It's All About Extraction
Well, this is a little blue and bright, thanks to the florescent lights, but you can see that the color is in the skins – the juice runs clear. You probably know that all of the color and most of the flavor, texture and tannin - everything we love about red wine - comes from the skins.
So, we want to get as much color and flavor as the skins have to give but also want to keep the tannins in check. It’s a real balancing act. One tool in our toolbox is to kind of blanket the grapes with dry ice when they’re being destemmed. This brings the temperature down enough to delay the onset of fermentation for a few days and also prevents the fresh juice from oxidation.
Time, temperature and alcohol are key factors in coaxing the goodies out of the skins. By doing a “cold soak”, or deferring the fermentation a bit, we get a head start on color and flavor extraction and, since there's no alcohol in the mix, we've pulled out the supple skin tannins only - virtually nothing from the seeds. Some years we allow as much as five days of cold soak. This year, we were really pleased with the bright fruity flavors and anthocyanin (color) extraction we got in the first few days and we kept it relatively brief.
Then, we warmed the juice up to 75 degrees and inoculated with yeast for primary fermentation. It takes the yeast a day or so to get acclimated and begin to reproduce and then we’re off to the races!
The warm fermentation enhances color and flavor extraction and the alcohol is almost like a solvent in that regard. The warmth really gets the yeast going, too. It's like letting your bread dough rise on a sunny windowsill and fermentation doesn't often take much more than a week.
As the wine ferments, the skins keep rising to the top of the tank to form a thick layer called the "cap" (le chapeau, if you're French!). In order to get good extraction it’s important to keep the cap mixed in with the fermenting juice - it's called cap management. There are a few different ways to accomplish it and with the low yields this year we decided to go with open top fermenters so we could manage the cap by hand.
We go in with what looks like a giant, stainless-steel potato masher and break up the cap (it takes a surprising amount of effort - it puts up pretty good resistance!) and then do a thorough job of pushing the skins down into the wine. It's called a "punch down" and this is a very gentle way of getting the job done - no pumping. We do this a few times a day - how often depends upon how active the fermentation is.
Now, you see that we’ve leached most of the color from the skins, which also means most of the flavor. We’ll drain the wine and press out the skins in a few days. Stay tuned!
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