Winemaking… Some personal musings following Vintage 2021…
Our journey from simple grape growers to making all of our wines ourselves on site has been a steep learning curve where the more you learn, the less you seem to know. And the more you learn about modern winemaking additives and processes, the more you question whether they are really necessary or best for the wine.
Oak vs no oak is one of the first dilemmas I encountered. For 12 years I had held a strong opinion that using oak takes away the “authenticity” of a wine. That is, oak is a flavouring that can hide the true flavours of the “terroir”. Over time, I came to realise that careful use of oak, perhaps only in small portions of the overall blend, can give the gentle oxygenation and soft tannins that can actually enhance the wines expressiveness of terroir. Besides, in the traditional concept of terroir, the human component of winemaking tradition is included. We spent time tasting different oak toasts and forests to ind the ones that best matched our wines. Now, after 8 years, our barrels are mostly old, large formal (300-600litre), and we would purchase about 10% new oak each year. The mix of about 50% steel tank, 45% old oak and 5% new oak seems about right on average.
Yeast vs no yeast is another one. Does the use of commercial winemaking yeast take away a wine’s authenticity? Using “wild yeast” means the fermentation is achieved through the 500-or-so strains of yeast that, they say, occur naturally on the skin of grapes (organic, of course!). However, those natural yeasts may not be good for wine. They could be strains that lead to reductive wines (hydrogen sulfide resulting from yeast starved of nutrients) or wines high in naturally occurring sulfites (also a by-product of fermentation). They might be yeasts that cant tolerate the higher alcohol levels of the final stages (resulting in stuck or incomplete fermentation) or generally sluggish to kick off in the early stages (leaving the juice vulnerable to bacterial infection unless sulfites are added. Commercial yeasts have been bred that do not do any of this – and they are natural and non-GMO – and are often “neutral” in their impact on wine flavour.
Even so, I have made several wild yeast wines over the last 6 years and they certainly can be nerve-racking but also very satisfying. This year I made three wild fermented wines and they are tasting great, but they did smell acetic in the early stages.
The yeast question pales into pure philosophical self indulgence compared to the sulfite question. Sulfites have been used for centuries as an anti-bacterial and anti-oxidant additive, but any winemaker knows how bad they are for you. I once had a severe asthma attack using potassium metabisulfite, the most commonly used form of suflite. But more important, when you ingest sulfites in your food and wine, what do they do to your microbiome, and if you have an allergy, to your immune system? Sulfites are really quite a toxic chemical, certainly the most toxic additive permitted in wine (including organic wine, except in the US standards). Apparently, the Romans didnt use sulfites in their wine, because they didnt use barrels. Rather than adding sulfites, maybe its better to sanitise barrels with steam, use low-sulfite-producing commercial yeast, and protect juice and wine from oxygen with natural fining agents and inert gas.
Either way, I do find it quite ironic that so many of the so-called “natural” wines sold in Australia still contain sulfites (I plead guilty to this too, but not since my 2017 Garage Wine No7).
Then there’s the question of the many “fining agents” used in wine. Traditionally, they were milk or egg, even gelatine. In french, a fining agent is called “colle”, which also means “glue” – this is certainly a more honest word for it. Proteins added to wine (as well as other minerals such as bentonite or charcoal) act like a glue, grabbing certain flavours and binding them, before sinking to the bottom of the barrel or tank and being “racked off” the wine (hence technically not an “additive”). Since the advent of veganism, most wineries are moving away from animal protein fining agents, and using proteins derived from peas, potato or yeast, to take out hard, oxidised flavours. Yeast products, such as yeast hulls and mannoproteins, can also help to stop wine and juice from oxidising. And natural tannins, derived from oak and even chestnut, can also protect from oxidation.
What about filtration and stabilisation? Personally, I don’t mind if a wine is slightly cloudy, as long as it doesn’t affect the taste and is not caused by fermentation in the bottle. However most people see haze (either yeast lees or unstable protein) or crystalline sediment (tartrate precipitate, or “cream of tartar”) as a flaw in wine.
As you can see, its complicated! That is one of the reasons I love to make our “Garage Wines” – our range of wines that are zero-additive. They are like a reality-check for me. They actually taste surprisingly good, and the cloudiness could actually be helping to preserve the wine (lees acting as an anti-oxidant). Our garage wines are more natural, variable, but fun!
Meanwhile, our “Freedom” range of wines are more polished and more consistent, These, the majority of our wines, are made using yeast and fining agents, filtration and stabilisation, and maybe a little new oak, but not with sulfites.
And the most important thing is, they are organically grown, and preservative free – which is best for you, our valued wine alficionados.
Looking forward to showing you my wines personally one day! Sam