If I ever establish a winery of my own. I will require all employees to dress as storm-troopers.
It’s safe to say that rain is bad for wine-grapes. Grape-growers fear it like I feared that big kid with anger issues in middle school. That is why it’s been so wonderful that Australia has experienced an unexpected Monsoon season right in the middle of harvest. The rain has been long and over-whelming, pouring heavily on us for days. We’ve been missing work waiting on the rain and even though it finally ended Sunday, the dam in the local area is so loaded up with water it’s ruptured and today we had to be evacuated from the winery to avoid the incoming floods. (I’d tell you more, but they didn’t tell us much in the first place, and there are no local news stations out here)
With all this drama over water, water and more water, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking and reading deeper into what I know about rain. The issue with rain is very simple: it promotes rot and it promotes fruit bloating. We’ll tackle those one at a time.
Rot. Sounds pretty gnarly, doesn’t it? The thing is when your apples at home go rotten, you throw them out. However, if you are making wine in the Napa Valley and it rains, not making wine that year is not really an option, so what happens is the grapes arrive in the winery and the winemaker and the fruit begin to wage war. Besides just being icky, the rot impacts almost every aspect of the wine- it releases a small army of enzymes that start processes the winemaker simply doesn’t want to see happen. These enzymes negatively affect color, fruit aromas and also make the wine oxidize more easily. The rot itself (which is really just mold) actually eats up much of the acid and the nutrients in the grape needed for yeast and to boot, it releases lots of vinegar producing microbes. …wow, that was a long list of bad things. This is why wine-makers hate rain, and the closer to harvest you are, the more damage it does.
Bloating. No, we’re not talking about how you feel after a few too many hot-dogs. This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the fruit fills up with water. This means you lose sugar concentration as well as concentration in general. During most of the season, growers will often intentionally with-hold water to increase concentration, so when the rain comes, it undoes a lot of the work the grower has been trying to do.
So here we are in Australia, picking up the scraps after Monsoon Season 2012. Hopefully, we can salvage a vintage after this. The weather after rains makes a big impact on what grows on the vine. Unfortunately, it’s not our decision what happens from here on out, it’s just up to the weather.
*Hard-core wine nerd note- Rot does have one positive note- it promotes the metabolism of polyhydric alcohols or “sugar alcohols”, which is a terrifying name for equally scary-named glycerol, mannitol, erythritol (I’m hoping I never have to pronounce that one out loud), arabitol, sorbitol, xylitol and myo-inositol. Although mannitol has a little of a bad rap, generally, these compounds (especially glycerol) are purported to provide a soft sweetness with a round-ness on the palate and fuller mouth-feel.
*Personal note- did anyone understand the hard-core wine nerd note?
So Italian wine is a little, err… different. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing them to my mom’s favorite asparagus recipes (love you, mom!) but there’s no denying that Italian wine-making often times accomplishes a different set of goals than California wine-making. For those that don’t know, Italian, as well as most European wines- French wine especially, are known for higher acids and less alcohol, but just as much- more earthy flavors as opposed to fruity flavors, as well as less body than American wines. These attributes have always been ascribed as positive characteristics if you enjoy the style, because they develop wines that age well and compare to American wines in flavor much the same way coffee does to fruit juice. (Ok, that’s not really fair, cuz I love coffee WAY more than fruit juice)
I always figured this was because French and Italian winemakers just have different goals than we Americans. Sommeliers definitely seem to. They go nuts over wild yeast smells and other “old world” smells. I figured someday I’d have to make a trip to Europe and see how the old-school of wine does it. But then I moved to Australia, and I met Edoardo and Niccolo.
I have to say, I love these guys, they are intensely passionate about what they do, are deeply compassionate, love gastronomy, are kind, giving and so endearingly Italian their accents would embarrass a Super Mario. As interesting as they are culturally, they are both talented and brilliant Italian wine-makers. Edoardo is the most outspoken of the group, and when we started talking about our different wine-making philosophy, something he is not shy about, I expected it to be like something out of one a mid-90’s Jackie Chan film, a humorous mis-match of characters. (I also like to imagine that we would fight crime together) But what surprised me, actually, what shocked me, was how similar we were.
So far, Eduardo, Niccolo and I have gotten together and exchanged meals from our home countries, they’ve made traditional Italian dishes, and I’ve made, well, hot dogs. This week it’s burgers. We’ve sat and we’ve talked wine. It’s amazing to me how the Italian palate likes the gentle fruitiness of plums and berries of Shiraz as much if not more than I do, and that they are more forgiving of prominent alcohol than I am (that really surprised me) and so far, we’ve liked the same wines. I’ve also noticed that all that wine funk that we American winemakers look at in disgust (such as sulfur off-flavors, spoilage yeast and oxidation) they look on with equal disgust. When talking about Brettanomyces, Edoardo wrinkles his nose, sneers, and shakes his head a lot, a much more honest version of what I would say about the same thing.
The one difference that I have noticed between them and myself is a taste for acid. As an American wine-maker, the primary goal of acid use is just to make sure you don’t confuse my wine with grape-juice. For them, however, it is a mandatory necessity, and they seem to enjoy it flavor-wise. Having your acid right makes the process of wine-making go a lot easier, but American wine-makers seem more willing to wrestle with the problems of lower acids than do the Italians (and the Australians, for that matter). I think what I’ve probably learned here is that the Italian palate is very open-minded, that fruity smells are every much as enjoyable to the Italian winemaker as is a dark, earthy red. Also, I would guess that there is a relationship between the open-minded-ness towards acid and a different perception of wines that some Americans might find austere. There may be less need for fruit and the “sweetness” derived from higher alcohols, high levels of oak and other natural poly-saccharides (scary word! just means stuff it the grape that gives sweet taste) when you have more of a appreciation for acid.
Maybe next time I see them (hopefully soon!) we should have a toast to acid!