The art of winemaking – Wild Fire Wines

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The art of winemaking

Below, John from Wild Fire Wines details his journey in wine from the 1970s to the current day. We hope you enjoy it, and learn a bit about what goes into making good wine.

First steps

My first experience of winemaking was as a university student in 1970, when an Italian mate invited me home to join in the annual family wine, tomato and sausage day. I arrived bright and early to find a half wood barrel and a few boxes of shiraz grapes from the Vic market waiting for me in their vast Aspendale cellar.

We started with the tomatoes, de-seeding, peeling and cooking, braising the onions, de-stemming and shredding the basil and cooking up a magnificent passata.

Then came the pork, beef and veal sausages, packed with aromatic spices; pepper, salt, star anise, coriander, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.

Then last but not least came the wine: there was an ancient, hand cranked crusher with no de-stemmer placed over the barrels into which the stems and burst grapes disappeared; there was no apparent cleaning or sterilisation; no yeast was added, and when the barrel was almost full, my host tossed me a not-so-clean towel to be placed over the barrel opening till, as he put it, “she-a-gets-a-goin”.

To cut a long story short, a ferment did start and finish, the wine was bottled in big beer bottles after about three months in the same barrel, the resulting drink bore a faint resemblance to wine, and I was hooked. It was as though mercury had been turned into gold.

I then graduated to my small garage, then to my neighbour’s carport, then to a lovely small family vineyard on the Mornington peninsula, then finally to our current Upper Yarra Valley commercial vineyard.

Some disclaimers are needed at this stage: I’m a winemaker from the school of experience, reading, observing and hard knocks. I’ve had my share of failures, in judging picking times badly, messing up additive calculations, pump failures, poor barrel hygiene and simple stupidity, but experience is a great teacher.

Even so, what I offer today are practical observations from 45 vintages that many winemaker-graduates from our world-class teaching institutions might well contest, so you are warned: they are worth exactly what you are paying for them!

Great wine requires great grapes

Most people have heard the saying "great wines are made in the vineyard". It’s true that you need first-class fruit to make great wine, but bad wine can be made from great fruit very easily. There are many judgements that need to be made, and much hard work to be undertaken, to ensure that the winemaker gets the best possible result from the baskets of grapes he receives at the winery door. And the winemaking process can’t be prescribed in advance even though you know what the options are; it’s a bit like a boxing match where circumstances change constantly and the only pathway to success is constant vigilance, imagination and prompt action where needed.

I sometimes daydream about my first Italian winemaking venture. It was so simple and elemental; just chuck the grapes into a barrel and wait for the blessed alchemy to happen; sadly, though, if you want anyone to buy what you make, it isn’t so simple.

The first thing you need to know is precisely where your crop sits at around vintage time. How to get your crop to vintage in good order is an entirely different subject, which we can discuss with you all in due course.

There are many attributes of a crop that will affect how your wine will turn out. Some are obvious:

  • Is there any disease in the bunches?
  • Is there any significant failure of berry development so that there is an unacceptably high ratio of developed to undeveloped fruit?
  • Are the mature berries small or large? Smaller berries will have a higher skin to juice ratio than larger ones, and will usually impart flavours, tannins and colours that are more concentrated.
  • What is the Ph (acidity) of the juice?
  • What is the sugar content of the juice

And most importantly of all, how do the grapes taste? Tasting is essential to determine whether your fruit has "phenolic" ripeness, distinct from sugar ripeness. This ripeness refers to the accumulation in grapes of phenolic and polyphenolic compounds, which multiply into the hundreds as grapes mature, and can greatly affect colour, aroma and mouthfeel of the resulting wine. When fruit is phenolically ripe, your wine should taste full and complex and deliver power; if it isn’t, it may lack energy and completeness. The only way to learn how to tell a great grape from a poor one is to eat lots of them!

As if this were not complicated enough, different grape types gather or lose attributes at different speeds. An example is Grenache, which tends to rise in sugars faster than other varieties as phenolic ripeness gathers. Finding the sweet spot for picking is like being a circus juggler, with many balls in the air at once; definitely not a job for the faint-hearted.

A famous American photographer, Paul Strand, once said, when observing landscapes, that "for every cloud, there is only one perfect moment". It’s the same with picking a grape crop: hours can make a difference.

Wine as art: there is no formula

Before your crop is in the door, you will have put together in your mind your visualisation for how you want your wine to be, which will of course depend on the variety, your terroir, your own palate and ambition, in short, your vision. The development of this sense requires an understanding of what is possible and desirable. The skill to develop a visualisation and then to translate that into reality requires a profound sensory understanding of the wine landscape and your variety, as well as the impact that different processing steps will have.

For example: Chardonnay styles differ radically. Today, many makers opt for "lean, green" styles that are fresh, acid, very pale in colour and mineral. Thirty years ago, richness and oak background was considered important.

The decisions that impact on stylistic outcome include:

  • Method and time of pressing
  • How much skin contact is allowed
  • The percentage of grape solids allowed in the ferment
  • How much sulphur is added for preservation and when
  • Whether there should be a malolactic fermentation
  • Whether fermentation is in steel or barrel
  • The size of barrel and oak type
  • The quantity of oxygen that is allowed into the fermenting wine
  • The ferment and storage temperatures
  • Whether the ferment is "natural" (ie with no commercial yeast addition), or with added yeast, or a combination
  • Whether or not the fermented wine is allowed to stand on yeast lees
  • Whether or not the yeast lees should be stirred through the wine at regular intervals
  • Whether the wine should be pumped or drained
  • Whether the wine should be filtered or fined
And so on and so on!

Perhaps another way to look at the art of making is to liken it to sculpture: You can begin with a perfect piece of Carrara marble, but how the sculpture develops and the impact it has is determined by the sculptor and the vision he has of the figure locked into the stone that he wishes to reveal.

Once the visualisation is achieved and the processing steps determined accordingly, those steps must be executed, but there is no formula. I taste our maturing wines without fail once a week, and I have them laboratory tested regularly for the key attributes. Tasting is by far the most important test. In order to understand the significance of what you are tasting, a winemaker must understand how the appearance, aroma and flavour of his wine will change over time and whether this trajectory needs to be managed in any way. Detecting true potential early in a wine’s life is not easy.

Pinot Noir illustrates this idea of trajectory. Pinot loves to hide from the maker. The first one I made from our new Upper Yarra vineyard was, when young, a tremendous disappointment. The wine was sound, balanced and lively, the colour was delightful, but the typical Burgundian Pinot taste and aroma elements weren’t there. My first thought was that I’d just bought the wrong bit of dirt. Pinot is notoriously picky about where it is grown. Some sites do brilliantly, and most are plain ordinary. But after six months, as I trudged through another weekly tasting, suddenly the right perfume jumped from the glass, and I knew we were on to something good. It was like sourdough bread-making: the most important ingredient is time.

Then there is the human aspect - superstition and the intangibles. Some winemakers swear by a particular barrel maker and oak forest; some insist on genuine wild yeast fermentation no matter how many ferments don’t start or get stuck; some insist on dragging their barrels into the sun in their courtyards to warm their wine to bring on malolactic fermentation; some pump their wine across steel plates to inject more oxygen, which they believe good maturation requires; some rack their wines and some don’t.

You have the canvas, now make your masterpiece

What this is all meant to illustrate is that winemaking absolutely is an art, where you are given the canvas , the paint and the brushes, after which you’re on your own to create your masterpiece.

That’s also why a few winemakers emerge as superstars. Of course it suits a great wine house to promote individuals, because many customers like the idea of having “superstar” wines in their cellars and on their tables when their mates gather. But there are very few makers who have the intelligence, knowledge, experience and judgement to make excellent wines, and distinct wine styles, with regularity.

At Wild Fire, we sometimes glimpse greatness. We don’t get there all the time, or even the majority of it, but we know what the challenge is and we understand where we would like to be. And we know that as long as we breathe we’ll keep learning and trying.

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