The Merlot Harvest (Part 2)

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

Moving on from the acidity issue I discussed last week, the must just reeks with color, something I think is really important in a wine. So I couldn’t be happier with that. At least for the wines I make, which tend toward the hardier, lusher end of the wine spectrum, I’m really trying to pick my grapes at the tail end of the optimum period. So you can put me in the “let them hang” category. I like very soft skins, a minimum of green seeds. I don’t want shrivel or dehydration, which would probably be the case if I waited much longer. Though this year there’s been so little of that maybe it probably wasn’t too much of a risk anyway.

But my Merlot this year really fit that “tail end” criteria. So I have to notch this year’s harvest as pretty good.

I started the fermentation on Friday. I’d intended to start it on Thursday, but things just got away from me. I’m not a big believer in cold soaks (the period between crush and inoculation), but as long as it’s not too long I don’t have problem with them either. I usually only wait a day, two at the most. So this three days was pretty long for me.

I used to spend a lot of time playing around with different yeasts to see what they would do as far as the flavor in the finished wine. My conclusion from all that they don’t make much of a difference. (Most winemakers I talk to find that total heresy, by the way, so I represent a minority view.) I think maybe yeasts do make a meaningful difference in whites, particularly if they are bottled early. But for full bodied reds, I’ve never been able to detect a difference that rose above minuscule. And even those tiny differences pretty much disappear over time.

So if you discount the effect of the yeast on the flavor of the finished wine, as I do, then you’re just looking for the yeast that will get you from point A (the must) to point B (end of alcoholic fermentation) with the least potential for problems. So I’m really looking for two things. First, a yeast that can handle higher alcohols (since a stuck fermentation will stick usually when the alcohol levels get higher). And, second, one that isn’t prone to producing hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas). So I’ve settled on Rock Pile (RP15). I now use it on pretty much everything, and it gives me what I want, an uneventful fermentation. Boring fermentations are good fermentations.

Pretty much all fermentations use one of two methods to make sure the grape skins stay in contact with the juice. The first is pump overs, which is pretty much like what it sounds like—you pump the juice over the cap. The second is punch downs, and it’s pretty much like what it sounds like as well—you push the skins down into the juice.

A tiny tiny minority use a third method. Count me in that minority. It’s called submerged cap. It involves using some apparatus or another to keep the cap permanently submerged below the top of the juice. I have to admit that my method is pretty rinky-dink. I would post a picture, except it’s too embarrassing. But it works, which is what counts.

I use a plastic sheet about 3/8” think that I cut out to fit in a macrobin. I drilled holes in it to let the CO2 escape, though I suspect it would have escaped just fine even without the holes.

I lay a mesh over the must, but the plastic sheet over the mesh, and then use straps to keep the sheet in place. I use mostly picking bins on top of the sheet as spacers. Not pretty, but it gets the job done.

The submerged cap gets me much better extraction than the other two methods. I ran some tests comparing the amount of color in the must using the submerged cap vs. punch down methods, and found I got 17% greater color extraction on average, which is huge. My working assumption is that many of the flavor components of wine achieve a similarly greater level of extraction, though I can’t prove that.

Another benefit of the submerged cap is that it saves a lot of time and effort. Instead of punching down the cap two or three times a day, I set up my submerged cap and walk away. I do check to make sure everything is staying in place, but the amount of work is minimal.

So that documents the first few days in the life of the grapes on their journey to becoming wine. It’s not a lot of sound and fury, but when you’re actually there viewing and tasting as the process plays itself out, it gains something that you can’t really put into words.

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3 Responses to “The Merlot Harvest (Part 2)”

  1. [...] At least for the wines I make, which tend toward the hardier, [...]Read more about artisan here: The Merlot Harvest (Part 2) Share this:TwitterMoreLinkedInGoogle [...]

  2. Brad Terrill says:

    Hi Jeff, Good article. I agree with you about yeasts. Your submerged cap idea makes a great deal of sense. I am trying to get my brain around one concept. With a punch down or a pump over one is heavily dealing with an aerobic fermentation as you are constantly factoring in oxygen. With your method you have surface contact with the air and a surface agitation caused by the escape of CO2. However, below the surface at the must level it seems that you have somewhat of an anaerobic fermentation because you are lacking an agitation tool. I would suspect that with your method many of the enzymes would have a better chance of working their magic. Just my off the cuff thoughts. Thanks for your article. Cheers, Brad

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