The Art of Winemaking

Which of these winemakers is you? Or more appropriately, which of these two scenes, in all likelihood, got you interested in making your own wine?

As the fading sunlight gilds the haze on the Provencal hillsides, the peasant trudges the last stone steps to the medieval village, bent under the weight of an old wooden lug loaded with ripe grapes. Scents of lavender and rosemary fill the air, and the bees hover excitedly over the vat as the last of the harvest is dumped in and fermentation begins. With the help of le bon Dieu, the vintage will be rich and flavorful, with aromas of herbs and fruit and the age-old flavors of vineyards hand-tended for centuries. The winemaker will lay the wine in the vat as long as his father showed him; the pressing will come no sooner and no later. Further rackings and even bottling will be determined by his own taste and the cycles of the moon. With luck, in a year or two, the bottled history of this vintage will warm a winter’s night and make all the labor worthwhile.

Across the valley, the same evening, a truck pulls the last gondola of grapes from miles away and dumps it into the massive stainless steel stemmer-crusher of the cooperative winery. Inside the control room, the white-coated oenologist flips the switch that starts the machinery. The destemmed, crushed grapes are pumped into the 20,000-gallon cement tank numbered 64, sulfite gas is administered, the sugar level and pH are recorded, and yeast culture is introduced. The automatic temperature sensor that will start the coolant through the coils is turned on, and fermentation begins. With a detached, clinical manner, the oenologist will bring the wine along, pressing, racking, and bottling precisely by scientific tests and chemical analyses. With no luck at all needed, 50,000 cases of decent if unexciting wine will be available for sale within six months.

Clearly the second scenario is far less romantic than the first and perhaps goes against the “spirit” of winemaking for many home winemakers, yet it must be acknowledged with gratitude that due to better understanding of the sciences of viticulture and fermentation, there is more quality wine available today than ever before. While you might like one wine more than another, it is increasingly difficult to buy a really lousy bottle of commercial wine.

Technical Quality Vs. Stylistic Freedom

This technological insurance comes with a costly premium: there could be a loss of individuality and personality in the wine itself. The commercial winemaker can’t afford to take too many liberties with the finished flavor of the wine; there is too much money at stake. They have to appeal to their mass audience.

One reason to be excited about becoming proficient at making wine at home is that the home winemaker gets to pull (or not pull) any and all of the strings. In this sense, you are more free to experiment and indulge the artistic side of winemaking than the commercial winemaker. As long as the basic scientific assumptions of fermentation control and equipment cleanliness are applied, you are free to try various techniques to affect the finished wine in ways that make it more what it should be at its best or to reflect individual taste. If you like red wines that are hard-edged with tannin and require five years to be drinkable — rather than a soft, fruity red that is over the hill at two years, you are free to choose methods that produce what you want.

One caution: If you follow scientific procedures such as those laid down by University of California, Davis, or other oenological school, you will get wine — not window cleaner — for your efforts. Therefore, it is imperative to make a few batches by the book to master the basic steps of fermenting, temperature, racking, clarification, stabilization, sanitization, and bottling. These instructional batches will be good and reward you with many glasses of reinforcement to go on. They are the precursor to subtly trying steps to personalize the wine.

In fact many home winemakers might find that they are satisfied at this stage and will simply go on reproducing the same wines. This is not a wrong thing to do. It might be limiting in that you might be able to make even better wine by experimenting. When experimenting, just be clean and careful, and do it in small increments, so that the whole vintage doesn’t end up going down the drain if your “inspiration” turns out to be a recipe for disaster!

Early Adjustments

There are several ways the winemaker can vary procedures to alter results. The experiments are meant to be fun, not limiting. The examples mainly refer to wine grapes, but there is no reason that the same variations can’t be tried with fresh fruit wines or grape concentrates.

Some years ago, winemaking supply shops were able to offer a surprisingly varied group of recipes that took grape concentrates and enhanced them with dried fruits, flower petals, and other ingredients to make wines that more closely resembled specific wine types from around the world. This was not done by varying scientific fermentation. It was done by tasting a number of wines from the area in question and arriving at additional ingredients, sugar levels, acidities, and the like to make, for example, a Cabernet concentrate taste more precisely like a Cabernet-based wine from Bordeaux. If a Mosel tasted like apples, why not add a little apple concentrate and use more malic acid (the major acid in apples)? If you choose to not limit yourself to fresh grape wines, there is actually a little more leeway for indulging your creative spirit, sometimes with surprisingly rewarding results.

Sweet Tooth

First and foremost, the winemaker adjusts (or not) the original sugar level and total acidity. Higher sugar levels mean more alcohol and possibly some unfermented sugar in the finished wine; too high, and the wine might not ferment at all. However, if the grapes were picked too soon, additional sugar might be necessary to achieve a better alcohol level. On the other hand, high-sugar musts might have to be diluted a little with acidulated water to lower sugar. It might reduce flavor intensity a tad, but at least the wine will ferment — and you get a few extra bottles.

Low-sugar red musts can be intensified by “bleeding” (racking some of the juice off before fermentation) to make a rose, with the remaining wine intensified by having a higher ratio of skins and pulp to the liquid itself. This also lets you make two wines from the same grapes, without considering the possibility of making “false” wine from the pressed skins.

Some commercial winemakers have become interested in harvesting grapes by flavor alone, without testing sugar, acidity, or pH. While this is certainly daring, and the ability to taste a variety of flavors in 25 percent sugar juice is admirable, the beginner might feel safer doing the tests. On the other hand, peasant winemakers have successfully used such non-scientific guesswork for centuries, so if you feel confident, such artistic methods could produce interesting results.

After a few batches, you will acquire a feel for the ideal sugar parameters for the type of wine being produced. Thus, Lodi (California) Zinfandel can hang together at 14.5 percent alcohol, but a North Coast Chardonnay will taste “hot” and oily at such a level. Wines designed for earlier maturity might be better at 1 percent lower alcohol than the blockbuster you’re saving for Thanksgiving 2005.

Acids and Beyond

Similarly, acidity can be raised by adding acids (normally tartaric, although a blend of tartaric, malic, and citric is also used) to make a firmer wine, or to avoid oxidation and off-flavors associated with low-acid musts. Dilution with sugar water will reduce acidity, as will the use of chalk or proprietary acid-reduction products (although these must be used cautiously to avoid residual flavors). A Riesling-type wine with a little unfermented sugar will have better definition if the acid is slightly higher, for example, while a Beaujolais-type red for early bottling will be more attractive with “softer,” lower acidity.

It is also a matter of what tastes good to the winemaker. One useful method is to get an acid titration set and test several commercial wines that you enjoy; this will provide an excellent guideline for making similar wines. Acidity can also be masked and the wine made more round in flavor and possibly more varietally intense by saving some of the unfermented juice as sweet reserve. This unfermented juice is clarified, refrigerated, and then blended back into the wine before bottling, either by percentage or by taste. German-style Rieslings are a common example of this practice. But be sure to stabilize the wine by sterile filtration or the use of potassium sorbate to safely avoid refermentation in the bottle.

Most winemakers believe that using different strains of wine yeast can produce subtle differences in the finished wine. Thus, a Bordeaux-type yeast such as Pasteur Red might produce claret-like firmness of flavor in Cabernet-type wines, while a Beaujolais yeast might help make a Zinfandel forward, fruity, and ready to drink at an earlier age.

The only way to find out for yourself is to ferment separate batches of the same must and compare the flavor. Then decide if the difference is noticeable, or even worth it. A new trend in commercial winemaking in California (and a practice common in Europe for centuries) is to let the grapes ferment with the wild yeasts that form the powdery bloom on the grapes themselves. While this can result in good wine, there is some risk of fostering strains that have adverse characteristics such as shutting down before all the sugar is converted to alcohol. It is wise to monitor such fermentations closely and have some yeast energizer and wine yeast ready for emergency addition.

The home winemaker is also freer to blend grape varieties in most cases, or to blend finished wines, than is the commercial winemaker who must abide by the winery’s marketing requirements and legal regulations about varietal content. If you are using the typical Central Valley (California) grapes shipped for home winemaking, you can use some very interesting blends. The result is a wine that is better than any of its components separately. Thus home winemakers were making delicious Rhône-style blends for years before the commercial “Rhône Ranger” wines appeared.

Another consideration is how long to leave the wine before pressing in the case of reds or racking off the lees for whites. Longer skin contact produces a more tannic wine, and one of deeper color (although some color seems to be reabsorbed by the skins as fermentation slows). Long contact must be monitored closely, because the protective blanket of CO2 dissipates as fermentation stops, and the risk of volatile acidity (vinegar) increases.

If you use low levels or no SO2, you need to carefully sample the wine and ensure that VA does not become a problem. A little VA can add complexity and liven up the aromatic qualities of the wine, but a lot is undesirable unless you are planning numerous Caesar salads. Some white wines develop an attractive creaminess by extended lees aging (especially Chardonnay), to the point that some winemakers even stir the lees during aging. Other wines such as Riesling are more desirable crisp and fresh, so earlier racking is the norm.

More frequent rackings will introduce more oxygen, meaning the wines will mature more quickly — although not necessarily more ideally. Some winemakers even feel that it is better to rack wines according to lunar phases, since they believe lunar gravitational influence can affect the compactness of the lees. A balance between usefulness and mere whimsy must be struck, and that is another place where the artistic side comes into play. Whatever works to your satisfaction is the way to satisfy your artistic side.

More Experiments

Using barrels and oak chips in aging wines is especially important. Although small barrels can be a lot of trouble to use properly, nothing else might do for a wine — especially a red wine — what a barrel does. Some winemakers feel that the risks associated with small cooperage are worth the effort. A safer route is using oak chips or extracts made from them to add at least some of the flavors of barrel aging, if not the softening effects a barrel has. The use of oak chips is considered by some to be a less satisfactory route. Large-scale home winemakers might want to experiment with different types of oak barrels (such as Limousin, Troncais, Nevers, American, American oak aged and hewn like French, and various levels of toasting on the wood for flavor). Unfortunately, there are few smaller barrels available that are not basic American oak, so the smaller-scale winemaker might be out of luck in this area.

Other cellar practices to experiment with are fining (and the many types of finings available for clarification), filtration (although small filters that can be reliably used are expensive), and varying bottling times. A rich Cabernet could be aged a year or two (or longer) before bottling, while a lighter Rhône-styled red might be bottled at three months. Whites are generally better for earlier bottling. The joy is in experimentation.

A few other procedures to examine in varying one’s style are sweetening and stabilization, the use of malolactic fermentation or not for stability in reds and creaminess in whites, fortification to increase alcohol, aging at high temperatures to produce Madeira-type wines, and varying fermentation temperature. For adventurous home winemakers who own CO2 tanks, trying the closed fermentation method used in Beaujolais and some Rhône wines called carbonic maceration (fermentation within the grape itself) might help produce a fruitier, early-maturing red wine, although varietal intensity tends to vanish into a more generic grapey aroma.

Ground Rules

A good method when determining an experimentation starting point is to taste and study wines you like and how they are made and to talk with winemakers. If you know how the archetype is produced, you can channel your experimentation to imitate, or even exceed, the original. The imagination is the limit, but imagination needs to be fed by practical knowledge and experience.

No matter how accomplished their mastery of the scientific aspect of making wine is, every winemaker must stand over a seething vat, carboy, or plastic bucket as it hisses and pops along (science taking care of business without your help) and decide what to do next. You must learn to look at and taste the new wine and decide when to rack, what steps to take to stabilize the wine, and when it is ready to bottle.

Most of these decisions, while based on knowing what has transpired scientifically, must be made by artistic feel. No amount of technocrat viticultural school “by the book” procedures are a substitute for cultivating the soul of the peasant in Provence. Some things can be known; others must be felt. And in a world increasingly dominated by technology, it’s comforting when people — not least the home winemaker — try to cultivate that part of their nature that still stands free of the lab or computer and seeks expression in creativity.