A Time to Reflect
It’s a bitter cold evening here in Montreal, Quebec where the temperature is hovering around –23 ºC (–10 ºF) and probably closer to where the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales meet at –40º with the howling windchill. It sure is a good time to sit by the fireplace and sip some fine wine, and contemplate this past harvest and winemaking season—a time to ponder what went well and what didn’t go so well.
But as I reflect on problems, I’m reminded of the top Google search phrases driving traffic to my website: winemaking troubleshooting and winemaking problems.
This is not atypical or unusual; it is, however, unsettling to read about some of the problems amateurs run into. Some are basic, some are perplexing, and others simply mind-boggling. In this day and age of easy access to vast amounts of information and expert knowledge, I’m still surprised by the types of problems encountered. So I’ve compiled a short list of the most common ones I have advised on along with some recommendations to help you avoid these come the next vintage.
The #1 problem—or rather, the #1 root cause—is the quality of the raw material. Symptoms include poor color, high pH, poor balance, atypical varietal character, high hydrogen sulfide levels, and oily film on the wine surface. All too often amateur winemakers buy grapes or juice without exercising due diligence.
First, know your supplier and ask questions, many questions. Where was the raw material sourced from? What was the growing season like? What about harvest conditions? How were the vines and grapes treated and how close was harvest to that last sulfur-spray treatment?
A reputable supplier should be able to enthusiastically answer such questions. I’m seeing far too many problems caused from grapes being harvested too close to a spray treatment or from grapes that have been oversprayed. The result is high hydrogen sulfide problems which compound as you add more sulfite at the crusher and by yeast fermentation.
Know your grapes. If you are buying Pinot Noir, you should know what Pinot Noir grapes look like. Examine the color, the skin (thickness), berry size, and the general quality of the fruit; for example, Pinot Noir has thin, light-colored skin whereas Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah are darker colored with thicker skin. And avoid grapes with oversized berries—this is a sign of high yield and lower quality, and most likely a higher than usual water content. Reject any fruit or juice that does not meet your quality criteria. Do expect to pay a premium for top-notch fruit.
As for pH, good suppliers will have these numbers for grapes and it should be standard for juice. And keep in mind that a high pH, i.e. 3.8 or more, will translate into more problems including poor color, poor overall wine stability with a much higher risk of microbial spoilage.
And don’t be shy to taste a few berries to get a feel of the taste and to see if there are any clues of off-flavors or lack of balance, such as excessively high acidity. Remember: The better the balance in the grapes, the least interventions you will need during your winemaking.
And this brings us to problem #2. BALANCE, or lack thereof. Learn all you can about balance, i.e. the interplay of alcohol, acidity, tannins (bitterness and astringency), and residual sugar, and learn how to make adjustments to achieve balance. Often, you end up with a wine without the balance you had hoped and then feel dejected. It is often easy to fix minor imbalances though many shy away from, for example, adding just a touch of sugar to balance that bracing acidity in a red wine. There’s nothing wrong with a red wine that isn’t completely dry, and so adding a little sugar can do wonders. Similarly with overly tannic reds, try reducing acidity if it is too high, try gum arabic or a PVPP treatment to soften those tannins. And try unconventional blends—don’t restrict yourself to known blends; after all, this is home winemaking and there are no bounds to your creativity, especially when it comes to fixing problems.
Third, maintain a nominal free SO2 level throughout winemaking. This means you need to measure and adjust your free SO2 level at critical control points such as following alcoholic fermentation, after malolactic fermentation, racking operations, and every so often, say every 3 months, during aging, and at bottling. For a typical wine, this usually means a nominal level between 25 and 40 mg/L (ppm). I’m still seeing too many wines with too little or way too much sulfite. Use the Sulfite Calculator at www.winemakermag.com/guide/sulfite to determine your sulfite additions based on pH.
Fourth, keep meticulous records of all winemaking activities. Record additions of any ingredients, racking operations, and any other procedures along with the date and measurements you take. If you run into a problem down the road, you can usually identify potential root causes by looking back at your records. However simple this sounds, many home winemakers (as I have seen professional winemakers) still fail to keep good records, and then have no clue as to the root cause of a problem they run into two or three years down the road.
Last, but not least, do not rush your winemaking. This is an exciting hobby and we all become eager to get that “fantastic” batch of homemade wine out to show friends and family. But this hobby requires patience—lots of patience—and time, and a heavy dose of tlc (tender loving care). You have to give those aroma and flavor compounds in wine a chance to coalesce into something bigger and better. Give it time and you will no doubt be rewarded. But do taste the wine throughout winemaking and aging to assess quality, varietal character, and overall evolution.
Well, I’ve finished my bottle of Sherry—and what I believe is the best wine to have by the fire on a cold Montreal evening—and so I’ll defer to my next blog to point out other common problems I often encounter in my consultation work.
Until then, review the completeness of your records and update as required, check your free SO2 levels and adjust accordingly, and taste, taste, taste. And enjoy!