Decisions, Decisions

Have you ever wondered why the larger Spec’s stores carry so many wines? The SPEC’s mother-ship at 2410 Smith Street in Houston stocks almost 12,000 different wines. The Brodie Lane store in Austin checks in with over 7200 wines. And the North-Central-Expressway-at-Walnut-Hill store in Dallas stocks almost 6500 distinct wines and is steadily growing. Surely they can’t all be that good or even that different, can they? In fact, maybe you’ve wondered why there are so many wines at all. After all, there aren’t that many spirits (whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, liqueurs, etc.) or beers or even soda pops. The Smith Street store in Houston (which may have the largest selection in the world) stocks a “mere” 4200-plus spirits and “only” 1370 beers. So why are there so many different wines?

One reason might be that there are so many variables in wine making that lead to so many different and distinct flavors and styles. And each of those variables requires a decision on the part of the winemaker. To really understand this, lets suppose YOU wanted to make wine. Why not? Well, actually there are lots of reasons why not. And one of those reasons is that there are SO many decisions to make. Lots and lots of decisions. Which means there are lots of opportunities to make the wrong decision or string of decisions – the consequence of which is likely bad wine. Winemakers must be decisive and they must be right a vast majority of the time. And they must be fork-lift certified. But decisive is more important.

Please note that while Spec’s carries an unbelievable amount of wine, I taste a lot of wine that we will never carry because it is bad or at least is not worth what we would have to sell it for. And it is bad (or over-priced) because someone made some bad decisions. So what decisions have to be made?

Where to start? Crushing grapes? The grapes had to come from somewhere. So do you start with buying grapes? Or growing grapes? Either way, the winemaking process (in its entirety) actually starts with site selection. So lets begin at the beginning (and assume you are growing your own) and go through the winemaking process from start to finish – which is to say from site selection through bottling.

Here “site selection” is in reference to the vineyard, not the winery. A winery can be located almost anywhere but it’s nice if it’s located close to the vineyards that are producing the grapes for the wines it produces. So, if you are looking to plant a vineyard, you first look at the terroir – which includes climate and micro-climate, terrain and exposure, soil and sub-soil, and local law and tradition. Climate (of the area) and micro-climate (the very specific local climate of the vineyard) determine the ripening process and narrow the range of possible varieties than can successfully be grown. You need a lot of sunshine and warmth to ripen Tempranillo or Grenache. You need a lot less light and heat to ripen Riesling – which is why they grow it in Germany. Terrain and exposure determine how the vineyard is exposed to the sun. Soil and sub-soil help determine the vigor of the vine and ultimately the character of the grapes and wine. Limestone based soil (with the right climate and exposure) lends itself to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Gamay, the red grape of Beaujolais likes granite soils. Cabernet Sauvignon does well in gravel. Riesling does will in slate. Merlot likes clay.

Once you’ve chosen a site (and your finances have a lot to do with where that might be), you have to decide which grape variety or varieties to plant or more precisely, in most of the world, which rootstocks to plant and then graft which grape variety(s) onto. Before planting the vines, row direction must be determined. At it simplest, this is north-south or east-west. Or it may be that a land contour must be followed rendering exposure considerations moot.

Once the vines are in the ground, a trellising system must be installed. Or not. The “not” indicating that it is still possible to head prune or train the vine to support itself as a “bush vine” as seen in California with some Zinfandel, in the Rhone with Grenache, and in Toro with Tinta de Toro, among others. And there are advantages to head pruning for these and some other varieties. Nevertheless, most varieties need to be and most vineyards are trellised. The sort of trellis used, along with pruning and thinning techniques, affects sun exposure for both leaves and grapes. Leaf exposure affects ripening and grape cluster exposure affects flavor. Leaves must have direct sunlight to produce sugar which is necessary for ripening. Any leaves that are not getting sunlight are just extra vegetative load on the vine and can actually slow ripening. Grape clusters must also have some sun exposure but not too much as they can get sunburned.

“To irrigate or not to irrigate.” That is the (next) question. Why wouldn’t you irrigate? The wine laws in some areas (such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, and Champagne) forbid irrigation. And in some areas there is no water supply with which to irrigate so dry farming is the only option. In other areas (such as most of eastern Washington State which is high desert) it is impossible to grow grapes without irrigation. In older irrigated vineyards, a variety of irrigation systems (flooding, sprinklers, booms, drip, etc.) may be in place. In almost all new plantings, drip irrigation due to its efficiency (much lower water evaporation loss) is now the only realistic choice. Sprinklers may still be installed but now they are for frost damage control rather than for irrigation.

After all these decisions (site, rootstocks, varieties, trellises, irrigation, etc.) are made and the vineyard is bearing, more decisions come. Will you farm commercially, sustainably, organically or even biodynamically? Will you use chemicals? Will you plant a cover crop between the rows. Will you work by hand or by tractor or will you use horses to plow the vineyard? Horses give less soil compaction than tractors and what horses leave behind is beneficial. How will you prune the vineyard? Will you “leaf thin” (pluck leaves to reduce vegetative load and let sun through to the grape clusters)? Will you green harvest (drop some of the immature grape clusters to reduce yields, increase concentration, and speed ripening)? When will you pick? Will you pick based on ripeness (“by the numbers”) or by taste or some combination of both? Will you harvest by hand or machine? Is their enough labor available to even have that choice. Will you harvest at night or during daylight hours?

No matter what grape variety or varieties you’re growing, you have to make a fist decision about Sulfur Dioxide (SO2). When the grapes get to the winery, do you dose them with sulfur dioxide? If you do, you kill all the native yeasts and bacteria (good or bad) that are riding in from the vineyard. If you don’t add SO2, you get both the benefits and the liabilities of all those natural bacteria and yeasts. For most of the top producers in most old world regions, the SO2 answer is an unequivocal “no.” They want that long developed vineyard yeast culture and consider it an important part of the terroir. In the new world, natural yeast cultures are much less common and even among the very top new world producers, a “wild yeast” ferment is more of a coin flip.

Decisions, Decisions
So you’ve made all of those decisions and your truckloads of grapes are now headed to the winery. What will you do when they get there? The answers depend first on whether the grapes you’ve harvested are red or white and on what sort of wine you are looking to make. At it simplest, we are looking at white wine making and red wine making.

The truck has arrived and the bins of grape clusters are now sitting on the crush pad. You have decided whether to add SO2 or not. Will you crush and/or de-stem before pressing the grapes? What sort of press (basket, bladder, screw, etc.) will you use? If you press the whole clusters, the stems help provide channels for the juice to run out of the press. If you crush (and de-stem), more of the juice will run out as you load the press giving more of a very clean free-run. Once the grapes are pressed and the juice is separated, will you settle it or allow it to oxidize and clear or will you send it straight to the fermentation vessel.

If you used SO2, what sort of yeast will you now add to start the fermentation? In what sort of vessel will you ferment? Barrel or tank? If barrel, will you use any new barrels? And if, so what percentage will be new barrels. If tanks, will they be concrete, wood, or steel? How big are the tanks. Are they temperature controlled? Do you cool the juice down and go for a long, slow, fruit preserving fermentation or do you let the tanks (or barrels) warm up and go for complexity and richness?

Once the primary fermentation is finished, will the new white wine undergo malo-lactic fermentation (ML)? Full or partial? In what vessel? Will you inoculate and warm up the winery to get a quick ML or will you wait through the winter and let malo-lactic start naturally from the bacteria naturally present in the winery? Malo-lactic fermentation adds richness and complexity but takes away some freshness and fruit flavors. Most German Riesling is fermented in temperature-controlled tanks and does not undergo ML, all of which emphasizes fruit. Most Chardonnay from Burgundy’s famed Cote d’Or is fermented in barrels and subsequently undergoes full ML in those same barrels, all of which adds richness at the expense of at least some fruit. Place and variety have a lot to do with techniques chosen.

If you are growing white grapes in Puligny-Montrachet on the Cote de Beaune (part of Burgundy’s famed Cote d’Or), you are growing Chardonnay and you are not irrigating (bot requirements of the appellation), and you are VERY likely to be barrel fermenting and putting all the wine through full ML. Further, you are likely to be using at least 25% new oak and you are aging the wine in the same barrels in which they went through both fermentation and ML because all of this is expected of commercially viable Puligny.

If, on the other hand, you are growing white grapes in the northern, western-most part of the Sonoma Coast, you are likely to be growing Chardonnay but could be growing Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling or even Viognier, all with or without irrigation. There is no binding rule to say which grape you must grow or how you must grow it. You could ferment in tank or barrel or both. You could do full ML or partial ML or no ML. If you decide to avoid or limit ML, do you use SO2 to kill the ML bacteria or do you sterile filter? You almost have to do one or the other because you can’t afford to have ML start in the bottle.

Will you further age the wine in tank or barrel or both? Sealed tanks topped with inert gas helps retain fruit flavors. Barrels add complexity and depth as they foster a controlled oxidation but all of that comes at the expense of at least some fruit. Along with that further aging, you must decide how to manage the lees. Do you leave them in the wine or do you rack the wine off of them. If you rack (siphon or pump the wine to another tank or barrel), how soon and how often? If you leave the lees in, to you stir the lees (batonage) to get them back up into the aging wine or do you just let the wine rest on the lees. At the end of the process, do you fine (clarify by adding a “fining agent to the aging vessels) the wine or leave it alone (which may mean cloudy). Fining agents include egg whites, skim milk, Bentonite, and isinglass. All of them help settle protein and many other haze-causing compounds to the bottom of the vessel so the clean wine can be racked off. As they are being prepared for bottling, many (but certainly not all) white wines are de-gassed and/or cold stabilized. Without degassing, many white wines would seem spritzy because the natural carbon-dioxide from the fermentation(s) had not yet worked its way out. Without cold stabilization, may white wines would precipitate tartrate crystals in the bottle – which is harmless but some people see them and think they have glass in their wine and they can feel and look gritty if they make it into the glass.

So you have gotten you white grapes in and the must (unfermented grape juice) is in the tanks and/or barrels becoming white wine. Now, the red grapes are showing up. A lot of the decisions are the same but the order changes a bit. Deciding about that initial dose of SO2 is the same. So is deciding about whether to crush and or de-stem. And if you crush, do you crush all the grapes or some percentage. And if you de-stem, do you de-stem all the grapes or some percentage. Once past this, the grapes and the juice and maybe some or even all of the stems go into a fermentation vessel. This could be a short, wide, open top tank or a taller, narrower closed tank, a white plastic one-ton picking bin or even an upright barrel with the top head piece removed. Those tanks might be made of wood, concrete, or stainless steel or even fiberglass or plastic. They may or may not have temperature control.

Part and parcel of picking the fermentation vessel is choosing how the cap will be managed. The cap? When the must is put into the tank, it begins to separate with the skins rising to the top. Eventually, there is enough separation that the skins begin to dry out which can lead to spoilage issues. Nevertheless, the winemaker needs to keep the juice in contact with the skins (or better yet, the skins macerating in the juice). A lot of the flavor and all the color is in the skins so contact is necessary in order to extract both. So the “cap” of floating skins needs to be “managed” to keep it wet with juice. The four main cap management techniques are punch downs, pump overs, rack-and-return, and submerged cap.
Open top tanks and bins, and yes, barrels lend themselves to pigeage or “punching down the cap.” These can be down using hands or feet or it can be done using a pole with a plate on the bottom to push chunks of cap down into the juicy even it allows the juice to fill in the holes. Pigeage is traditional for Pinot Noir but is now becoming increasingly common for other varieties as well.

Pump overs – where wine is pumped from the bottom of the tank and sprayed over the cap to filter back down through it – are traditional for Cabernet and Syrah among many other varieties. Rack-and-return is a variation on pump overs where the juice is drained from the tank and then prayed back in over and through the cap.
Submerged cap is just that. The cap is held down by a lattice, a grid, or a perforated plate below the surface of the juice so it is in constant contact with the juice. Ridge uses this technique for some of their Zins and d’Arenberg for many of their reds.

Before fermentation actually starts, the winemaker may elect to chill the tank (often by adding dry ice) for a pre-fermentation maceration (aka a “cold soak”) for as many as five to ten days. Since color is water soluble, this is a good way to extract extra color. Once the fermentation is allowed or encouraged to start (that whole natural yeast versus inoculating with yeasts thing again), The winemaker must decide whether and how much to control temperature. As with white wines, cooler temperatures enhance fruit while warmer temperatures can add richness at the expense of fruit. Once fermentation is nearing completion, the winemaker may decide to rack the still fermenting juice into barrels to complete fermentation off the skins or he may leave the fully fermented juice in the tanks with the skins for up to another three weeks for an “extended post-fermentation maceration.” The post-fermentation maceration, developed by university of Bordeaux professor Emile Peynaud, causes long strings of phenols to form or polymerize. The phenols are tannins and anthocyans and flavonoids. Once they are polymerized (bound together) they are called polyphenols. These polyphenols are too big to fit in the taste receptors in our mouths and so can give a much lower impression of tannin in what may actually be a huge wine.

Once fermentation and any additional macerations are complete, red wines needs to be drained or pumped from the fermenting tanks into tanks or barrels for further aging and then the skins go into some form of press to get the remaining wine out of the skins. Typically this red press wine is darker and more extracted than the “free run.” There are more decision to be made here. Drain or pump? Pumping is more efficient but gravity flow can be less damaging to the wine. What sort of pump? Some are much better (but also much more expensive) than others. What sort of press will you use? Basket, bladder, or screw? How hard will you press? How much press wine will you blend back into the free run?

After the initial sugar-to-alcohol fermentation and pressing off, virtually all red wines undergo malo-lactic fermentation. The winemaker does get to decide whether this happens in tanks or barrels. Most new world wines get ML in tank. Most higher-end old world wines get ML in barrels. I don’t see where it makes a huge difference but it is a decision. After ML, is the wine aged in tank or in barrel? For how long? Are any or all of the barrels new? As the wine is aging in the barrels, do you rack periodically to give it some air or do you let it sit. Pinot noir tends to be oxidative if given much air. Syrah tends to be reductive and can get quite stinky if not given enough air.

At the end of the aging process, decisions must be made about fining and filtration. Red wines don’t generally need to be de-gassed before bottling but cold stabilization is generally a good idea.

Once you have decided which of these techniques to use or avoid, you must then decide how and when to bottle. Will you assemble the wine into on homogenous blend or do you bottle from each tank or barrels separately? Will you filter the wine before bottling? Will you add SO2 before or during bottling? Will you hand bottle, bottle by slow gravity flow bottling line, or bottle using a pump-fed bottling line. Hand bottling is the gentlest method but it is also tedious and there is more variation between bottles. Gravity flow is gentle (it doesn’t beat the wine up with pumps) and can yield more consistent results. A standard pump-driven bottling line beats the wine up the most but is also the most efficient bottling process. And the winemaker can choose to use gentler but much more expensive pumps. In addition to choosing how the wine gets into the bottle, there is one more choice: the closure. Will you seal the bottle with a cork, a synthetic stopper, or a screw-cap. All have their advantages and their disadvantages and in the end the closure is just one more decision for the winemaker to make.

Then you and your banker have to decide how long you will let the wine age in the bottle before you sell it.

Is your head spinning after reading all of that? Try to imagine how a winemaker who is tending to anywhere from three or four to as many as over 100 fermentations (such as at a large negociant in Burgundy) at the same time must feel.

All of these choices affect the way the wine you make ultimately tastes. Many of these decisions lead to others. Most fancy Chardonnays are barrel-fermented, allowed at least partial ML, and further aged in oak barrels, at least some of which are new. But there is a current trend for tank-fermented Chardonnay with no malo-lactic fermentation and no oak aging. And there are middle ground styles that split the difference. Most Pinot Noirs get at least some cold soak and are fermented in open tops with punch downs. Most but not all. Vincent Girardin in Burgundy uses mostly pump-overs for his very fine reds. As the winemaker, you get to (or must) decide. And all those decisions impact flavor.

Because of all those possible winemaking decisions – and many more that time and space preclude my covering here – there is a seemingly infinite possibility of distinguishably different wines. And while there are a lot of bad wines out there, most of the wines we choose for Spec’s carry are at least “good,” at least in someone’s mouth. (Why would Spec’s carry a wine our buyers don’t think of as “at least good?” Please see “What’s Not Good?” below.) So, in the largest stores, Spec’s carries an enormous selection (but it is still a selection) of wines so we have that proverbial something-for-everyone. Which means that even if you are not a winemaker, you too have some decisions to make. While your task may not be so complex as that of the winemaker, it can still be daunting. Nevertheless, you are not alone. Spec’s has a whole host of wine experts waiting to advise you so you will make the right decisions and bring home exactly the right bottle of wine.

And the real answer as to why Spec’s stocks all those different wines is that we want to make sure you are able to get exactly what you want, even if that is a bin-fermented, punch-down red made from Tempranillo grown in red-clay-over-limestone terroir in the Texas panhandle.

– By Charles M. Bear Dalton

*** For A Box ***
So What’s Not Good?
Why would Spec’s carry a wine that our buyers don’t think of as both good and representing at least a fair value? In short, because our customers want us to. Sometimes there is an advertising-driven demand (or more recently a social media-driven demand) for a wine we wouldn’t otherwise choose to carry. We do taste virtually everything before it comes into the store (I personally taste over 9,000 wines a year) but we hear that some of our competitors buy based on marketing data and ad schedules. The vast majority of the wines Spec’s carries have an implied endorsement from our buying staff. The few that don’t mostly fall into a class commonly known in the wine trade as “grocery store wines” and all of them are at the beverage-commodity level.

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