June 23, 2011
Brewing beer is an art where the effort is packed into a short period. The vast majority of decisions take placing on brewing day, when you've got to multi-task, hit all your expected numbers, and get all the temps, sanitation, and additions right. Wine and mead making are much more drawn out. And amazingly, much of the skill is in paying attention to your fermented wine or mead and reacting to it. Instead of exerting control over all factors, as one constantly tries to in beer, you've got to let the wine control you.
If that sounds hopelessly European and romantic, it probably is. A bit exaggerated, too, since you of course have to sanitize just as well in wine as in beer and do try to control as much as possible. But while the ingredients for beer are amazingly consistent, the harvest of grapes and honey really does vary hugely depending on the location and year. So using the exact same recipes and procedures as you did for last year's harvest is going to produce different results this time. You can either fight that or flow with it, with your tongue as your guide.
This past fall Northern Brewer got in a shipment of several tons of fresh Washington wine grapes for our local customers. The grapes were impressive, well balanced in acidity and sugar levels with minimal rot and lots of plump, juicy clusters. I had a couple lugs of Shiraz to work with that were nicely fruity and had a fairly large skin/seed to flesh ratio. That signaled to me that they would probably have ample tannins. With that being the case I decided to press a bit earlier and less fully to minimize tannin extraction. I chose to use the Vintner's Harvest CR-51 yeast, which I had previously used in a Shiraz wine kit. It highlights the acidity and brings out dark fruit and chocolate flavors, which I hope will make for a snappy but interestingly balanced wine.
The wine fermented just fine and I transferred to a 5 gallon carboy for aging. Early samples showed a lot of promise but also a lot of intensity. The acidic zip was there, along with tannins on the high end of what I would be looking for. Now that it is spring it's time to take another sample and make some decisions. Oak? Malo-lactic fermentation? Blending?
I just had the first taste of this wine since transferring almost 6 months ago. The intensity has diminished on most fronts, but there is still an aggressive tannic bite. I'm not getting as much chocolate as I was earlier in the wine's life; instead there is a pronounced dark cherry flavor. Perhaps a bit more fruit-forward than I expected, even from a Shiraz. I decided to proceed with some heavy toast French oak. This should help soften the tannins some and provide some nice roasty notes to balance out all that fruit. I'll take another taste after some time on the oak and see what the wine has to offer at that point. Meanwhile, the 2009 Cabernet is just starting to come around and get tasty - time to enjoy it!