Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It's oh so quiet.

The phenomenon of noise during harvest time is not really something that I have considered too much before, or at least until today when we turned off some of our noisy equipment and peace was finally restored in the bodega.

It's fair to say that the grape picking itself is not a particularly noisy exercise (unless you include tractors buzzing around the vineyards), but then once the fruit enters the bodega, then that's a different story.....

By far the noisiest piece of kit is the pneumatic press, not quite on the same level as a pneumatic drill, but not too far behind at times. The constant drone and whirring of this huge machine reverberates around the bodega for the duration of the picking - a very familiar noise that is uniquely synonymous with the harvest, and yet at the same time, somehow strangely comforting (reminiscent of the hum of your mother's vacuum cleaner when you were a small child).

The refridgeration unit of our cooling system is also permanently buzzing away in the background, sometimes assaulting your ears as you step from your car first thing in the morning - the fans and extractors for this system are immediately adjacent to our car park.

Finally, there are the cellar extractors that generate quite a lot of noise, but without which we might all die (I exaggerate not). Don't forget that one of the main by-products of the alcoholic fermentation is gas, in the form of carbon dioxide. Without a system to remove this, the cellar would soon become a very dangerous place as a deadly blanket of this practically odourless killer would form at ground level. On the odd occassion when you momentarily forget this and put your face too near the top of a fermenting tank, you are very quickly reminded as the CO2 simply takes your breath away - not something you do too often!

I should also make mention that once the fermentation was under way, we then had to turn our attention to a bit of bottling - to catch up with our backlog of orders. Even when wearing a pair of ear defenders the constant clanking of bottles for hours on end still manages to rattle your brain. Not really a harvest related sound, but very noisy nonetheless.

The point of my story is really to say that the fermentations (and bottlings) are all now finished, and for the first time since the 2009 campaign started, the extractors have been turned off, and the bodega has fallen silent once again.

If only I could get Angela to fall silent for a day or two (those of you who know her will of course realise that this is just wishful thinking)!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Are you colour blind?

Click on image to enlarge

So, it's been a few days since my last blog entry, but as I think I mentioned we have been really busy, bottling and generally catching up with post-harvest jobs. Alcoholic fermentations are almost finished, and everything is still looking pretty good..... we remain optimistic.

As a bit of light relief I just wanted to make another post about road signs, but this time nothing to do with directions to our own bodega.

The local council have recently updated many road signs in our area, including those highlighting recommended wine routes. Each type of sign has a colour coded background, so that you can instantly identify the category of attraction or monument being signposted. For example, the old wine route signs used to have a dark, bottle green background, and these have now been updated with a horrible, rancid, pale green colour - not the most attractive selection.

The most dramatic of these changes is, without doubt, the historical monuments - formerly a sober brown colour, the signs have now been changed to a rather sickly, fluorescent mustard-yellow colour. Of course you might imagine that such a bright colour would stand out, whereas in fact the exact opposite is true.

The picture above shows a fairly huge sign at the side of our local Autovia, directing would be visitors to a nearby monastery, or at least that is what I think it says! The problem is that the new sign is almost totally illegible until you are within about 10 or 15 metres of it, and in very bright sunlight you can barely read the lettering at all.

This has not gone unnoticed in the local press, and questions are being asked as to how this colour could have been selected in the first place....... either bad taste, or perhaps just poor judgement? Out here in the countryside is doesn't take much to make the local news!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The dark side of the moon

You can just about see the moon's horizon, but earth is not visible

Yesterday was probably one of our busiest days in the cellar - plenty of wine making action, not to mention a visit from our Australian importer, and an Australian journalist - travelling seperately, but both, totally by co-incidence, arriving with us on the same day..... Oh, and by the way, it was a public holiday in Spain just for good measure!

The only option, in order to accomodate everything, was a very early start, and doing as much as we could before they both arrived around lunch time. We had already made clear, very early on, that going out for lunch was not an option, and that they should either eat before, or bring a sandwich! I have to say that we are usually much more friendly and hospitable than this, but unfortunately at this time of year it is the rapidly emerging wine that dictates our timetable - time and good wine waits for no man.

One of our current jobs in the cellar is adding a fining agent to the fermentation in the shape of Wyoming bentonite. Bentonite is a special type of clay that was first named in Wyoming in the 19th century, and is distinct from other clays in that it is formed from volcanic ash. Without trying to get too technical, it is a negatively charged substance which when hydrated and added to wine, will attract the positively charged particulate in the wine. As bentonite hydrates and swells it becomes like a sponge, and after mixing it thoroughly into the wine, the positively charged matter in the wine attaches to the bentonite. The weight of the molecules then cause the matter to drop to the bottom of the tank and become what is known as 'finings'.

There you are, clear as mud, if you'll pardon the pun.

Anyway, my picture today is not from a moon landing as the title would imply, but is merely the surface of the bentonite solution after it had been hydrated. Pretty.....

Saturday, October 10, 2009

No.9 - a divine number?

'Perfect' merlot grapes in Bordeaux

No sooner had I declared that we were pretty happy with our Albariño harvest this year than the Bordeaux producers jumped on the bandwagon and claimed to have produced their best crop in 60 years. It seems like they have already forgotten 2005 which they described as the 'perfect' vintage, not to mention that it is probably far too early in the campaign to make such bold statements. Usually such comments are reserved for the annual tasting which is held in Bordeaux every spring following the vintage (when the wines are still very much in their infancy). The cynical side of me tends to ask if this might have something to do with the very poor Primeur sales that they have experienced in the region over the last two years.

Now, I am not saying that it won't be a good, or possibly even a great vintage (and certainly a bit of early hype never goes amiss), but it should be remembered that this comment was made by the director of the Bordeaux Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences, so you might say that he has a bit of a vested interest. I can also remember one French producer who claimed to have at least 4 or 5 'vintages of the century' during the 1980's alone - in the end such claims just start to lose any credibility.

An interesting footnote for numerologists or perhaps just for those who like to compile vintage charts - it would seem that 2009 has given us yet another good vintage ending with the year '9'. OK, so it's a sweeping generalisation, but if you look back there are far more good vintages than bad ones, not to mention one or two truly exceptional - 1949, 1959 for example (not that I have any of these in my private cellar).

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Did someone order pizza?

Apart from everything else that is happening in the bodega at the moment - cleaning, preparing orders, drinking tea, etc. we also have the small but not insignificant matter of making wine.

After the removal of some impurities by chilling the new grape must and allowing it to 'settle', we allow the temperature to recover and then begin the process of innoculation (in reality a task that was completed a few days ago). Now, some in our area might claim that they ferment their wine with the natural yeasts that live on the grape skins, but in our own experience this simply does not work. The 'wild' yeasts are just not strong enough to survive the rigours of a full alcoholic fermentation, which is why they have to be augmented each time with cultured yeasts.

It is quite amusing when the yeast salesman comes knocking these days - he virtually opens his catalogue, and asks "well, what flavour do you want?" In the case of our bodega the answer is always the same - we want a very neutral yeast that does not mask or alter the natural fruit of the albariño grape. In my former life as a wine buyer I always looked for wines that were the most typical of the area from which they originated, a 'textbook wine' if you will. Today nothing has changed - Angela and I still focus our efforts on making the most pure and typical albariño that we can...... a wine that does exactly what is says on the label.

The photo above shows the yeast just after it has been rehydrated, and before we add it to the tanks. At this moment the cellar is filled with a wonderful aroma (assuming that you like the smell of yeast), and Angela just can't resist getting her hands into the foaming mass to help start it working. In fact, if I didn't stop her she would probably start eating the stuff!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

♫Just in time...♪♫

Pretty much within a couple of days of picking the last fruit of 2009, the sun finally disappeared and the skies turned a more familiar autumnal grey. Then, a few days later the heavens opened, and the rain came down...... stair rods, to use an old-fashioned expression.

Of course this did not stop the work of cleaning the cases that we use for picking, for two reasons. Firstly, our guys have to be well water-proofed against the pressure washers anyway, and secondly, the rain actually helps to loosen the dirt a little. Indeed, if the cases sit outside waiting to be cleaned in hot sunshine, then the sticky grape juice simply bakes on and becomes even more difficult to clean. To be honest, the way the rain is coming down at the moment perhaps we don't even need the machines!

Inside the cellar we have a backlog of orders to prepare, but we really need to finish cleaning before we can even contemplate this. For example, our bottling and labelling hall is currently filled with stock that we usually keep in the area into which the presses are emptied. Emptying presses is probably the messiest part of the whole harvest, hence the fact that we have to keep the area completely clear.

We hope that within a week or so normal service will be resumed.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Counting the cost

With the picking over, and our tanks filled with fresh grape must, we switch into deep clean mode. The sticky juice just gets everywhere - floors, walls, stairs, door handles - you name it. Then of course, there is the equipment - tanks, presses, pumps, hoses, not to mention the odd couple of thousand baskets that we use to collect the fruit - all covered with a gluey, syrup-like coating. The pressure washers are working overtime.

Seeding the tanks is about to begin, but in the meantime we also have to spend time in the office analysing the cost of this year's operation. In addition to the overtime accrued by our own full-time staff we also examine in detail the costs of our casual staff (picking team), and consider how this may or may not affect our future tariffs. The final bottle price not only relates to the price of grapes, but also to every single cost associated with handling them. In Rias Baixas where only manual picking can be used, regrettably this is never cheap.

In recent years we have collected detailed information of all these incidental costs in order that we can compare the efficiency of each campaign, and make adjustments where necessary. In addition to this, Angela keeps records of every single grape, and it's path through the cellar, giving us complete traceability of every step in the winemaking process.

Thank heavens for Excel!