stirring up trouble

by crushed & stirred


This, this is a thing of beauty. A voluptuous Ermitage barrel of Viognier that you can see right into. Look at those layers. The healthy crud above the surface of the young wine, a remnant of the fermentation that was not long ago roaring right here in this barrel. The heaviest lees sit at the bottom, full of dead yeast cells and all the compounds they give off when they break down.

It is sometimes desirable, though not always, to incorporate those compounds into the wine. That’s where batonnage comes in, one of those French terms that still lives on in classless New World winemaking. Batonnage is stirring – we insert a long, oblong steel arm (other devices work too) to stir up the lees in the bottom and mix up the barrel’s contents. Ordinarily, all you can see while stirring is, through the open bunghole, a cloud of lees fluff up to the surface of the wine. But in one of those rare, instant gratification moments in a cellar, this particular barrel provides visual proof of the result:

The plexiglass siding here also lets us see that it takes a good week for the lees to settle back down. Generally speaking, stirring leads to a bigger-bodied, rounder wine because of the way things like nutrients and amino acids present in the dead yeast cells influence the wine’s chemistry and, ultimately, the way it tastes and smells.

Stirring can be laborious and monotonous. There are many barrels, many lots, it takes ages, tires out your arms, and is often combined with taking samples. But it passes the time as the cellar slows and then screeches to a halt and the interns start scrambling for every job. Even pressure washing. Climbing barrels warms you up amidst the cold of the steel and concrete cellar in the frosted fall mornings that threaten us like an undertow.

But nothing stems the tide. Another one, done and gone. Australia’s taking shape fast.