Wine Ramblings

The point that I’m trying to make with all this, and that I’ll return to repeatedly, is that wine is not quantifiable; nor is any experience with wine perfectly replicable. Therefore, it seems absurd to try and break it down the fashion that the wine press attempts to do so: into a consumer good that is certain, finite, and readily describable. They do so because it is their job to do so, and because it sells a certain amount of advertising space, but it demeans the product to pretend that it is something that it isn’t. When a consumer opens a bottle and drinks it on any particular night, they are creating for themselves an experience that they will only have once, and that noone else in all of human existence will have. That is the beauty of wine, and it is its ultimate downfall as a piece of consumer art, for it is replicability that is required for that to be the case. It is not Pop Art; Andy Warhol has no place in the wine industry, despite what Dom Perignon may have to say. What anyone who knows anything about wine loves about it is that each experience is singular in nature, and each taste of any given wine is its own experience. These experiences can vary minorly, as intra-bottle sips of wine show new and intruiguing elements, or majorly, as one experiences different bottles of the same wine over a period of years.

One of the major points in favor of collecting wine in large quantity – by the case or more – is that the collector can return to a certain wine and see how it has changed over the years, how each bottle opened at a different time can show a completely different character. In essence, a collector on this level can have a wine in its youth, see it evolve over the length of its existence, and in the end, see it die. This is one of the true beauties of great wine – that it has a shelf life, but one that (in the case of the greatest wines of all time) rivals the length of any man’s time on Earth. Thus does it have the ability to become a constant companion; a collector’s favorite wines can age along with them, starting out youthful and exuberant, growing into maturity and peaking, and eventually becoming old, complex, and fragile.

Am I romanticizing this fermented grape juice beverage as much as the over-exuberant wine critics that I tend to disparage? Perhaps. But my perspective seems to be at the polar opposite of those who speak of wine in finite terms, in definite this-is-good-this-is-bad phrases. I think that each consumer has to take wine for what it is, and not necessarily overanalyze it, but instead just recognize its beauty or its inferiority for them personally at that moment. It’s so easy to be a know-it-all, but it doesn’t mean that you actually know anything more than anyone else.

Fermentation: Spontaneous or Inoculated?

I’d like to spend some time talking about various methods of wine production, decisions winemakers make, and their ramifications on the final product: The wine that comes out of the bottle when you pull the cork (or twist the Stelvin, or pop the glass cap, or.. Well, whatever). I want to start this discussion with the principal player in winemaking, the true winemakers, the yeasts. Today I’m going to post some half-coherant ramblings on the differences between spontaneous fermentation and commercial yeast fermentation.

To quote (and not for the last time) the great group-wisdom conglomerate of the 21st century, Wikipedia: “Yeasts are eukaryotic micro-organisms classified in the kingdom Fungi, with the 1,500 species currently described[1] estimated to be only 1% of all yeast species.” Fungi are, of course, that little-understood third branch of biology, not quite plant nor animal. Out of those 1,500 known species of yeast, one is of primary importance to fermentation: Saccharomyces cerevisiae. What does this little beauty do? Well, it converts the sugars existant in grape juice (or must, as is the winemaker’s term) into wonderful, intoxicating alcohol. Simple enough, yes? But even here, we run into some very complicated decisions for the winemaker. The first of these being: Spontaneous fermentation, or inoculation?

As discussed previously on this site, “spontaneous fermentation is exactly that: fermentation that occurs spontaneously, as opposed to occurring due to an inoculation of commercial yeast strains into the wine by the winemaker.” This is done for a plurality of reasons. For starters, it is the original method of winemaking; thousands of years ago, long before the development of commercial yeast strains (or even an understanding of what yeast was), fermentation just happened. This no doubt led to a somewhat mystical viewpoint on intoxication, as evidenced by the many mythical intoxication gods: Dionysus, Silenus, Ninkasi, et cetera. Secondly, many winemakers believe that it adds more complex elements to the wine; when doing spontaneous fermentation, it is actually several different species of yeast that start your fermentation. However, by the time the fermentation is complete it’s sacchararomyces cerevisiae (SC) that’s finished the job. That’s because it’s a species of yeast particularly well-suited for survival in the 3.5-4.0 pH that exists in (most) wine. Therefore, all the other species of yeast- such as Klockera, Zygosaccharomyces, et cetera- die off before the spontaneous fermentation is complete.

One of the fears with spontaneous fermentation is that the non-SC yeasts will produce off aromas in the wine. While complexity can be a good thing, it is in essence only good if it’s appealing; no consumer (or at least very few) enjoys the smell of rotting garbage in their Cabernet. Another fear is that spoilage bacteria will set in as well. When doing spontaneous fermentation winemakers must be very careful with their use of sulphur dioxide- the infamous sulfites found on the label of every bottle of wine sold in the United States.

Sulphur dioxide is a wine additive used for its antioxidaisic and antimicrobial properties. When a winemaker is doing a conventional fermentation with cultured yeast, they will generally add a certain amount of SO2 after crushing but before fermentation. The reasoning behind this is that it will suppress spoilage bacteria in the must. They will then add a mixture of cultured yeast and nitrogen-rich yeast nutrients, which will be strong enough to begin fermentation while the spoilage bacteria are still weakened. The bacteria then cannot survive in an increasingly alcohol-laden environment, and the wine (ideally) comes out clean and without spoilage imperfections.

You can see some positive and negative attributes to both spontaneous fermentation and inoculation already. However, there are many more. Another reason that some winemakers like to rely upon spontaneous fermentation is the oft-used and sometimes-maligned concept of terroir.

Spontaneous fermentation is supposedly one way for a winemaker to allow a vineyard’s terroir to express itself in his or her wines, and thus to push the wine further toward the natural end of the spectrum. The reasoning behind this idea is that the yeast involved in spontaneous fermentation is native to the vineyard; that is why the process is sometimes described as ‘native yeast fermentation.’ This is in harmony with the concept of keeping the vineyard as a closed cycle, introducing no man-made pollutants into the production of its wine. This is one of the major tenets of biodynamism, a school of thought that many works in harmony with the goal of expressing terroir.

If any winemakers are reading this, I’d be curious to learn their opinions on this subject (or anyone else’s opinions, for that matter). Yeast selection is an area where a winemaker can really geek out, and I’m still trying to expand my knowledge in this area.

Oregon, The Other Northwest: Beaux Freres

The Willamette Valley wine producing community, like much of Eastern Washington, is comprised of people passionate about place. These people who want to produce wines that have their own character and individual traits rather than being innocuous commercial products. Obviously this is not true of all producers in either region; a winery on the level of Chateau Ste Michelle needs to make a sound product at a reasonable price level. However, both regions are blessed with a high percentage of winemakers and vineyard managers dedicated to their soil, their climate, and the concept of minimal processing.

This isn’t always an easy thing to do, though the idea of doing less work on your product in order to increase its quality seems counter-intuitive. Take for example, though, the reasoning behind spontaneous fermentation, one of the methods used by winemakers trying to develop complexity in their wines.

Spontaneous fermentation is exactly that: fermentation that occurs spontaneously, as opposed to occurring due to an inoculation of commercial yeast strains into the wine by the winemaker (or whatever assistant, cellar rat or lowly unpaid intern to whom the task is assigned). Imagine the nerve-wracking anxiety associated with waiting for your fermentation to just start happening with no assurance whatsoever that it will ever take off, no knowledge that it will occur to completion (stuck fermentations being the bane of a winemaker’s existence), and no certainty that you haven’t just completely wasted the several thousand dollars worth of premium wine grapes you have before you.

In what other industry is such prima facie risky behavior encouraged in order to increase the quality of the product?

Enter the protagonist of our story: Beaux Freres. To quote the winery at length:

“Since our first vintage in 1991, the Beaux Frères philosophy remains the same; to produce a world-class Pinot Noir from small, well-balanced yields and ripe, healthy fruit that represents the essence of our vineyard. In pursuit of these goals, the Beaux Frères Vineyard is planted with tightly spaced vines, and yields are kept to some of the lowest in our industry. The grapes are harvested when physiologically (rather than analytically) ripe. Our winemaking philosophy is one of minimal intervention with clean fermentations utilizing indigenous yeast. The wines are stored in French oak for 10 to 12 months adjusting the percentage of new oak to compliment [sic] the wine the vintage has given us. Beaux Frères is never racked until it is removed from barrel for bottling, which occurs without fining or filtration. These non-manipulative, uncompromising methods guarantee a wine that is the most natural and authentic vineyard expression possible. Previous vintages demonstrate that these methods also allow our Beaux Frères to develop significant perfume, weight, and texture in the bottle.”

You’ll notice that they use the term ‘indigenous yeast’ rather than ‘spontaneous fermentation.’ Beaux Freres states on their website that fermentation “is typically allowed to occur spontaneously (usually within five or so days) with indigenous yeasts though we will intervene and inoculate with cultured yeast strains under certain conditions.” I assume that ‘certain conditions’ means ‘if spontaneous fermentation doesn’t occur within the first five days.’ Other wineries cultivate in a laboratory the yeast strains found in their estate vineyards, and then use those strains to inoculate their lots. This is a compromise position taken in an effort to have the best of both worlds: complexity and location-specific character, but also assurance that fermentation will occur.

I find their emphasis on spontaneous malolactic fermentation intriguing; I don’t hear many winemakers talking about that, and hadn’t really considered it as a feature of noninterventionist winemaking. It makes sense, though; if you’re not going to mess with the wine in so many other ways, why not that one, too?

Not racking their wine is an interesting point as well, but I think it’s an obvious choice for a Pinot Noir producer. The wine is delicate, without the heavy phenolic load of wines made from Syrah or Cabernet. Why risk oxidation? They even refer to it on their tech page as “reductive winemaking.” By the way, their website has some detailed things to say about their methods of production and philosophy in winemaking. I found it to be a fascinating read.

So why the long, rambly post about BF? Because I just had a chance to try a fantastic wine from them: The 2009 Les Cousins Pinot Noir.

Beaux Freres decided to declassify barrels of their other 2009 cuvees, and blend them into this early-release second label. I can only assume that they selected barrels that were showing high levels of maturity, because this wine is a showstopper at this early age. It is grand and delectable; the fruit is buxom, dark, and robust- very expressive. At the same time, it tastes like Pinot – no Syrah-ized glop here.

The price is the kicker: $25.99. While that doesn’t make it the cheapest thing in the world, the quality makes it well worth it. I’ve had other wines that they’ve made, but at $60-$80 a pop, who can afford them? I also consider its early drinkability to be a positive feature; cellarability is great and all, but sometimes you want a wine that you can just drink and enjoy.

Go! Find it, drink it, love it.