Winter Blending

The winegrower twists and pulls the bung from one of the barrels. He dips the wine thief in, and draws out a sample of the young wine, releasing it into his tasting glass. Setting the thief down, he takes up the glass, swirls, sniffs, swirls again, sniffs, sips, draws air into his mouth over the wine, swirls the wine over his tongue, and spits it out into the floor drain. Barrel five of twelve in this lot of the current vintage of vignoles: this barrel seems fine, bouquet and aroma and flavor very much like the previous four he’s checked today. This lot seems to be developing well, the wine is falling clear and bright without fining. The fermentation was complete a few weeks ago, it’s now mid-January, and the oak is showing up. Not too much, it’s still behind the fruit flavors, not dominating, but a nice structural element of the wine, holding the fruit up, displaying it prettily.

The winegrower puts the bung back, and moves to barrel six. He’ll taste all twelve of this lot, and each barrel of the other two lots of this year’s vignoles. Today he’s checking to see that each barrel is developing along the expected path. He looks for faults, not hoping to find any, but wanting to detect any developing problems early enough to find remedies and cure the wine before the fault gets large. As well as looking for problems, he’s judging how rapidly each lot, each barrel, is developing. Gauging the progress, does this barrel need two or four or six more months before it will be ready to bottle? Should this whole lot be moved out of the oak barrels and into stainless steel tanks? Would lot one be nicer if it had a bit of lot three added? How can these various batches, or lots, of vignoles be combined to produce a wine that is better than the sum of it’s parts?

The winegrower has three different groups of barrels of this year’s vignoles, three lots. Lot One (the one he’s tasting just now) has twelve barrels, Lot Two has ten barrels, and Lot Three is the smallest, only eight barrels. Lot One was harvested first, fermented in older oak barrels, and is intended for sparkling wine. Lot Two, harvested a week later, riper, is fermented in newer oak barrels. And Lot Three, the last to be harvested, the ripest, is fermented in new oak barrels. Each barrel holds 60 gallons, or about 300 bottles, of wine. Thirty barrels, 1800 gallons, 750 cases, 9000 bottles. Nearly four acres of vines gave up their crop during this past fall’s harvest to yield this quantity of wine.

Now the winegrower watches over the developing young wine, trusting that he’s not doing anything to harm the wine, knowing that if left alone, and unharmed, the wine will develop along its path, will mature. The life of the wine is change: the winegrower watches the changes; participates in the changes where appropriate; stands aside generally, observing.

In the winter, in the winery, the winegrower observes the life in each barrel. He looks into the wine, smells it, tastes it, watches it’s color, it’s clarity, feels the texture of the wine on his tongue. The winegrower is with the wine, his greatest challenge is to avoid meddling, to be with the wine without trying to dominate it, to be in harmony with the life that is the wine – to be wine, not to make the wine. The wine makes itself. The winegrower is the wine, and the wine is the winegrower.
And now the various lots of the vignoles. Each lot – like the tributaries of a river – flows together to be the vignoles. Each barrel arises from a different part of the river basin, but they are of the same river basin, and are the same river in the end. The various lots grow together, coming down hill and around the twists in the river bed, flowing toward each other, becoming themselves, becoming the wine, the vignoles. And the winegrower, in the winter in the winery, is tending the river banks, nurturing the edges of the river to help it flow cleanly, tranquilly, down to the sea, to the bottle, to the table, to the heart.

Today, the winegrower tastes every barrel of the vignoles, and decides that they are all well, they should all be left where they are. The wine in these barrels has lain there since the end of fermentation in early November. In the bottom of the barrels are the lees, the yeasts and bits of unfermentable grape solids. As the wine matures over the months of winter,the lees break down, their cells giving up the amino acids of life, flavoring the wine, adding a firm fleshiness to the middle of the taste, and a bouquet of baked bread or toast. Today, the winegrower feels that it is time to stir the wine in these barrels, to mix the lees with the wine, and release some more of those flavors and textures into the wine. He goes, barrel by barrel, with the stirring rod, carefully stirring so as to mix without introducing any more air into the wine than necessary. After stirring, each barrel is topped up, filled with more of the same vignoles. Topping up is needed each time the barrel is opened, as the barrels are porous, and wine evaporates, leaving a void. About one bottle per month per barrel, the angel’s share, is lost, and must be replaced to keep the barrel full, and the wine free of contact with the air.

And so it goes through the winter. This vignoles is visited, and decisions are made. Finally, after several months, the time comes to assemble the blend. The several lots are tasted one final time, the winegrower’s final decision is made, and the blending begins. This year, all of Lot Two and three barrels of Lot Three are combined to make the vignoles. And what of the other barrels of Lot Three, and Lot One? One wine is produced each year by blending seyval with the vignoles, this will require the remaining five barrels of Lot Three, as well as two barrels from Lot One. And the winegrower makes sparkling wines, the blends for which (called cuvees) require the remaining ten barrels of Lot One.

And each wine is different, each blend another river with it’s own tributaries, it’s own course. Some wines are always matured before bottling in barrels, some spend part of their life in barrels, then further time in stainless steel, other wines never are aged in oak barrels. Each wine has it’s own course, it’s own banks, it’s own path to the sea. And the winegrower tends the banks, and the wine flows past.

-Copyright © 1995 L. Mawby