Wednesday, August 11, 2010

One Romance (24)

Jim’s phone call was expected. In fact, Nick was praying for it. He wanted so much to get his first commercial fermentation started.

“Nick, we are picking Gewurztraminer today. You can get it late this afternoon.”

“I’ll be there at about 5. Ok?”

Jim gave the green light for a 5 pm pick, provided of course that everything went well and no massive non-forecasted rainfall swept in.

Of the Vitis vinifera varieties, Gewurztraminer is among the extra sensitive to a Finger Lakes volatile winter; it is also among the early maturing varieties in the region. The variety is not known in the region for low pH and high acidity, and if you wait only briefly after the crop matures, the pH can shoot up and the acidity plummet, a case for flabby wine.

In the good old days, when the large wineries ran the vineyards, they trained local growers to pick grapes at what the winery considered optimum Brix (sugar) levels for each variety. This mindset is fine for producing wines with no particular depth of character and no particular reason to be anything more than quaffers, but it is not a useful way to deal with the desire to produce premium wines that make a singular, personal statement about the variety’s characteristics. For that, you need to develop the experience to analyze all the numerical stats for sugar, acid and alkalinity plus, you need to develop a palate for analyzing the future wine possibilities of a few clusters of grapes pulled off the vine and crushed into juice—the samples that provide you with a taste of maturity.

Not only is the aroma of fermenting Gewurztraminer among the most pleasantly heady of grape fermentations, the taste of mature Gewurztraminer grapes is a delightful simulation of sweet ginger. Being among the most educated and dedicated of grape growers in the region, Jim spent many years as vineyard manager for one of the local large wineries and he also operated with his wife his own vineyards that they used in their business to supply home winemakers with products.

When Nick realized his financial straits prevented him from making an initial investment in a good bladder press, he made a deal with Jim to contract grapes from him and then to pay a pressing fee; Jim had the latest in bladder press technology for his business. It was a fine arrangement, as Nick had no plans to produce red wine, which, unlike white wine, was pressed after fermentation.

That afternoon, Nick closed the tasting room a little early and drove his 2-ton pick up to Jim’s place, which was almost directly across the lake from him, but of course he could not get to it in a straight line. With the truck bed empty, he made the trip in about 25 minutes; with the bed full, the trip back took a little over an hour, as Nick usually maxed out the truck’s capacity on the juice runs, and that made for one of the rare times when he drove both carefully and slowly. On this trip, he would pick up 500 gallons of juice, which is about 2 tons in weight, so he emptied the truck of anything that was unnecessary, checked tire pressure, threw in a few small plastic receptacles to augment the two 250-gallon tanks, in case there was excess juice and made off at 4:30 for what would be his first commercial wine.

When he arrived at Jim’s place, he was told he’d have to wait in line. He hadn’t gotten to Nick’s Gewurztraminer yet, but was just ready to get it going after it had been crushed and sat on the skins for a little while to absorb its spicy characteristics.

Jim shot the juice with 30 parts per million of sulfur dioxide and then pumped it into Nick’s 250 gallon tanks as well as one of the plastic receptacles that accepted the excess and handed Nick the final stats for the juice plus a bill for $2500 to cover the cost of grapes and a fee for pressing. The juice was at 21 Brix (21% sugar by weight), .75% total acidity (by weight), and measured 3.4 on the pH scale (approaching the high side, but within the acceptable range of relative alkalinity for wine and its long-term stability).

The juice tasted exactly like Nick expected—ginger ale without the fizz. He knew that the pH might rise and the acid might fall some during the winemaking process, but only slightly. He also knew that he would have to add sugar to the fermenting juice, so that he could increase the potential alcohol to offset the relative softness of the higher pH then, say, regional Riesling, which usually hovered in the 3.2 range. He kept a bag of Dominoes on call for these times. His plan was to increase the Brix to 24 and shoot for 13% alcohol in the finished wine. To do that, and to retain the wine’s spicy fruit character, he would need to select the proper cultured yeast. He decided on Steinberg yeast for its ability to draw out aromas by fermenting slowly and to dryness. The yeast does well at cool fermenting temperatures, which led Nick to open the winery doors in the evening to let more cool air brush the sides of the stainless tanks. Having no coil refrigeration for his small tanks, he cooled them during the day with frequent applications of cold water from a hose.

One afternoon, while waiting for customers to find his tasting room, Nick sniffed a most delicate, pleasing aroma that emanated from his small winery. He walked over to the winery where the Gewurztraminer was still fermenting, taking in the wonderful aroma as he came closer and it became stronger. He grabbed one of the many step-ladders he kept around the place, climbed to the top of the fermentation tank, opened the top door and stuck his head into the fermentation tank. Initially, he was greeted with a marvelous intense aroma of rose petals that was quickly followed by a blast of carbon dioxide that nearly knocked him off the ladder. He made a note to never do that again…

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.


Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2010. All rights reserved.

2 comments:

Marcia Macomber said...

Oh, I loved it! Loved the detail of the press and winemaking choices made by Nick.

Science, math, chemistry... all that stuff thoroughly eluded me all through school. But I'm hoping I'll start connecting the dots (or synaptic jumps) with the winemaking process. This year's harvest should make for a lot of interesting science lessons with the extra cool weather... We'll see who really knows their stuff with the low alcohol levels we'll be seeing....

Looking forward to the next installment of 'As Nick's World Turns' er 'Ferments.'

Thomas said...

Marcia,

In my book, anything that brings down the jet fuel alcohol level of Napa wines is a good thing...

Here, we are afraid that the heat sensitive Riesling crop will react badly to what is among the hottest summers for our region. But red wines should do well this year.