by crushed & stirred

Seriously, owie. We are so banged up down here. Gale force winds and pouring rain – 100 milliliters in one day, which is about a quart. We cellar hands are all hurting and our actual hands are blistered, stained, calloused, and aching. The winery hurts. Everything in the cellar that can break finds a way to break. Every day.

Last I wrote we had brought in all of our whites and Pinot and were gasping for air. Then, just when we thought we couldn’t take any more, we brought in all of our Merlot in two solid days. Which is a lot given that our hallmark wines are Merlot-Cabernets. With about three and-and-a-half people on deck at a time. I’ve lost track of the tonnage, but it’s something like 100 tons a day.

truck dumping grapes into the receival hopper

I took this video of Arneis grapes thundering into the hopper a few days ago.

Last I wrote I was also barely conscious and vague about what we’ve been up to – especially inoculations. As of press time, I have just inoculated our last Chardonnay ferment of 2012 before clocking out.

But let’s back up.

After crushing white grapes, we push them through the press and into a tank. We chill the juice for a few days, keeping it too cold for any fermentation to take hold – this year, given how underripe some things were, we’ve also used the cold to help lower high acid levels. The solids in the juice settled out to the bottom while we wrap our heads around the stats and try to control everything we can and understand everything we can’t control.

Then we kick off the fermentation. The winemakers here have settled on which yeast strands they like to use – a classic example of winemaking philosophy in action. Most winemakers prefer the sense that they can predict the course and effects of a fermentation if they know which strand of Saccharomyces cerevisiae they’re using.

A word on fermentation: if you stay out of it and keep it warm enough, the fruit will naturally start to ferment, picking up the yeast in the air. This is a native or wild ferment. Most winemakers are not comfortable with this. They consider it high risk and unpredictable. If the native yeast strands are not strong enough, they can die off before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol – known as a stuck fermentation – ostensibly leaving the ferment vulnerable to microbes and the development of unpleasant aromas and flavors.

Native ferments tend to be found in smaller shops, like Donelan, where winemakers can work with smaller lots. Here in NZ, we have exactly one wild lot destined for our top-tier Chardonnay.

I sympathize with the arguments to support both styles and have even tried my hand at the INSANELY complex science behind each one. Having earned my cellar stripes under the Donelan banner, I can’t help but feel allegiance to native fermentations. That said, I enjoy inoculating. It’s like cooking.

Before we kick off a white ferment we have to get a clear juice, free of all the solids that have settled to the bottom, by racking the tank off its lees. We suck the juice out of the tank through a pump and into another tank. When we’re close to the bottom, where all the lees are collected, we push open the door on the tank, and insert a racking wand – a steel arm with a metal dish on the end which allows you to press into the lees while sucking the remaining clear juice from above it.

Then we make the call. On some lots, we want the light, creamy lees known as “white fluffies” but not the clotted, brown ones that taste bad.

Then we’ve got a brand new tank of clear juice which we bring up to temperature by running hot water over the tank, although the same effect can be produced in a number of ways. At Donelan we put a propane burner beneath it. Elsewhere tanks have automated controls that disperse heat through thermal exchange lines.

Then we kick it in the face with some yeast.

The yeast comes in a granulated form – like what you’d use to bake bread at home – and needs to be rehydrated. You lay out food (powdered nutrients) and water for it as though trying to lure it out of its cave. You add the yeast to this mixture, whisking it into a frothy, foamy brew of caramel color. It has a lovely silky texture and smells of raw dough. Delicious.

Turn your back on the mixture for a minute and it is covered in air bubbles as the yeast’s metabolism begins to generate CO2. Given some air and a few minutes, the inoculum is active and ready to be incorporated into the juice.

inoculum on the right – note the whisk and thermometer

the inoculum now in the bucket on the left, rehydrated in Chardonnay juice

We barrel down whites as soon as we’ve inoculated. The reds experience a similar treatment, although they will ferment in tank on their skins rather than in barrel. Extracting juice from the reds can be a more or less involved process since it’s mixed in with berries and skins.

Just about every cellar task has the potential to become frustrating depending on the facilities and or the set up. Equipment and methods can be impractical, inconvenient, time-consuming, temperamental. I try and remind myself: making wine is not convenient. Making something out of nothing is by definition laborious.

It is 14 days since our first grapes and we have entered the realm of punch-downs and pumpovers, the winemaking equivalent of watering the plants – more on that next.

in the shadow of two presses; with all our whites in and inoculated, these guys can take a breather while we wait for our reds to finish fermenting

We have also entered the realm of delirium, destroyed as we are by hours logged and sacrifice of body and personal life. Days refuse to slow down. Sometimes the business is only moderate – continuous movement and tasks but schedule relatively intact. Other days are like being on some other plane of existence, where time has no meaning and seems to liquefy in beads of sweat on your brow.

We are getting as much sleep as we can get away with (not enough) and laying in as much protein and carbohydrates as we can find.

And at this point, all I want in the whole world is a burrito.