Tuesday, October 27, 2009


After a 6 day sojurn to Castello di Spannocchia, I returned to Casa Raia to help press the mosto, the cap of seeds and skins left from fermentation. Of the three large vats of "finished" wine, only the Rosso di Montalcino in the large steel tank was ready to press. One 30 hL vat, how long could it take? Apperently a very, very long time.
We began early Thursday morning after the morning remontage of the two vats of Brunello. The vat that was to be pressed was not remontaged as we did not want to disturb the cap. The first step of pressing is much like delastage: we move as much liquid as possible into an empty steel vat. The cap falls (slowly) to the bottom, as the liquid is drained, strained and then pumped into the waiting empty vat.

When the liquid is removed the door in the front of the vat is opened. This is the moment of truth when you find out whether or not you have removed enough of the liquid. Otherwise it can make a huge mess, the wine gets lost to the floor. We removed enough liquid, got a beautiful wall of mosto.

Now that the liquid is out of the vat, its time to remove the mosto from the bottom of the vat with a shovel and pitchfork until it fills up the wooden slatted press on a rolling platform.

The loose cake of mosto is then wheeled under the electronic pnumatic press. The press is capeable of 500 Bar of pressure (One bar is equal to one Kilo of pressure per centimeter).

  We did three presses, the first to a gentle 80 bar. The press is programed to operate at intervals, going very slowly as not to break the grape pips (seeds). When grape seeds are broken they release a very harsh green tannin into the wine. The liquid from the first press is pumped back to join the free run juice (vin de goutte) already inside the previously empty vat.  The first press takes about half an hour, then the the pressure is increased to 120 bar and another half hour passes before the second press can be pumped into the the wine. The third press to 300 bar is emptied into a seperate container to be consumed as "vino sfuzo", bulk wine for drinking right away. Directly translated "sfuzo" means "unpacked".  Then it is time to remove the wooden slats of the press and remove the compressed "cake" of skins and seeds.

This whole process takes a long time and there is lots of waiting around.

This cake needs to be broken up and put into bags to send to the government distillery to make grappa. Alchol production in Italy is very strictly controlled to prevent people from making illegal and dangerous moonshine. A certain percentage of the pressed mosto can be put in the vineyards as fertilizer, but by law, the majority needs to be sent to the distillery. There was lots of cleanup to do, but luckily many hands make for light work.

To empty the vat of mosto this whole process had to be repeated 7 times, taking the whole day into the night. At the end, when it becomes too difficult to remove the mosto on the far end of the vat, I crawled into the vat to get the last of the mosto and then clean the vat.

We finished the day with a liter of wine and a great pasta carbonara, exhausted.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fermentation, Remontage, Delestage, and Babo

  So fermentation is well under way and we are working hard in the cantina to "dompter la fermentation" as PJ says. We can "dompter" (tame) the fermentation by measuring and changing the temperature of the wine. Of course there are chemicals that one can buy to start fermentation, to slow fermentation, to extract more color, to extract more tannin, to soften the tannins, to start Malolactic fermentation and on and on and on. This week when we were at the EnoAgricola (vineyard equipment shop), to pick up tubing, we saw people buying massive amounts of these chemicals. But one of the wonderful things about wine is that it is a natural process and requires no additives. If one is vigilant and dedicated, fermentation can be tamed, or least kept from going crazy by regulating the temperature of the fermenting liquid. Natural wine is made without adding viticultural yeast strains (or anything else for that matter). The skins of the grapes themsleves are a perfect environ for many different local yeasts and enzymes which are activated when they are exposed to the high level of sugar in the fresh grape juice. The juice starts its life as a mixture of whole uncrushed grapes, partially crushed grapes, skins, pips (seeds) and juice. In Italy we uses Babo as our measure of sugar content and it is expressed numerically. In the US we use Brix, expressed in degrees. The 2009 Casa Raia Brunello (there are three, 30 hectoliter vats)  began its life at 21 Babo (around 25 Brix) and 23 degrees Centigrade. Both the temperature and the Babo are measured by a floating hydrometer. As fermentation begins the yeasts and enzymes start to eat the sugars in the juice, expel carbon dioxide, and heat the mixture up. One can tell where the baby wine is in its life cycle by these two simple measurements. There are a lot of solids in the wine at this stage, and these solids rise to the top of the liquid in a large, hot, floating mass called the cap, pictured below. 
Three times a day we take the temperature of the wine and the sugar level and take the appropriate action. Because fermentation stops between 36 and 38 degrees Centigrade it is important for the winemaker to test the wine regularly. This means, for the first rapid part of fermentation, we could be in the cellar until 1 or 2 am doing one of two things to help regulate temperature. The first thing is called Remontage.

 Remontage is done at least three times a day for each vat of fermenting wine. It involves cycling wine from the bottom of the vat back over the top of the cap. This process does two things: first it helps to aerate the wine and second it evens out the temperature of the entire vat. The wine below the cap is slightly cooler  and most of the yeasts and enzymes are living, eating and producing alcohol in the cap, and it is important to keep it wet with fresh sugar for the little guys to consume. The second technique the natural winemaker employs for controlling temperature is called Delestage. Delestage, also called racking off, is when the winemaker removes the liquid from the fermenting vat and moves it to another container in order to cool the wine back to a safe level. Delestage at Casa Raia is done by circulating cold water into two flat, stainless steel containers, submerged in the wine. This involves more work, more cleaning and slows fermentation so it is done more or less at the last possible moment, when the wine is around 34 or 35 degrees. 

Winemaking involves intuition, certainly knowledge and skill, especially when one is not using chemicals to control the process. If the wine gets too hot, or too cold, fermentation stops and you have too much sugar and dead yeast. Big problem. Fermentation, once it begins, can go at any speed. One vat of Brunello from the same vineyards, picked the same day as the others might ferment much more slowly than the others. One might take days to start, while another only hours, and this has nothing to do with the quality of the final wine, and is part of the natural process. The winemaker must be patient and listen to the wine and help it along the way with as little interference as possible. This means long hours in the cantina, and lots of work, but it has a satisfaction that is absent when winemaking is reduced to measuring out chemicals and dumping them into "wine". 
When you open the door to a vat of naturally fermenting wine you feel the heat, the smell of fermentation and you know that it is alive and there is something indescribably amazing and beautiful about that. Man has been taming these tiny wild yeast beasts since agriculture was invented, and it fills you with a wonderful feeling of connection to history and your fellow humans. Or maybe its just the CO2 messing with your head.....

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Part two...

At the end of the day when we were finishing up the remontage, Pj said now that the wine was in the cellar it felt real and somehow more complete. "Now the wine was in his home. A very expensive home for wine." After the grapes were all in their new home, there was an extensive cleanup and the the first Remontage, called the  homoginazation remontage. This process takes wine from a hookup on the bottom of the tank, runs it through a specially made enologic pump, which sends the new wine gently back to the top, over the skins and whole berries to even out the temperature. PJ and I didnt finish the first day until 9:30 pm, still knowing that we had another 15 hour day on Thursday. Thursday came quickly and we were out of bed and in the vineyards by 7 knowing that we had to push very hard as there was an afternoon rain forcasted. Luckily the rain never came and we picked the rest of the vineyards and filled the other two large barrels with bright red, very very sweet grape juice. Wine in its infancy. 

While we were doing all of this work I wondered how many people who drink wine really understand how much work goes into the final product for a small producer. This is an entire years work for one or two days in which everything must go well. 
 We filled three, 3000 liter barrels which will translate into about 7500 bottles of finished wine, ready for release in about 5 years. Delayed gratification for sure, but everything I do here makes me appreciate the process more and helps me to better understand what it is I love about wine so much. 

Harvest is finished...almost (Part one of two)

Phew! After an exhausting few days I finally have time to write about what has been happening here in Montalcino. The harvest is finished except for a half acre of Cabernet, Merlot and Sangiovese which will be harvested next week and made into a Sant' Antimo DOC wine. 

We started harvesting a hectare (about two and a half acres) of Brunello on Wednsday, waking up with a huge cup of coffee at 5:30 in the morning. PJ and I were out by 6 putting 150 boxes through the various vineyards. By eight all the equipment was set up and it was time to begin. PJs friend Dan was visiting from Ireland to help with the vendemmia, and PJs parents Serge and Marie Claire from Corsica, and of course Ludmilla. Eliah was really sick, so Kalyna had to stay inside to take care of him for most of the morning but they were able to come out in the afternoon to help. 

It was a beautiful day and everyone was in high spirits. Picking 4 vineyards the first day was exhausting but very gratifying work. A lot of quality control work was done in the vineyard, and were all together working side by side. There were really beautiful bunches in the first vineyard and Ludmilla described them as looking like works of art. Indeed they looked like you would expect grapes that produce one of the most noble wines in Italy to look. (Thanks to Ludmilla for all the pictures she took while working hard). We filled 119 boxes the first day, each one weighed 25 kilos, and when we had enough fill PJ's  late model 4x4 Land Rover (32 boxes was the limit), we drove them straight to the roof of the newly constructed cantina (winery). At this point the grapes were put directly into a crusher/de-stemmer and pushed by hand into a hole connected to PJ's brand new 3000 liter French oak barrels in the cellar below, all without pumps, fed by gravity. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The night before the work begins in earnest

Vendemmia in the morning, and we will begin at 6 am. Thank god my jetlag is gone and I feel almost human, minus the lingering cold: hopefully the thrice daily doses of wild oregano oil (thanks to Kalyna) will pay off and I will feel 100 percent in the morning. Here the mood is good, but a little anxious. I can only describe the feeling as a cross between Christmas Eve and the night before a Final exam. The vendemmia has to be the most stressful time for the winemaker all year. PJ said "I can rest when all the grapes are in barrel and fermentation is going.  Or finished..." Until then there are constant worries. Will the weather hold? Will the harvest produce enough wine? Will it produce too much? Will he have more than he can handle? (We went out yesterday and picked up another 10hL vat in case we have too much wine. Unfortunately it has a broken part and it is up in the air if we will be able to use it or not.) Will the vines be harvested fast enough? Will all the untested new equipment work as it should? A full years worth of work, sweat, and blood for one day. All of this for PJ involves so many factors that are out of his control. All one can do is cross the fingers and hope...
More tomorrow night, hopefully with tons of new pictures and great news of a smooth harvest and a wonderful new baby 2009 Brunello fermenting away happily.
A dopo

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Getting ready for the harvest and resting after the festa

Yesterday we received the laboratory results for the sugar, acidity and pH levels in the grapes and it looks like everything is good. PJ talked to his friend Jan from Pian dell Orino and he advised to wait until Wed. to allow the acidity to drop a little bit and to obtain a little bit more sugar. The equipment is all ready and in place, now it is just waiting.
Today is a lazy day; everyone slept in after being out at a festa in Buonconvento last night. Each neighborhood in the town makes different food and hosts an outside dinner with 4 courses and all the wine one can drink. Our host Guido (PJ and Kalyna's builder for the cellar) supplied the entertainment with a seemingly endless stream of Italian drinking songs. Everyone's favorite involved Guido calling out a month (Marzo, Settembre etc) and if you were born in the month that was called you had to drain your glass of wine to chants of "Bevilo, Bevilo, Bevilo... Aqua fa male, vino fa canta' ". Needless to say we had a good time, and no hangovers today, thanks to Italian vino.