September 30, 2009 in Food

Wine enthusiasts should take in fermentation experience

Paul Gregutt
 

Crush is on, in full-ferment mode, and there is no better time to visit your Spokane wineries.

Walk in and you are almost certain to see grapes arriving, being sorted and de-stemmed, and gently sent to fermentation bins and tanks. The heady scents of fermentation fill the air, and winery workers are energized by the crisp mornings, the late nights, the frenetic activity, the excitement of the new vintage. Where else in the modern world can a city-dweller experience the scents and flavors of the harvest as it unfolds?

Because they are so busy, wineries don’t necessarily put out the big welcome mat at this time of year. But many schedule specific harvest touring and tasting events and I don’t know of any that won’t say yes if you call ahead and ask what would be a convenient time for your (small!) group – not your tour bus – to come by and actually watch the winery in action.

In Europe, where life is more casual, half-fermented wines are sold in supermarkets, farmers markets and roadside stands. I vividly recall a trip to France some years ago, where I was warned by a finger-wagging local not to over-imbibe. “It keeps fermenting in your stomach,” he insisted, as I slugged down the delicious, half-juice/half-wine chardonnay. When sold at roadside stands, these semi-wines are either poured into your open container, or offered in a bottle with another stern bit of advice – don’t let it sit for very long or it will explode.

Such sales are not legal in Washington, but a winemaker may certainly tap a fermentation tank and offer a visitor a sample to see what the new vintage tastes like. At this time of year, when winemakers are still making regular excursions to the vineyards to check on their later-ripening rows and varietals, it’s a different palate at work. They chew on grapes to see if the pips (seeds) are brown and crunchy, or still green and soft. They chew on skins to check the tannins – are they ripe or vegetal? They may use various pieces of gear to measure sugar and pH, but those raw numbers are not the whole story. It’s physiological ripeness they are after.

The tasting continues at the winery, where each separate lot and tank is checked repeatedly, looking for just the right combination of fruit, tannin, acid and alcohol. Red wines may or may not be fermented with stems or whole clusters included. They may or may not be fermented completely to dryness before being pressed.

On a visit to Northstar winery in Walla Walla this past week, I was shown some interesting trials that included fermentation in concrete and fermentation directly in barrels. It’s a great time to ask a winemaker questions about what they taste, what they are looking for, and how that impacts the actual winemaking. Entirely different from what I do, which is centered around finished wines, and tasting them for quality, balance, aging potential, etc.

There are many different kinds of professional palates, all important to the work of the person tasting. A grower tastes grapes and looks for problems that need to be solved before harvest. A winemaker tastes throughout the growing season, on through fermentation, into blending and barrel aging, and nurtures the wine up until it is bottled and sent off into the world. A wholesaler or retailer tastes new releases, looking for the right flavors and prices that fit their customer base and business needs. A wine writer tastes wines new and old, comparing them to wines from around the world, and looking for detail, specificity, an engaging style, a mark of uniqueness.

Sometimes, you find that uniqueness in the most unexpected ways. On a recent tasting tour of new wineries at the Walla Walla airport, I encountered Joe Forest at his Tempus Cellars tasting room, which is housed in a former ammunitions bunker at the far edge of the grounds. He poured samples of his first two wines, a 2006 Red, more than half old vine cabernet from Sagemoor, and a 2006 Syrah. Joe explained that it’s been quite an interesting time for him and his wife Mollie – they got married, moved, bought a dog, had a child, and started a winery all in an 18-month period. “At least,” he explained while casting his eyes around his bunker, “I don’t have to worry about an atomic bomb attack.”

A second stop brought me to Eleganté Cellars, where owner/winemaker Doug Simmons was punching down a bin of syrah. A retired chemistry teacher, he calls the winery his “retirement adventure.” As we tasted through the lineup of red wines, he talked of having worked summers strawberry-picking for Klickers, a local institution, and brought out a bottle of his strawberry wine. A good fruit wine can be an absolute joy, and this was one of the best I’ve ever tasted.

I hope you will make your own wonderful discoveries visiting your local wineries this harvest season.

Paul Gregutt is a freelance wine writer based in Seattle. His column appears in The Spokesman-Review on the last Wednesday of each month. He can be reached at paulgregutt@me.com. Visit www.paulgregutt.com for Gregutt’s blog and his latest tasting notes.

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