The dust has now settled after the excitement of vintage 2018, and the new wines are tucked up for winter in their new barrels, or in tank waiting for their new barrels. However, this is not a time for a winemaker to rest on her laurels just yet! The young red wines that are still in tank, after pressing off the skins a few weeks ago, are now ready to be racked off the gross lees; that is, to have the clear, clean wine drawn off the sediment that has settled to the bottom of the tank.
This sediment consists mainly of dead yeast cells, dead bacteria and the odd grape skin, and looks like disgusting pink sludge. Although some people “work” the lees, in the winemaker’s never-ending search for complexity of flavour and texture, I pretty much feel I’d be doing anything a favour, getting that muck out! As the dead yeast cells break down, there can be some pretty funky smells generated in what is essentially purple dead yeast porridge, and I’d rather not have to deal with quite THAT level of complexity!
We have a rose in tank that we have made, as in previous years, from Humis Vineyard’s Grenache. This has always been a delightful rose, and this year looks like continuing the theme. Paler than the previous vintages, we are taking care to preserve the delicate aromas and flavours that this young wine suggests. Super-apprentice winemaker and owner of said rose, Missy, was quite horrified with the volume, colour, consistency and smell of the gross lees that spewed out of the bottom of this tank!
This time of year is exciting, as the young red wines start to open up and show you what they’ve got. Wines that, at pressing, seem abrasive and hard, are starting to reveal the ripe, juicy dark fruits and subtle hints of spice that will eventually define these luscious Heathcote wines. Of particular note was the 2018 MBE Shiraz, and the 2018 Humis Carmenere. So nice to see what they are eventually going to be. Like those moments when you look at your children, and, amongst the dirt and the arguments and the mess and the answering back, you see a pleasing glimpse of the adult they will become. OK, so that adult is a long time coming, and there is a lot of teenaginess to get through first, but at least you know there is hope…
However, before you think that I am just skipping around, sniffing and swirling wines, and congratulating myself on being a super winemaker, can I assure you there are some not-so-nice surprises in the winery, too! Red wines go through a process known as malolactic fermentation, which is often described as a secondary “fermentation”, but is, in reality, the activity of malolactic bacteria, who consume malic acid and convert it to the softer, more palatable and stable lactic acid. This is a great thing, which ensures that your bottled wine won’t explode out of the bottle if it warms up. Well, not from malo, anyway… so whilst this is a process most red winemakers encourage, it is not necessarily straightforward or even very pleasant.
My first vintage saw barrels shooting out their bungs and erupting with purple vomit, as the pressure of carbon dioxide produced by the bacteria built up so much that the bungs were ejected from the barrels and the disgusting goo from the bottom of the barrels was forced up and out, shooting feet into the air. A few panicky calls to more experienced winemakers saw me calm down, and replace the bungs with breathers.
During malolactic fermentation, the malo bacteria produce carbon dioxide, but also other compounds, of varying levels of olfactory insult. These smells are transient, and “blow off” when the wines are racked. But they can be quite alarming if you aren’t expecting them!
Winemaking is really all about cleaning, cleaning, and cleaning, and being up to your ankles in gloop, and teenage wines that smell like… teenagers. There is nothing like showing the young wines in barrel to someone – nodding knowingly, saying “I think you’ll be rather impressed by this one,” only to have the horrible wine-star-of-the-future make a liar of you, as it farts its way sulfurously to your olfactories in a cloud of burnt rubber and chook poo.
So now I have shattered any delusions you Burrumbooters might have had about winemaking being an esoteric and cultured art. Those elegant wines that you enjoy over a delicious leg of lamb started life as teenage ne’er-do-wells and ratbags. But then, didn’t we all?
Hopefully I haven’t put you off wine for life, and you are thinking happily about having beautiful Burrumboot reds to keep you warm as the weather finally cools down and winter’s frosty fingers make you want to curl up on the couch with a big glass of Sangiovese and some comfort food. That’ll be me tonight… cheers, ‘Booters!