Have you ever had the pleasure of sipping on a 50 year old wine? If so, do you do it regularly? If you do, can I come to dinner sometime? The reality for most of us wine drinkers is that popping open aged wine is an infrequent occurance. However, there is a perception that aged wines are by necessity better than younger wines. What is happening in a bottle that is aging, though? And what allows those really remarkable bottles to sit for generations?
There are a few major components of a wine that allow it to age-- protection from oxygen, the way it is stored, and the concentration of certain compounds in the wine. White wines and red wines, because of their differences in desired characteristics, concentrations of tannins and other anti-oxidative compounds, age differently.
The aging process is generally broken down into two phases. Maturation is the time post-fermentation during which the wine sits in barrel or tank. Time in barrel or bulk tank typically lasts anywhere from 6-36 months. During this time, the wine may be treated with clafiying agents, racked a number of times, and generally has some degree of contact with the oxygen in the atmosphere through the bung in the barrel and through general permeation through the wood. During this time, the yeast left over from fermentation drops out of solution, and the initial concentration of fruity esters drops as they transform into other compounds. Since most white wines are prized for their fresh, delicate fruit aromas, it is generally best to consume them young, before these esters have broken down too much. This is why you tend to see more recent-vintage whites on the shelves than reds.
Reductive aging begins when the wine is bottled. There are a few major factors that influence the aging process of the wine in bottle: oxygen, temperature, light, and pH.
Once in bottle, the wine's contact with oxygen is greatly reduced, with the only access being through the closure (cork, synthetic, or screwcap). The presence of oxygen in bottle can lead to a myriad of issues, and certain types of wine are more prone to oxidation than others. This is why prior to bottling, it's important to protect the wine from oxygen pick-up. Excessive oxygen in bottle can lead to browning of both white and red wines, as well as oxidative aromas and flavors-- those of bruised or rotting fruit. Acetaldehyde concentration increases, and certain phenols can become oxidized giving the wine flavors such as cooked cabbage.
Temperature can mean the difference between a fresh-tasting wine and a tired wine. Most chemical reactions speed up at higher temperatures, and those involved in wine aging are no exception. One example of this would be the appearance of a gasoline/kerosene aroma in Riesling-- a compound known as TDN accumulates quickly once storage temperatures creep into the 70s and 80s.
Light exposure plays a role in wine aging and quality, as ultraviolet light leads to the production of sulfur off-aromas that can make white and sparkling wines, especially, taste skunky.
The pH of the wine has a huge effect on aging, because the higher the pH, the more preservatives needed to protect against oxidation. The pH affects the equilibrium of phenolics, and esters in the wine. At higher pH you can shift the phenolics in a wine into a form that makes them more susceptible to oxidation. This is partially why higher acid wines with low pH tend to have more longevity. Additionally, the presence of a high concentration of tannins also has an antioxidative and slightly antimicrobial action, thus conferring to red wines an additional measure of protection that slows the effects of aging. And it's the slowing of the aging process that allows us to taste over a longer period of time, and choose the moment when we deem a wine "just right" to drink.
It's finally here! Harvest! My favorite time of the year!
How I've missed working 16 hour days, seven days a week. Having my hands stained a constant purple. Wearing beat-up old work clothes every day. Oh, wait, I do that last one all the time, anyway.
It's going to be busy, and it's going to be hectic, but I'll try my best to give you updates every week as to how things are progressing here at the winery. Photos, stories, anecdotes... anything to give you a little taste of what goes on here during crush.
If you follow us on any of the various social media platforms, you probably already know that we've already been receiving fruit. On July 19th, we brought in the first fruit from our estate vineyard-- 1.6 tons of Sauvignon Blanc. We followed that up last week with another 1.5 tons of Sauvignon Blanc from our vineyard.
Here's a shot of our press set-up, and the first bin of Sauvignon Blanc just waiting to be dumped in.
Happy Harvest, One and All!
The first wine I remember ever enjoying was a "Riesling." I was maybe 5 years old, and my parents were enjoying a bottle of Blue Nun out of the ceramic wine glasses my mother made when she was in college back in the early 1970s. My parents would often let me try a sip of wine if I asked, so sure were they that I would not like what I encountered. I don't remember what we were eating that night, but I do remember asking to taste the wine. And I liked it. I told my mom, "This is good," took a gulp, and she told me I wasn't allowed to have any more. I asked what it was-- resolved to remember for the future when I was an adult and could buy this for myself. That's how the Blue Nun brand came to be permanently lodged in my brain.
When I was finally in college and out buying wine for myself, I remember searching the one general store in the tiny Ohio town where I first went to undergrad for a bottle of Blue Nun. It was nowhere to be found. The year was 2004, and another wine fad was peaking-- "Critter Labels." Unable to find Blue Nun, and with zero beverage savvy, I downed many a bottle of Little Penguin, Goats do Roam, and (of course) Yellow Tail.
I spent many a year stuck in the popular wine category. I was content enough with the fruity, straightforward offerings.
Then one day, a Riesling woke my from my stupor.
I'll confess-- I'd just come from the dentist. I was celebrating not having any cavities, so I ducked into a nearby pastry and wine bar. The floors were tiny checkered black and white tiles, and the decor veered toward French cafe. I've never really been big on sweets, and my goal was definitely the wine. I remember asking the woman behind the counter to pour me the most aromatic white they had. She suggested a Riesling. From Mosel, Germany. I acquiesed.
For the second time in my life, I was blown away by a Riesling-- this time a true one. It may have been the simplest Dr. Loosen on the market, but the aromas of green apple, lemon, and white flowers, each so distinct, leapt out of the glass. The flavors were crisp, distinct, and almost crystalline in their purity. This was a wine that wasn't hiding anything. Everything about it was upfront, cascading cleanly over the palate. It was impossible not to like it, especially in comparison to those heavy, murky, oaky Chardonnay beasts I'd been downing. My wine world changed in an instant. Two glasses later I caught the bus home, pondering this new experience.
I am always surprised at the number of people who tell me that they don't like Riesling. I think part of this may have to do with the required evolution from Blue Nun to Dr. Loosen (or the personal equivalent for the storyteller). It's so easy with wine to have an experience with a sub-par version of a variety or region, and to then avoid it like the plague. I figure it's akin to the experience of eating a particular food, getting ill, and then never eating that food again. I'm here to reassure you, though. That crappy Riesling you had that one time... it might not have even been Riesling. You see, those bottles of Blue nun and Black Tower, even though they're packaged in bottles that scream Riesling, are often made of lesser varieties-- Silvaner, Muller-Thurgau, and Kerner. Grapes that don't sing the way that Riesling does. So if this is what has been holding you back, now you have a reason to give Riesling a second chance.
I hope that you will. And if you do, and you like what you taste, let us know! We'd love to hear your story.
This past winter, a number of the tours that came through wanted to know what was going on with this situation out in the cellar:
One tank, covered in ice. Standing next to a number of others that weren't.
This is part of our pre-bottling process, and it's known as cold stabilization. At low temperatures, the tartaric acid in the wine is less soluble than it is at warmer temperatures. When this happens, crystals of acid begin to form and drop out of solution. And the thing about this crystal formation is that ithis can encourage even more crystals to form. It's okay for this to happen in tank, when we can remove them through racking or filtration, but it can be a little concerning to see it in bottle.
This is less of a problem for red wines, which most people tend not to refrigerate, but when it comes to white wines that can sometimes hang out in the refrigerator for months, cold stability can become an issue. They won't harm you, but they do have a tendency to look like shards of broken glass. (I think it goes without saying that about 99% of us don't really want to ingest broken glass.)
Once we decide on our final blend for a wine, we get all the components into a tank, and then set the tank temperature to below 30 degrees Farenheit. We want to blend first, because even minor changes in alcohol percantage, pH, or other chemical components in the wine can play a huge part in changing a wine's cold stability. Depending on the results of the cold stability testing we do prior to blending, we may add a small amount of cream of tartar, which encourages crystal formation. And then we wait. We'll hold a tank at this temperature for anywhere from 3-30 days. Some wines just require a little more time to stabilize than others.
Once we've determined that the wine is stable, we'll filter, and call it a day. This doesn't mean that you'll never see a tartrate crystal in a bottle from us, but it does mean that under most standard wine storage conditions, your wine should remain clear. We probably can't help you if you tend to sip your wine through a 35 foot long frozen metal straw, but for the rest of you, we've got your back.
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.