What do winemaking and lovemaking have in common? While I’m searching for a punch line, picture this: an exacting young woman. Inexperienced but with brilliant aspirations and all the makings for greatness. She wants to give her all but conditions need to be just right. Too hot and she exhausts herself too early. Too cold and she becomes sluggish. Treat her roughly and she may become bitter. Neglect her and she will desiccate. And every woman is different and will respond differently to her environment. So will every grape respond with a life of its own to the longing winemaker’s advances.
This is what makes winemaking exciting. It is the thrill of guiding the fruit to its ultimate expression. But there are many twists and turns along the way. Take the Cabernet Sauvignon that my winemaking partner at la escuelita, Iker Turcott, and I are working on. It was a perfect, clean harvest. The fruit looked marvelous. Temperatures after the crush were in a good range, and a day later native yeasts began to ferment with no assistance, lending complexity to our cherished little prodigy. We inoculated with a cultured yeast a day later to insure a strong and complete fermentation. Things were going along in happy, text book progression. What we cannot control however are the vagaries of weather.
At la escuelita, fermentations take place in open vats in the traditional artisanal method. The buildings are open-air and it is not a temperature controlled environment. Yeasts – both native and cultured—live and thrive under favorable conditions, but stress the yeast with very high or low temperatures and it will not do its job properly. This is what happened to us. A heat wave had Iker and I running back and forth during the day carrying ice to the fermenting must, struggling to keep the temperatures in a healthy range for the yeast to function.
Despite our best intentions, the must temperature spiked several times but fermentation continued energetically and we prepared to press. Then out of the blue nighttime temperatures dropped precipitously. This seemed like a good thing till we noticed that our fermentation began to slow down until it came to a near stop.
A “stuck” fermentation is one of the nightmares that every winemaker fears. When yeast dies too early, before the residual sugars are transformed into alcohol, you are really in a proverbial pickle. Without the Co2 that fermentation produces to protect the must it is subject to bacterial contamination. To remedy this you can press early and end up with a sweeter wine than you intended. If you have the immediate services of a lab you can analyze in detail the root of the problem and correct it with additions, such as adding tartaric acid if the pH is too low or adding nutrients that the must may be lacking in order for the yeast to perform. Über- vigorous yeasts are marketed for the purpose of restarting stuck fermentations so a re-inoculation is a possibility if all other conditions are favorable. We do not have the services of a lab so we did what every nervous novice winemaker would do: we asked other, more experienced winemakers! The consensus is: 1) Put the vat in the sun and let the must warm up a little. The yeast is still working but very very slowly. A little warmth should revive the activity. 2) Because the must is already “dry”, that is with very little residual sugar, we should press as soon as possible. As soon as possible is Monday due to the fact that all presses are occupied by other winemakers scheduled ahead of us. ‘Tis the season.
Meanwhile Iker and I are whispering sweet nothings to our beautiful young wine, coddling and pampering her through this challenging stage in her development. There may be no knowing the mind of a woman (or a grape) but our intentions are noble and like good parents, good mentors, and good lovers everywhere, patience, attention and gentle guidance will see us through.
Photos courtesy of my daughter, Ava Perez