On natural wine and its influence on my winemaking

I’ve written about it on the blog before, but I wanted to write a more dedicated post on my thoughts on natural wines, why everyone is buzzing about them, and their role in my own wine world.

What is natural wine?

This is the question you’ll see most debated online it seems. Not just the question being asked, but wine-insiders debating the asking of the question in the first place. There are some who want precise, legalistic definitions; and there are those who prefer the rougher, holistic perspective of determining the boundaries.

How much sulphur added is too much? Does the colonization of cellars by commercial yeasts complicate the reliance on native yeasts? Or, ultimately, is the term “natural” simply used to define a millennialhipster culture or is it about greater questions of sustainability? If the former, is that a result of the exclusion of a new generation of wine consumers through the exponential price inflation?

If you squint past the cultural debates and try to focus on the winemaking practices that are connected to what’s considered natural wine, I think it can be boiled down to a few elements: sustainably grown and sourced grapes; no adjustments for acid, tannin, etc.; minimal (if any) sulfite addition; no added commercial yeast.

There are a lot of holes, debates, and expansions in that list above, for sure. But, when you get tired of going deep into these debates, that’s perhaps the least objectionable zone that could get closest to a definition.

Why is everyone talking about natural wine right now?

I linked to a bunch of articles and blog posts above. But, there are many more where those came from.

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Project updates

Looks like it’s 63 degrees

Minimal Additives Riesling Kit

This is the kit I had hanging under my desk for a few months and got it going at the end of April. It’s gone through some ups and downs over the past few months, but today I figured it was time to give it a racking. Possibly its last.

It had developed a thin, but notable layer of yeast down at the bottom of the carboy. The bubbles from the degassing CO2 at the top were starting to dissipate as well. I figured that it would be good to get it off the yeast residue and that the racking would speed up the degassing process. I grabbed a sip as I racked and was pleasantly surprised. It was certainly still bubbly but pleasantly acidic and not overly sweet.

The racking process left me with a bit of headspace again, but I fortunately had a bottle of Frey white hanging out in the basement. I used about half that bottle to get the level back up. (Does that count as an additive?)

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Yeast Trials: Stage 1

The contestants

One thing I’ve always seen as a blind spot for me is the selection of yeast. It’s the linchpin to the development of wine, but here I am: guessing at what to use based on what I’m reading in online charts and anecdotes. In the theme of this blog then: time to document this stuff. Let’s figure out what the differences are between the major commercial yeasts out there.

Now, yes, I did just narrow this to commercial yeast strains and cut out the wild strains that some of my favorite wines/wineries use. But that can’t really be replicated (as I have discovered!) without a great deal of trespassing in the dead of night. I could test any wild strains that are hanging out in my basement — I have heard that a former tenant a few decades ago made wine down there — but it’s hard to see that it would be replicable in the future. So if I’m going to run some tests, I’m pretty much limited to the commercial yeast strains.

The Testing Plan

So here’s the plan as it stands today: I hope to run three different trials of yeast, testing three strains each trial, in three one-gallon jugs. In an effort to keep as many variables constant as possible, I’ll be using the same juice medium and storing them in the same dark closet which typically stays in the neighborhood of 68 degrees.

I’ll run each fermentation until it stops. This may be different for the different strains, so it wouldn’t surprise me if one finished up before the others. What I hope to do is taste it once when fermentation has stopped and then again a few weeks later to see if anything has changed. As I’m writing this, I think that means that I just committed to bottling.

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2018 Chardonnay: Using fresh juice

Sporting one of the fancy new labels

That whole FroZin affair I wrote about? That was all in preparation for an attempt using fresh grapes from last years harvest. I thought of the frozen must as a test run for the real thing come September.

Choosing the varietal

I did want to make it a bit easier on myself though, so I decided I’d use pressed white juice bought through Brehm. Other than the frozen Zinfandel must, my experience up until this point had been with kits: a successful white and two mediocre reds. The choice of pressed white juice was playing it safe: better memories of success and no skins to deal with.

I browsed Brehm’s site for white varietals that could be picked up within driving distance of San Francisco and settled on the Chardonnay from Tolay Springs Vineyard (basically the only option that suited my criteria). I ordered 6.5 gallons of it in August and waited.

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Case of the stolen yeast: continued

I wrote last weekend that I loved Tony Coturri’s wine, was generally not impressed by my own cheap-kit attempts (surprise), and planned to nab some of the yeast from Coturri despite that it was virtually guaranteed to not translate any of that wine’s character. Smart.

It started with a starter, however. To create a starter, you need to have something for the yeast to eat, namely sugar. In my previous experience with apples, I’d often pitched commercial yeast in a small mixture of cider and honey just to kickstart it before pitching into the juice. It always worked reasonably well, but this time I would use organic, preservative-free grape juice as the base. I could only find Concord grape juice, so that’s what I used. I figured this would be enough sugar to get any yeast in the Coturri going again.

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Case of the stolen yeast

One of my favorite winemakers is Tony Coturri. The first I heard of him was maybe eight or so years ago, when a friend was describing his tasting trip up to Sonoma/Napa. Something like: “He doesn’t add any yeast, but only uses what’s in the air or comes from his beard.” Beard-yeast. That stuck with me and not in the most positive way. I understood that the secondhand story was merely illustrative and he wasn’t dipping his beard in the juice, but still . . . beard-yeast.

That story aside, my friend’s enthusiasm was infectious, so I had to check it out. I made my own way to Coturri the following summer and became a loyalist in short order. It was really an eye-opening moment for me. His was unlike any other wine I had had up until that point. I was never really big into wine and had been a whiskey blogger for a number of years at that point. But Tony’s wine was something else. It had a character that was exciting and unfamiliar to me; it felt like you could read the production from the flavor; it alluded to the existence of a similar expansiveness that could exist in the wine world that I was following in my whiskey blogging life.

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