasting its own products for a pre-selection. Once that selection is done, the final tasting will occur when all winemakers are gathered again, in April, when the pre-selected wines are tasted and rated to pick our favorites, give awards and finally publish a guide.
A recent article in Decanter discussed whether or not to disclose and/or display disgorgement dates on bottles of sparkling wines. I was horrified to read that a Champagne producer thinks “that the recent obsession with disgorgement dates is reducing the winemaking process in Champagne to insignificant numbers which are not understood by most of the people talking about them”. What a way to think about your customers!
As yet another harvest has come to an end, I sit down and reflect on how things went this year, looking for ways to improve the way we process fruit. So far the only thing that I wished had gone better is… the weather! We had poor summer but a great autumn. I think capricious weather, especially here, will always be the challenge of winemakers and viticulturists (Cameron, there is no way you disagree with this!?).
Wednesday, 17th June was a very exciting day at Rathfinny Estate as we bottled roughly 5,600 bottles of our first sparkling wine! We’re not bottling one million bottles a year yet, but that will come faster than we think.
The base wine already had about 11% v/v alcohol, and we added sugar for the second fermentation, which will increase alcohol by 1,5% v/v. A critical factor for this bottling was the preparation of a good yeast culture.
The wines from the 2014 harvest are currently “resting”. After they finished both fermentations (alcoholic and malolactic), they were racked off their lees and transferred into different tanks, along with a slight readjustment of the sulphur level to prevent oxidation and control microbiological activity. The wines were then left to settle even more.
When I take samples, the wines are now already looking clean, there is no more of the typical haze that can be seen just after fermentations. Now is the time for fining trials where I try different fining agents and assess how they affect the wine. The principle of fining is to remove undesirable components of the wine by agglomeration/flocculation and then sedimentation.
In my previous blog, I mentioned that most wines were dry, meaning that all the sugars had been consumed. Well, ALL our lots are now dry. At the time, 6 weeks ago, none of the lots had started the malolactic fermentation – the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid – which gives the wine a “buttery” quality: they are now nearly all through this process as well. The last lot is lagging a bit because it is quite a large volume compared to the already finished lots, but is expected to finish malolactic fermentation this week. Healthy bubbling from the malolactic activity can be seen here:
Things are going according to plan, which means that we’ll be able to rack this final lot off its lees, and let it settle further. In the meantime, we will start fining trials, using different fining agents and assessing the results through laboratory analysis as well as sensory evaluation. This will leave me enough time to spend Christmas in France tasting Champagne. As rigorous analysis is required, this may have to happen every day! I will bring some English sparkling to share with fellow winemakers.
As Will, my assistant during the last three months, is leaving in early January to work the vintage in Australia, I am trying to get things done before he’s gone, because after this I will be on my own again! Will has been very helpful and I wish him all the best in his endeavours in the South Hemisphere – so good luck, and don’t forget to come back!
To all, a Merry Christmas and a Happy (Bubbly) New year!
Jonathan Médard – Winemaker
We harvested some nice Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc grapes and we successfully commissioned our 4 tonne Coquard press with “whole clusters”. The juice came out quite clear, as expected.
The juice was transferred by gravity to settling tanks, where we let it settle for about 24 hours. After this, the juice was racked off its lees into a tank where it was inoculated with selected yeast.
Since then, the winery has been filled with the nice—or I should say exquisite—smell of fermenting juice.
The temperature control system has proven efficient, which means that we were able to keep the fermenting wine at a constant temperature to allow for a steady fermentation. Remember, during the alcoholic fermentation, yeast metabolise sugars and convert them into alcohol and CO2, as well as energy, in the form of heat. Left unmanaged, the temperature can get to a level that is lethal to yeast. We were able to control the temperature of the fermentation in the tanks. Here you can see the foam from healthy yeast activity:
About half of the wine lots are now technically “dry”, which means that all the sugars have been consumed. The other half is getting close, but they will need another couple of days.
The dry wines are now kept at just over 20°C in order to promote lactic bacteria, which will then initiate the malolactic fermentation, during which malic acid will be converted into lactic acid. While yeast can ferment at low temperatures, around 12°C, bacteria need a warmer environment to thrive, between 20°C and 25°C. This is when being able to keep tanks warm is VERY useful.
I’m now closely monitoring the decrease in malic acid concentration in the wines. Once the concentration is down to zero, we’ll put the wines to “sleep” and start the process of clarifying/fining and stabilizing – this will likely happen mid-December.
We’ll keep you posted on the progress!
Jonathan Médard – Winemaker
Harvest is just around the corner: we anticipate our first grapes within about 3 weeks. A large part of harvest preparation is about cleaning: anything that can or will get in contact with the grapes and the wine needs a very thorough cleaning regime. The tanks have to be spotless inside and out to prevent any form of contamination, and the same applies to pumps, hoses and all connections and fittings, as well as both presses. This reminds me that I need to inventory stock to ensure I still have plenty of cleaning agents on hand. The below press is ready to go, it’s been thoroughly cleaned and mechanically tested to ensure that the bladder retains pressure as it should.
Another part of harvest preparation is to make sure that all winemaking supplies are in, or on order: yeasts (for those who inoculate their must/juice, like I do), nutrients, miscellaneous agents (for example, I might use enzymes to clarify the must prior to fermentation, and/or other agents to clarify the wine after fermentation). This year we’ll be harvesting from blocks with low yields so we placed the odd order for some small tanks so we can work each lot separately. Unfortunately, these tanks come with fittings that require retrofitting to be compatible with our existing pipework: the new fittings are 1 inch (everything else is 2 inches), and are BSP, British Standard Pipe (everything else is in SMS, which is a standard used in the Swedish dairy industry, or in DIN, widely used in Germany). With new adapters and reducers there is going to be plenty to connect. Fortunately I excelled at playing with Meccano as a kid!
The lab is set-up, but needs to be fully commissioned prior to receiving fruit. We’ll run some analysis to make sure all equipment is calibrated and functions properly, and that we get consistent, precise, and accurate results whomever the operator is. That is a crucial point, because decisions during harvest need to be taken fast based on these results.
Even with all the time in the world to prepare for harvest, unpredictable things can and do occur. There’s always the fear that something’s missing, and I’ve been known to pop out of bed in the middle of the night with thoughts of fittings, cleaning agents, additives, and, yes, even sponges. It all adds to the mania and excitement of harvest. So, bring it on 2015, let’s see what you’ve got.
Jonathan Médard – Winemaker
A few days ago I was admiring a very nice glass that just got filled with sparkling wine. There were lots of steady trains of bubbles, the bubbles were quite fine (small), and they created a very pretty ring that lingered all around the surface of the liquid, in contact with the wall of the glass. In fact, it was a very good case study.
Whatever the method is of getting bubbles in wine, this is the simple principle of effervescence: carbon dioxide, or CO2, is dissolved (trapped) in the liquid. In sparkling wines, the liquid is “over saturated” in/with CO2, creating pressure as the bottle is sealed. The pressure inside a bottle of sparkling can reach 8 bars. The lower the temperature of the liquid, the more soluble the CO2 is. This is one reason why, in addition to make it more pleasant to taste, one might want to keep sparkling wine at cold temperature prior to drinking, so the CO2 does not escape too fast, causing the wine to become “flat” within minutes.
The life cycle of a bubble is as follows: nucleation (birth), ascension and growth, burst (death). Bubbles appear on an immersed particle in the glass, usually dust or fibre residues (from a drying towel), or on a rough surface, like a scratch. Then they rise to the surface of the wine, loading themselves on the way up with more CO2. That’s why bubbles increase in size in their ascent. The composition of the wine affects the bubbles as well, and how the mousse, or foam, on top of the surface behaves. For example, tensio-active molecules, such as proteins, stabilise the gas/liquid interface of the bubbles.
As they eventually burst, they project minuscule droplets that disperse the aromas of the wine. It is important that the wine is poured properly, gently and with the glass inclined to avoid excessive CO2 loss. The glass itself is also very important. Sometimes we hear people complain that a sparkling wine is not fizzy enough, when it’s only a problem with the glass. As a reminder, glasses should be washed with hot water, using as little detergent (if any at all) as possible, thoroughly rinsed with very hot water and left head down to dry. It is likely one will use a towel to get rid of watermarks, and that’s fine. As for the shape of the glass, I recommend quite tall, and not too open on top, so aromas can concentrate and not be dispersed as soon as bubbles burst. Martini-style glasses to be avoided at all costs!
After all this attention, you’ll be able to get more out of the wine, and you’ll enjoy it even more.
Jonathan Médard – Winemaker