“Whole cluster pressed, settled overnight and racked to barrel for non-inoculated primary and secondary fermentation. Barrel aged 14 months, racked twice, assembled and tank aged for 2 months prior to bottling.”
Last week, I began to tease out the information contained in this not-so-simple little sentence. It's a fairly typical example of a good, informative wine bottle back label. It shows that the winery is really trying to help the consumer by offering all these winemaking details, but what does it really mean? To decipher this sort of wine speak, one needs to have a good understanding of the vocabulary of winemaking, which is often complex, and highly confusing!
We left off last week's Wine 101 having discussed whole cluster pressing, setting, and racking, all steps of winemaking that one can encounter before the fermentation begins, so it only makes sense that our next term should be:
Non-inoculated primary fermentationYikes – do I really want to drink this? Well, while it may sound a bit off-putting, it’s really a very interesting and valuable phrase. What it means is that the winemaker has chosen to use the natural yeast that floats around the winery and among the vines to convert the sugar in the grapes into alcohol.
The alternative is for the winemaker to use commercial or cultivated yeast. These two terms aren’t really interchangeable, but are used that way nonetheless. Commercial yeast are just what they sound like: Yeast strains that are propagated commercially and sold with the promise of specific, consistent performance traits. They may promise to produce a fruitier wine, or to withstand alcohol levels that naturally-occurring yeast strains might not be able to survive. I won’t pass blanket judgment on all commercial yeast, for some applications they may very well be the right choice, but I think I can tell when some producers use them. For example, when I smell passionfruit in my Barolo barrel sample!
Cultivated yeast does generally refer to those self-same commercial yeasts, but not always. Some wineries cultivate their native yeast strains so that they can get fermentation started quickly. When one relies on the sometimes-modest numbers of yeast cells living among the vines, fermentation can sometimes take a bit too long to get started, increasing the risk of oxidative and volatile acids faults in the finished wine. By increasing the population of the native yeasts in a fermentation vessel a winemaker can get the fermentation going more quickly without changing the flavors of the final wine.
Secondary Fermentation, AKA Malolactic FermentationMalolactic fermentation generally follows the alcoholic fermentation, though they can be made to begin at virtually the same time. Simply put it is the conversion of the hard, sharp malic acid that gives green apples their tart bite into the softer lactic acid that gives yogurt and some soft cheese their zesty edge.
Unlike the alcoholic fermentation, which relies on yeast, this conversion is performed by bacteria. In general, red wines undergo malo, as it’s commonly referred to, though many white wines, which depend much more on their acid for structure, flavor and mouthfeel, are prevented from undergoing malo.
Malolactic fermentation changes a wine in several appreciable ways. First, it lowers the perception of acidity, and in fact lowers the totally acidity in a wine since malic to lactic is not a one-to-one conversion. Secondly, it allows for the creation of several important flavoring compounds. The most important of these is probably Diacetyl, or in layman’s term, that delicious buttery smell!
Barrel AgedAnother pretty self-explanatory phrase, it simply means that the wine was aged in a barrel, but it doesn’t specify what size or type of oak. One reason why wine is aged is oaked in wood barrels is that there is a slow exchange between the wine and oxygen through the porous wood staves of the oak barrel. Now you’re right if you’re thinking, "Didn’t he just say that winemakers try to prevent the oxidation of their wine?”
That certainly holds during the winemaking process, but once the wine is finished the slow and controlled introduction of oxygen allows the tannins to soften, and even promotes color retention and adds to the flavor of the wine. It should come as no surprise then that barrel aging, as opposed to barrel fermentation, is a term usually, but not always, associated with red wines. That vanilla, toast, and chocolate you might have noticed in your wines is most likely the result of time spent in new, toasty barrels. As barrels are used, these flavors lose intensity, with many winemakers calling barrels that have been used for 4 vintages neutral.
Assembled and Tank AgedWell, those barrels that most winemakers are using range roughly between the most popular 225-liter Barrique, and Tonneaux of several hundred liters. Of course, most commercially available wines are produced in greater quantities than that. So, how does a winemaker make one consistent wine from a number of barrels? It’s simple -- use a bigger barrel! Actually, in this case "vessel" is probably a more appropriate term since it’s probably a stainless steel or even concrete tank that will be used to marry the wine from all of the smaller barrels. Those extra 2 months of aging can make all the difference in allowing all the disparate elements of the component wines to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts!
Wow, I never thought that little sentence would end up expanding into such a lengthy piece, but I do hope that my brief explanation will help you next time you’re faced with a jargon-laced wine back label!