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.
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.