Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Harvest Update - A Good Finish

Read this season's previous harvest updates: And It Begins, Nearly Through the Whites, Halfway Through Reds, Picking (at) the Right Time.

The end of vintage seemed to come rather quickly here at Vasse Felix as it's only been two weeks since we picked our last grapes. Oddly, it's only been four days since my last day and vintage seems like months ago! We did have a great send off on Friday with our end of vintage party. We started out with a lovely lunch at Bunker's Beach Cafe, which sits as close to the water as you can get; the food was great and naturally complimented by several wines. We then carried on back into town and had a few more drinks at Wino's.
The vintage crew may have left but there is still plenty of work to be done at the winery. There are a dozen red fermentors still full of must, which have finished fermenting but are being left on skins to undergo extended maceration (process to be discussed in a later post). There is also plenty of barrel filling and organizing to be done in the red barrel hall. It's getting pretty compacted in there since all the newly filled 2013 reds are being added to the 2012 reds still in barrel (Vasse Felix uses an 18-month barrel program for red varietals).
I'd like to thank the Vasse Felix team for having me this vintage. I enjoyed working with you all, and was able to learn some new things while sharing some of my knowledge. The term I thought best described Vasse Felix was 'large boutique' winery. Despite being one of the largest wineries in the region (we processed about 1,500 tonnes this vintage), winemakers here keep every batch of grapes/wine separate right up until it's time to blend for bottling. We had several hundred different batches of 2013 wines, all of which get the same care and attention as the next. This not only gives the greatest number of options when blending time arrives, but also allows winemakers to learn as much as they can about their different vineyard blocks and grape sources as possible.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Red Varietal Fermentation Vessels


The popular idiom "there's more than one way to skin a cat" is highly applicable to winemaking. The basics of winemaking are, well, basic, but I've seen and worked in many wineries; they all make wine, but all have different grape sources, different techniques, different wine styles, and different equipment, which means they all make highly differentiated end-products.

As we're just pushing through the last of our red ferments for vintage 2013 here at Vasse Felix, I thought this was a good opportunity to discuss what options winemakers have for red varietal fermentation. Winemakers here utilize three different vessels for red fermentations; omni bins, static fermentors, and rotary fermentors:
  • Bins - Picking bins are a common small ferment vessel in wineries. Here at Vasse Felix, we utilize omni bins, which are 1-ton picking bins. These are basically used like open-top fermentation tanks; they allow good access to the cap and gentle cap management with high extraction rates via punchdowns. They also have relatively high surface area to volume ratio, which increases juice contact with pomace (more extraction). The main downside of bin ferments is the lack of temperature control, which we try to mitigate by using a temperature-controlled cool room to try and keep ferment temperatures from rising too high (I've worked at other wineries that had cooling plates they could place in the bins directly). Winemakers here like using bin ferments for their particularly small batches of premium reds (less than 3 tons), and for batches they prefer to punchdown instead of pumpover. (below: me, punching down omni bins in Vasse Felix's cool room).
  • Static Fermentors - Vasse Felix have 5-ton and 8-ton stainless steel tanks purpose-built for red fermentation, including temperature control. They are not open-top tanks, but have larger top doors for access to the cap during pumpovers. These tanks have approximately a 1:3 surface area to volume ratio, smaller than the omni bins. Many wineries utilize static fermentors for red varietal fermentation because they can be used for a range of different wine processes (multi-purpose tanks are commonly used in this manner). Pumpovers are really the only method of cap management available for these tanks (besides delestage, or a 'rack and return', which is removing all juice/wine from the skins before pumping it back over the top) via a very gentle peristaltic pump (discussed in a following post) and manually hosed over the cap by cellarhands; this gives winemakers the option of non-aerative or aerative, and more extractive or less extractive (more vigorous or gentler). Their height and slope also allows cellarhands to dig out tanks through the bottom door directly into the basket press. Winemakers here use these tanks for the larger batches of premium reds. (Below: Vasse Felix's static red fermentors, you can also see the basket press in the left foreground).
 
  • Rotary Fermentors - Rotary fermentors are horizontally oriented (they lay on their side), which means they have very high surface area to volume ratio. This allows high rates of color and flavor that allow winemakers to press the wine off skins earlier in fermentation and avoid phenolic extraction. Rotary fermentors thus tend to producer rounder, fruit-driven wines that are approachable sooner than wines fermented in other vessels. Cap management is completed by rolling the tank (the tank sits on rollers and machinery rolls the entire tank), meaning very little manual labor is required. These tanks require a rather large amount of infrastructure and space - the rotary fermentors here at Vasse Felix range in size from 12-35 tons. Winemakers here use these tanks for our larger batches of reds. (below: rotary fermentors lined up along a tract that allows for draining directly into bladder press shown in the middle).
 
Of course, there are other options as well:
  • Open-Top Fermentors - Just as the name would suggest, these are tanks with no top. They usually have a similar surface area to volume ratio as static fermentors listed above, but the lack of a lid allows complete access to the cap and provides winemakers with the option of pumpovers or punchdowns for cap management. Vasse Felix has no open-top tanks at this stage, but several other wineries I have worked for utilized these extensively. Niven Family Wine Estates has the best of both worlds: stainless steel tanks with removable lids that allow tanks to convert from open-top fermentors to general-purpose tanks. (below: Niven Family Wine Estates tank room showing their range of 4-ton to 10-ton tanks, some with their lids on and some off. In the middle of the photograph, you can see the nuematic punchdown tool inside a tank, which is on a track to allow punchdowns of all tanks).
  • Oak Barrels and Tanks - It's standard to age red wine in oak, but there is a range of oak options for red varietal fermentation available today. Some wineries have begun removing one head of a new, 225-litre (60-gallon) barrel to use for on-skins ferments. They then press the must off skins, put the head back on the barrel, and re-fill it with the resulting wine. There are varying sizes of wooden tanks available in today's market as well that can be used for red varietal fermentation, including temperature-controlled options. Proponents of red varietal fermentation in oak contend some of the benefits are wines with increased color stability, fuller mid-palate structure, and better oak intregration. Many winemakers are opting for the addition of oak adjuncts (oak chips, oak dust, etc.) to tank fermentations, which will be discussed in a later post.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Margaret River Inter-Winery Surf Competition

Now that vintage in Margaret River is beginning to wind down, seems like everyone is ready to relax and have some fun. And what's more fun than a little competition? Last Tuesday, staff from several local wineries gathered at Ellensbrook for the annual Inter-Winery Surf Competition.

Anticipation for the event had been building at Vasse Felix over the past month. There was no end in sight to vintage yet and it was rather uncertain if we would even make the event. Fortunately, we picked our last grapes the week before so our team was cleared to have the morning free to represent the winery (from left to right: Marc, Matt, Reese, Bart, me).
The unusual format put one surfer from each of the eight teams in the water together. Each surfer was permitted three waves before they need to rotate out of the water with another member from their team. Basically, it was one giant surf heat with non-stop surfing action all day. I'm not sure how the scoring worked, but who cares? With fun head high conditions, everyone was just happy to spend a day at the beach instead of stuck in the cellar or vineyard (me below, photo courtesy of Edwards Wines).
In the end, Burch Family Wines (Howard Park) was the victor. Clairault Winery came in second, Voyager Estate in third, and our Vasse Felix team earned a respectable fourth. Thanks to everyone who organized and participated in the event, it was good fun!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Harvest Update - Picking (at) the Right Time

Read this season's previous harvest updates: And It Begins, Nearly Through the Whites, Halfway Through Reds.

Harvesting grapes at the right time is essential to making good wine. Winemakers and viticulturists often disagree on the right time; as a winemaker, the flavors need to be developed to the right stage because if it's not going to make good wine, then what's the point? But like everything else in winemaking, there are always multiple factors that effect when the right time arrives.

This past week's harvest schedule was stacked due to heavy weather forecast to arrive this weekend; we were fortunate to get everything in as the rain began falling within a couple hours of the last truck arriving at the winery. Fortunately, all our blocks were sufficiently ripe and we were more than happy to be harvesting it all. In fact, we received three batches of Cabernet Sauvignon on Thursday, totaling approximately sixty tonnes and representing the very last fruit of vintage 2013 here at Vasse Felix!
While there is still plenty to be done, work should be a bit more relaxed over the coming weeks with fruit processing complete. Our focus will be keeping red ferments happy as they tick away and pressing off batches as they finish (photo above shows our premium red varietal fermentors, which range in size from 5-8 ton). Many of the premium batches will undergo extended maceration, the process of leaving wine on skins to allow for polymerization of phenolic compounds (to be discussed in a later post).

It seems like we've nearly forgotten about the whites since the red harvest kicked off, but of course we haven't. Along with tracking the few remaining ferments (a handful of wild-fermented batches and our Cut Cane Semillon batches are slowly finishing ferment now), we're continuing our heavy stirring regime on the Chardonnay batches, which won't stop for the next several months. The bottling line has also seen a few operational days this past week as we bottled some of our 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Semillon.
Though the vineyards are fruitless now, I took this photograph last week before this block was harvested. I found it in one of our premium Cabernet Sauvignon blocks, doesn't it have a striking resemblance to a heart? Must be a happy vine pruner enjoying the labor of love...

Friday, April 5, 2013

Margaret River Surf

Margaret River is mecca for surfing; most surfers have heard plenty of stories and seen plenty of photographs from the area through acquaintances and in magazines. With nearly 100 named surf breaks along the rugged 130-kilometer coastline, surf pumps through the region's veins. Year-round swells keep locals happy and attract tourists from all over Australia and the world.
You may have seen coverage of the recent Drug Aware Margaret River Pro. The contest ran just a few weeks ago, featuring some of the world's best surfers competing at the legendary Surfer's Point break in Prevelly (pictured above). I working all week and didn't get a chance to take in any of the action but I know they had pretty good waves for the event (my day off actually coincided with the finals but also coincided with me going surfing all day with my friend Jim). Starting next year, this event will be one of ten composing the ASP World Championship Tour (it was part of the women's tour this year, but only an ASP Prime event for the men's).

It's pretty obvious that surfing is a major part of my life so my busy vintage schedule during my stay here has been a bit frustrating when the swell is pumping. Still, I've been getting enough surf to keep me happy (I'd be happier with more, but I'm not complaining). Usually I'm too excited about getting in the water to snap off any photographs, but I have managed to take a few. With another swell set to arrive throughout the day tomorrow and peak Sunday, there will be plenty of waves about this weekend while I'm slaving away in the cellar. Who knows, maybe we'll have an early afternoon?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Harvest Update - Halfway Through Reds

Read this season's previous harvest updates: And It Begins, Nearly Through the Whites.

I've been blatantly absent from the internet for the past several weeks due to some long work hours (and of course, squeezing in the odd surf when I have the chance). Last I wrote, we were just getting ready to receive the last of our white varietals here at Vasse Felix, and preparing to move onto red varietal harvesting.
 
This past weekend saw several batches of Malbec arrive at the winery, which has put us past halfway through our expected red varietal tonnage. Red varietal processing is rather time consuming and has now taken over most of our wine work; the majority of our white wines have finished ferment and been packed away in tanks or barrels (the most glaring exception to this is the Cut Cane Semillon that arrived just over a week ago and is slowly moving through fermentation).

Tomorrow marks the beginning of our final push of the 2013 vintage; the most recent harvesting schedule has the remainder of the fruit set to arrive during the next two weeks (though any winemaker will tell you this can never be set in stone, there's just too many variables). Thus far, we've received the majority of our Shiraz and Malbec, along with a few batches of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet France. This leaves us waiting primarily on the later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

Margaret River's reputation rests largely on its superb Bordeaux varietal wines. Cabernet Sauvignon is of course the shining star, but I've been very impressed with the Malbec and Petit Verdot. These are two varietals that have always been a major blending component in Bordeaux wines and have more recently began making marks as single-varietal wines in New World regions (most people would think of Argentina when discussing Malbec, and California has several lovely single-varietal Petit Verdots available).

As a self-proclaimed yeast lover, I've been very surprised with the use of indigenous yeast here at Vasse Felix. I've always been a big fan of using indigenous yeast when possible, but none of the previous wineries I have worked with have relied so extensively on indigenous yeast, particularly with red varietals. The wines turn out beautifully too!