We are getting ready for harvest: all winemaking supplies are in and we have started to go through a thorough cleaning of the winery as we do every year.
At the same time, what we used to call the “on-lees storage”, the part of the winery that was dedicated to storing the ageing bottles from previous vintages, has been removed. The temporary walls have been taken down so now the whole ground floor of the winery is again one large open space. We also need to remove the very large AC unit, which used to cool down that space.
We just bottled our 2016 sparkling wines, around 43,000 bottles and 3,200 magnums. Until this year we had been bottling at 2,500 bottles per hour, which worked fine for smaller production. We are now starting to get volumes of wine that require higher speed for bottling and this is the kind of equipment we have been looking at for when the time comes to purchase.
After unexpected delays, as our bottle supplier ran out of bottles, we’re finally getting ready to cold stabilize our wines prior to bottling in July. This year, we decided to ask a contractor from France to come with an electro-dialysis unit. We wanted to see how it works and familiarize ourselves with it before we actually purchase one, hopefully in early 2018, so we can treat the 2017 wines prior to bottling.
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