Diary of an accidental winemaker, part three: Getting technical

Chris Boiling

04 October 2018

Think making small batches of wine in a foreign country sounds glamorous, even romantic? If you weren't already otherwise convinced by parts one and two in this instalment, Englishman Chris Boiling is back to dispel any illusions you may still be clinging to. Reporting from his small winehouse and vineyard in Slovenia, he continues his exposé...

Winemaking is 92% cleaning.

All the equipment has to be thoroughly cleaned before the harvest, as much of it has been gathering dust and dead flies since last year. Then, after the harvest, it all has to be cleaned again… and again… and again. Sticky grape skins and seeds are a bugger to remove, especially from the destemmer/crusher. A tsunami wouldn’t remove some of the more stubborn detritus, let alone a high-powered pressure washer.

Like many artisan vignerons in Slovenia, we make our wines as naturally as possible and with minimal intervention, but there’s still an awful lot to do.

Small batches are, in many ways, more difficult to make. For a start, presses need to be pretty full to work efficiently. So, because of the smaller yields this year and my bad decision to barter away half my grapes to the neighbour who looks after the land, everything was done by hand… and feet. We used something akin to a mangle to destem and crush the grapes. They were then pressed by a combination of  pigéage (foot stomping) and hand-squeezing (handéage?). In marketing language, that’s very gentle pressing using time-honoured traditional methods.

The resulting three wines – a Laški Rizling (Graševina) and Šipon (Furmint) field blend, a Furmint and a Pinot Noir – all started fermenting spontaneously within 24 hours. I had left them to settle overnight in a food-grade plastic container (which my wife refers to as the white dustbin), but as soon as I started to rack the must, I disturbed the gross lees. In the early days of my misadventures in winemaking I used a pump for racking. But I have lost faith in this method. Not just because the pump exposes the must to a lot of air, isn’t very gentle and wastes precious liquid through leaks and by retaining the last part in the tubes, but because I never know which way to press the switch. After letting a previous wine settle for about nine months, I once pushed the switch the wrong way and blew the lees all over the place. I then had to wait a few more months before bottling. In marketing speak that’s ‘one year on lees’.

As we can only afford a small parcel of land – all our wines are from a ‘single vineyard’ – I pick many of my tools from the kitchen cupboard. The colander doubles as a filter, the spatula is used for punch-downs, and a large saucepan is now used for racking.

I used it to scoop the wines from the settling tanks (okay, the white dustbins) and poured the field blend and Pinot Noir into stainless steel tanks, and the Furmint into an old barrel. I don’t have that many suitable containers as they are bloody expensive. In marketing terms, the Furmint is barrel fermented and the others are fermented and aged in stainless steel. As the lees of the Furmint became cloudy again as I racked it, I only put the top half into the barrel and left the rest to settle again. In marketing speak this is extended skin contact.

After a few days, the whites were bubbling away nicely thanks to their own yeasts. I emptied a saucepan-ful out and tipped it back into the containers to give the yeast some oxygen. I’ve been using this technique ever since I had a stinky, bad egg (hydrogen sulphide) fermentation a few years ago. When I started winemaking I used to add food for the yeast. Now, they are on a strict grape juice and oxygen diet.

This year they also had a lot of gross lees to munch on, too. I hope they appreciate it! The must may have looked like dirty dishwater but it tasted lovely and sweet. It will eventually clarify... as long as I stay away from the pump.

The Pinot Noir, however, had what marketers might describe as ‘lifted aromas of VA’ (nail varnish remover to you) – which could have been caused by the native yeasts or a hot ferment. Sometimes it disappears after a couple of days but I panicked and rehydrated a packet of commercial yeast bought from my local supplier. Reading the instructions, you are meant to add the yeast to 1L of warm water. I didn’t want to water down my wine, so I only used a tiny portion of the packet. The yeast came from a lab in France, the well-known home of Laški Rizling and Šipon grapes, so I also added a little to all my fermentations for peace of mind or, in marketing speak, to add complexity to the wines.

To ensure a cool fermentation, I squirted the tanks with cold water every time I got the hose out to wash the cellar floor, terrace or a piece of equipment.

It did the trick and all the fermentations completed successfully to dry in just over a week. Then I racked the field blend and Pinot Noir, and added minimal amounts of H2SO3 to each wine. This was below the levels used by many ‘natural’ winemakers, but enough to protect the wines from oxidation until I return for winter pruning (and a bit of skiing). Then I will be able to judge whether this has been the harvest of my dreams or whether I will have to wait another year.

The final thing to do before leaving the winehouse is to winterise it. I always hope no one sees me leaving the cellar carrying empty anti-freeze containers. It could ruin my reputation as a flying winemaker.

Oh, by the way, all this hard work will give us a grand total of 185 litres this year. But, in marketing terms, it’s a very exclusive, limited edition wine and stocks are expected to run out fast.

Are you a somm? Are you interested in making small batches of wine from aromatic white grapes in Slovenia next year? Get in touch with Chris Boiling by emailing editorial@imbibe.com

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