We've talked about the contributions of the grapes, the yeast, and the bacteria to wine flavor and aroma, but there's one particular storage vessel that is particularly associated with wine that adds its own contributions to the flavor and aroma profile: the oak barrel.
There are three major species of oak that are most commonly used for wine barrels-- Quercus robur, Quercus sessilis, and Quercus alba. The first two are European, and the last is American. Aside from looking different, they all provide something slightly different to wine. For example, barrels from the Central forest of France are typically made from Quercus sessilis and are more likely to contribute high aromatics to wines versus barrels made from the Limousin forest just south of it, where Quercus robur dominates and the wood has more tendency to contribute polyphenols (structural components) to the wine. Wine aged in American Quercus alba is likely to pick up even less phenolics from the oak than either of the French varieties, so winemakers looking for a softer oak profile would do well to look to American oak.
Barrel flavor goes beyond origin and species, however. Once the trees are felled, and staves cut, they need to be dried. This can take place either in a kiln, or out of doors-- usually 24 to 48 months. During this time, the moisture content in the wood drops to about 12%, the cellulose in the wood starts to break down into compounds that influence the character of the wine, and the tannins in the wood start to bind together, which has the effect of making them feel softer on the palate.
After drying, the staves will be shaped, and assembled into a barrel. After shaping, the staves will be raised, or stood in an upright circle held in place with a few hoops. At this point they need to be made somewhat malleable to get them into the characteristic barrel shape. This can be done by steaming or firing. If they're fired, they'll be sprayed with water during the firing in order to help with the bending.
Once the barrel is shaped, it is then toasted. Variations in the level of toasting will impact the flavors imparted to the wine with lighter toasts contributing more natural wood aroma and flavor, medium toasts contributing more vanilla and caramel, and darker toasts skewing more towards spicy and smoky tones.
Here at Aridus, we use a variety of oaks and toasts. For example, we really enjoy the flavors that Hungarian and Russian oak impart to our Chardonnay-- a sort of unique vanilla, coconut and hazelnut combination. We use a fairly high percentage of American oak on our Tempranillo to impart some of that traditional dill note that you get in many classic Riojas. And we tend to use light toasts for wines like our Grenache, and heavier toasts on the Cabernet Sauvignon. Ultimately, we utilize a variety of barrels from different forests and with different toast levels so we can craft the perfect final blend. We have over 20 types of barrels on site, which gives us a lot fo flexibility when it comes to matching wine to barrel.
You may have guessed this, but alcohol is one of the most highly regulated industries in the United States. If you're a youthful-looking consumer, you'll be well aware of this when the clerk at your neighborhood supermarket or liquor store, or the bartender at your favorite watering hole inspects your ID to make sure you're of age. If you receive wine club shipments from us, you'll be aware of the indication on the box that the recipient of the wines must provide proof of 21+ years of age. These laws and regulations are set and enforced primarily at the state level, with penalties and specific requiremetns varying from state to state.
As a producer of wine, we're regulated on our end as well, both on a federal and state level. The federal agency tasked with overseeing us is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or the TTB for short. As the name suggests, the group regulates producers of alcohol and tobacco products, but also firearms and the fuel alcohol we're all familiar with from putting in our cars. They aren't tasked with regulating sales, but with regulating production, importation, distribution, and labelling, according to the Federal Alcohol Administration Act, which went into effect in 1935 and was ammended in 1988. Ultimately, the TTB reports up to the Department of the Treasury.
Because alcohol is an intoxicant, the reporting on it is pretty comprehensive. We file reports with the TTB quarterly to let them know how much bulk wine we have on site, how much bottled inventory in case goods storage, and during harvest, how much volume is fermenting. We keep track down to the bottle and the gallon. If we lose 20 gallons while we're filtering-- we report it. If we remove a case from storage to bring to the tasting room, we report it. We pay taxes for the privilege of working in this industry, so we make sure that each drop is accounted for.
The TTB also approves every label that we put on a bottle to ensure that what we're putting out to you, our customers, is accurate and that we've included all the required information regarding alcohol content, safety warnings, and volume in bottle. This is true for every label you see on the wine shelf-- somebody in the TTB has taken a close look at it and given it the okay. Given the number of labels that must come across their desks every day, they do a pretty remarkable job of getting the yea or nay back in a timely manner. They also do a good job of laying out comprehensive information on how to comply with their regulations on their website. They even have a section for consumers, which is pretty interesting if you want more information about the functions of the TTB. You can even sign up for their newsletter if you find yourself fascinated with this governmental bureau.
At the end of the day, most of these regulations are for consumer protection. And even though the number of regulations can seem daunting, doing the homework and asking the questions to make sure that we're in compliance not only helps us be more informed producers, it helps us understand some of the history of our industry here in the US.
The tools around the winery are one of my favorite parts of the job. There's seemingly a specialized tool for every task. Here are a few of my favorites, and their uses!
Wine thieves - glass and stainless steel
These are used for sampling barrels-- you pull the bung out of the barrel, dip the sanitized wine theif in, put your thumb over the hole at the top, and voila! You can pull out a sample. I always use a stainless steel one, because *fun fact* I've broken every single glass wine thief I've ever used. I'm just that clumsy.
They're not nerf balls-- they're specialized sponges that we use for cleaning hoses. You string all your hoses together, hook them up to a pump and a tub of cleaning liquid, then let the pump push a sponge ball through the whole setup. Anything that might have built up inside the hose gets scrubbed out.
We use these to securely hold fittings on tanks-- valves, hoses, etc. What I really like about this little thing, though, is that if you practice a little bit, you can flick one into place with one hand and look super cool. If you're here at the winery some time, ask me and I'll teach you how.
Those of you who have been hanging around cellars too long like me start sliging around terms like, "sparge," "bulldog," and, "malo," all of us sounding like we'recelebrating some antiquated form of "talk like a pirate day." I guess it's the way it goes no matter what industry or line of work you find yourself in. Eventually you just start using terms that only make sense to a few of the people around you.
Well, I'm about to let you in on the secrets of MALO.
What we mean when we use the shorthand "malo," is "malolactic fermentation," which in itself is somewhat of a misnomer. It's the conversion of malic acid, the tart acid found in abundance in apples and also grapes, into lactic acid, a softer tasting acid found in yogurt and other cultured dairy products. This conversion is carried out by a diverse group of microorganisms known as Lactic Acid Bacteria [LAB]. There are a few major genuses - Pediococcus, Leuconostoc, Oenococcus, and Lactobacillus. They all work to convert malic acid to lactic, but they tend to prefer different habitats, such as different pH levels, alcohol levels, and temperatures. This is kind of analagous to if Neanderthals, and a bunch of other hominids lived at the same time as us, ate the same foods as us, but we all lived on different continents or in different climates.
While LAB are present at all stages from grape to wine, their populations tend to change and decline during fermentation, mostly due to some voracious giants called yeast. (To a bacteria, a yeast is the size a mammoth would be to us.) It's hard to get a foothold when you've got these collosal creatures all over the place eating all the food and giving off toxic substances. This leads to a pretty large decline in LAB populations over fermentation. And when all the sugar has been consumed and the last yeast cell dies in a pool of its own wine, what you're left with is an environment that isn't a particularly great place for bacteria to live. It's pretty acidic, there's a high level of alcohol, and the yeast have generally eaten up most of the micronutrients necessary for life. Only a few specially-adapted types of LAB survive. Eventually, the dust clears, and the bacteria that are left start to build up their populations.
Of course, it doesn't always work like this. If a wine isn't acidic enough, the LAB will start building up their populations before alcoholic fermentation finishes, and will start consuming the sugars that remain in addition to the malic acid, leading to off-aromas-- yogurty, spoiled milk smells, in addition to vinegar.
Another issue that can arise is a lack of sulfur dioxide after the malic acid is completely consumed. If the pH is high and there's no added sulfur, certain strains of LAB will continue to consume constituent parts of the wine like citric acid and glycerol. If the baceria start consuming the glycerol, it can lead to extremely bitter flavors in the wine. If they start consuming citric acid, it can lead to high levels of a compound that tastes like movie-theater butter-- this is what is responsible for the buttery quality of certain Chardonnays. At high levels, however, it can taste rancid. And if they start to consume the tartaric acid present in the wine, it can turn the wine hazy.
But for the most part, the LAB do us a service in that they quietly and slowly do the work to turn what would otherwise be a rough and sour wine, and soften and refine it into something that we find much more palatable. We don't let them do it in all wines-- some tartness is refreshing in wines like Pinot Grigios and Sauvignon Blancs-- but a high percentage do go through malolactic fermentation. If you happen to be at the winery later this fall when our wines are going through malo, we'll let you give them a try and see what all the fuss is about.
There are a few tools in my harvest toolbox that I just can't do without. Sure, the press and the punchdown tool are invaluable, but sometimes it's an ingredient that really saves the day. And one ingredient that is really a workhouse around here is the enzyme.
What is an enzyme? As much as the image above might lead you to believe it's a pile of birthday present ribbon trash, it's actually a protein that helps catalyze a reaction-- that is to say, it helps speed up a reaction. We use a few different enzymes for a few different purposes. Most of the enzymes that we use in winemaking are derived from fungal sources-- cousins to the yeasts that we use for fermentation.
For white wines, we like to use enzymes to help with clarification. Grapes, like most fruit, have a percentage of pectin in their pulp. This pectin makes them slightly gummy and can get in the way of the juice settling properly. The enzyme effectively acts like a bunch of little dudes with scissors, and breaks up the long pectin chains. With those out of the way, the juice and solids can separate more quickly and thoroughly. As you can imagine, this also helps us later on down the line when it's time to filter-- with less large particles in the wine, it saves us a lot of time and filter pads.
For red wines, we're looking for a similar pectin breakdown, but we also want to enhance the extraction of color compounds and tannins into the wine. So we're looking for somethign that will also help break down the grapes skins a little bit. This can get tricky, because if you use too much enzyme, you can wind up just turning your red wine ferment into a disintegrated mess-- you still want the skins pretty well intact so you have something to press against when you press at the end of fermentation. That's the trick with enzymes-- you want to use just enough so they're effective, but not so much that you turn your fermentation into the consistency of applesauce. We're talking on the order of about 20 grams per ton of grapes.
That's the great thing about enzymes-- a tiny bit goes such a long way. If you come out to the winery during crush and see us pouring a little bit of this and that into the auger, feel free to ask which is the enzyme. Because we're almost surely using it.
Hi Everyone. Today is a special day for me. An anniversary.
I moved here to work at Aridus exactly one year ago today. My partner, Riley, and I rolled up to the home in Tucson that we'd left when I started my wine career, dog and the boxes upon boxes from our wine cellar in tow. It was 7 pm, and the sky was putting on one of those magnificent sunsets that take up the whole of the firmament out here in the Sonoran Desert. We let the dog out, and unloaded all the wine. When we were done, the sky had darkened and the stars were out. I drank a Pacifico and stuck my feet in the pool.
This year, though, I'm not drinking Pacifico. And I'm not just dangling my feet in the pool. This year, I'm cannonballing in, and I'm drinking rosé. But not just any rosé. I'm drinking the rosé that I made last harvest for Aridus. I don't mean to toot my own horn, but I really, really like this wine.
My favorite rosés are from France. But not just from France-- from Provence. But not just from Provence-- from Bandol. What is Bandol, you ask? Bandol is a region in France that is particularly known for its wines crafted from Mourvedre. They produce reds, and some of the best rosés in the world. The rosés must be at least 50% Mourvedre (though the best use more), with Grenache and Cinsault making up the rest of the blend. If you happen upon one, especially one from Domaine Tempier, I highly recommend you try it.
Or... you could drink ours. It's 68% Mourvedre, and 32% Grenache. We macerated on the Mourvedre skins for two days before pressing them off, and the Grenache we pressed immediately. We blended the juices shortly thereafter and started fermentation, long and cool. Fermentation lasted 15 days, at which point we chilled the tank down to arrest fermentation at 1.3% residual sugar. After settling, we racked off lees into 57% neutral oak, and 43% new French oak. The rosé stayed in barrel for 4 months before bottling. It's been in bottle for three months now, since we bottled it on February 23rd. And now it's drinking beautifully. Just in time to quench your thirst. Put down the Pacifico! I think you'll prefer this.
Here is my surefire recipe to become a winemaker:
Get a bunch of barrels and stack them up at least as tall as you are. Next, grab a glass and put some wine in it. Put on your favorite plaid shirt (if you don't have one, get one immediately), and if you're feeling formal, a thermal vest. Now get someone to take your photo against those barrels as you stick your nose in that glass.
Just kidding! But seriously, just do a google image search for "winemaker," and see how far that deviates from the picture I've painted above.
"How did you become a winemaker?" is a question that I get pretty regularly. It's not a particularly common job, and being from Wyoming, it's not like I grew up imbued in a rich wine tradition. (The first wine I remember enjoying was Blue Nun, if that gives you any indication. I was five years old, though, in my defense...) One thing I can tell you about the path to winemaking is that nobody's is ever really that linear.
So let's say you want to try your hand at winemaking. Where do you start? What resources do you need?
I'd recommend just starting. Get yourself five gallons of grape juice, a food-grade bucket, and a 5 gram packet of yeast. Visit the online WineMaker Magazine site, and check out their guide for newbies. Read through it, clean and sanitize your bucket, and give it a go. I think the first step is just realizing that you can pretty easily convert juice into wine. Taste the ferment along the way-- make notes as to what you're noticing as it progresses. When do you feel the first prickle of carbon dioxide? How do the aromas and flavors shift? At what point does it seem more like wine than juice? Is there any point at which you wonder if this is going to turn out at all? Share the wine with your family and friends and see what their impressions are. You probably won't make a world-class wine right off the bat, but remember-- this is an experiment and a learning experience. If something goes wrong, GREAT! You can figure out what happened and fix it next time. Maybe nothing goes awry, but you realize you'd like to target different flavors or mouthfeel. That's awesome. Keep a log with your notes, and find everything you can to ask a question about. Ask the questions and search for answers. Then try again using what you learned.
Books and online resources can really help you out. Pick up something like, Home Winemaking Step by Step, or The Home Winemaker's Companion. Scour the back issues of WineMaker magazine. Find an online Q&A forum and see who else is asking the questions you have.
Live people can be an excellent resource, as well. Check in at your local homebrew shop and see if a staff member has some ideas for you. While you're there, peruse the tools they have for sale, and ask what they're for. Buy yourself one-- a hydrometer and cylinder, or a fermentation lock, then figure out how to use it. Think about what you really wished you had during your first fermentation, and find the tool that fits the bill.
If you can't get the answer you're looking for at the homebrew store, why not try reaching out to an actual winemaker? Most of us (provided it's not our busy season) are happy to share our knowledge and experience with interested hobbyists. And our contact information usually isn't that hard to find, so you're generally only one search and a few clicks away from being able to send an e-mail or make a phone call. And by all means, when you have the time, go visit a winery! Schedule a tour, and ask away. Look at what's happening at a big scale, and think about how that might translate to your own set-up. At the smaller commercial operations you'll usually be face to face with somebody directly involved in the production of wine. If you come out here to Aridus, chances are it will be me or Dan, our cellarmaster, taking you through the facility.
If, at some point, you find that home winemaking isn't just a passing hobby, there are more than a few ways to get into the industry. One great way to gain hands-on experience and find out if this is really for you is to work a harvest. Wineries always need additional hands during harvest. You can find all sorts of positions listed on winejobs.com. Browsing through the listings will give you an idea of what the work entails. Apply to a few in your area and see what comes of it. You won't be paid well, but you'll gain a lot in experience. After you've made it through one harvest, if you're still loving it, find another harvest position in the other hemisphere. See firsthand what another winery is doing differently. Do this enough times, and you'll gain a solid grasp of winemaking during the harvest. Eventually you'll have the experience necessary for a full-time position, and you'll see what happens in the winery during the rest of the year.
Education is also a great way in to the industry. You'll take general chemistry, biology, and horticulture classes to build up a solid knowledge base, and then start digging deep into the specifics of wine. There are programs at community colleges that really focus on getting folks ready for the industry. And there are University programs that provide unprecedented access to cutting edge research. You can take a look at the curriculum and decide for yourself what will best suit your style and goals.
I'm sure there are many other inroads besides all these listed above. If you're interested, I really do think you should try it! It's fun at any scale, and much more within reach that most people think. Cheers!
Yeast are very complex little creatures. They're a single celled fungus, and the type that is primarily responsible for alcoholic fermentation is called saccharomyces cerevisiea. The inner workings of a yeast cell are much like those of our own cells, with similar internal structures that have great names like mitochondria, golgi bodies, and endoplasmic reticula. They really aren't that different than we are on a cellular level. The major differences are the way in which they get energy from their food source, and what they produce as a result. In a very basic sense, fermentation is how yeast get energy to live.
As important as grapes are themselves in wine aroma, the bulk of the aromas in wine arise through the fermentation process, that is to say, yeast take what is present in the grapes and convert it into aroma and flavor.
The major aromatic compounds that come from yeast action are organic acids, higher alcohols, esters and aldehydes. As yeasts go about the business of producing alcohol, it's not a linear process of sugar in alcohol out-- there are a number of steps that the sugar goes through and at each step an intermediary is produced. Some of these go on to become aroma compounds rather than alcohol. In addition, sometimes the alcohol reacts with one of the intermediary products to form an aroma compound. It's all part of a living system, and living systems tend to be pretty complex.
The major compounds that yeast are resposible in wine are volatile fatty acids, higher alcohols, esters, and sulfur compounds. With many of these compounds, the effect of their presence can be either pleasant or unpleasant depending quite a bit upon their concentration in the wine.
Volatile fatty acids include compounds like acetic acid, which is essentially vinegar, and octanoic acid, which can taste sweet and buttery, and they are the products of two enzyme systems in yeast. They can range from oily to rancid to sweet and back again.
Higher alcohols are formed through the interaction of amino acids and sugars, and can account for such aromas as marzipan, fresh grass, and flowers.
You may remember from our discussion on grapes that esters are responsible for general fruity aromas in wine. Yeast produce these through sugar byproducts-- from a reaction between alcohol and a compound called acetyl-CoA, or through an interaction between amino acids and alcohol. They can give the wine aromas like banana, violet, and pear.
Unfortunately, yeast also can produce sulfur compounds that can add an unsavory note to wine. If you've ever had a wine that smelled like rotten eggs, burnt ruber, onion, or boiled cabbage, you know what I'm talking about. Those are yeast-produced aromas, and they're all sulfur compounds. Luckily, properly managing the fermentation process can ensure that yeast don't produce these in levels that are detectable.
This is obviously a very compressed version of how yeast contribute to the aromas in your glass of wine, but barring getting too deeply into metabolism, I hope it has helped illuminate the important role that yeast have to play not only in producing the alcohol in wine, but in the development of the aroma and flavor itself.