As spring rolls in, it’s time to rack and roll in the cellar. The 2017 wine is getting ready for bottling and the 2018 wine is waking up and growing up. The French call this process elvage which is comparable to the word “raising” as in raising a child. This is the period of time when adolescent wine begins to mature.
This is also an ideal time to check the young wines progress. For the last few days, we have been busy in the cellars checking each barrel and noting the maturation process. The first thing that we check is the “health” of the wine. By swirling, smelling and sipping we look for any potential problems as early as possible.
The next thing we do is to assess if the wine has completed MLF (malolactic fermentation). MLF is often called secondary fermentation however it is really not a fermentation but a conversion process of changing malic acid into lactic acid by specialized bacteria. Malic acid tastes tart like green apples while lactic acid is much softer and smoother on the palate. A wine that is undergoing MLF will have a slight spritz to it and if bottled too early may cause corks to be pushed out – however this baby wine still has another year of growing up before we even begin to think about bottling.
The next thing we do is to check and adjust the SO2 levels in the wine. This is a critical step to prevent the wine from spoiling and to suppress any bad spoilage bacteria that could be present.
The next step it so “top” the barrels off which means to fill them to the brim. As the wine sits in the barrel, a small amount of wine evaporates often called the “angels share”. In a dry warm climate like San Diego, this can represent a 10% loss of wine. As the wine evaporates, the “ullage” (airspace above the wine) increases and can cause the wine to age too quickly. We remove any ullage by regularly topping off the barrels to keep them full.
And the final step is to “taste” the wine. Yes, this means sampling the wine from each and every barrel. On a good day, we can taste through 50 barrels of wine. Through this process, we begin to understand how the wine is maturing, the nuanced difference between barrels and begin to think about final blends which will happen next spring.
The results? The 2018 Mourvedre stains the glass with dark rich purple colors packed with flavors. The 2018 Syrah is inky with hints of plushness, spice, and earth. The 2018 Grenache is lean and aromatic with hints of strawberry and light fruit. The 2018 Cab Sauvignon is still very tannic and needs lots of aging but will grow up to be a handsome wine. The 2018 Lodi Zin is big, spicy and very structured. The 2018 Malbec is plush and rounding off nicely.
We still have about 100 barrels to taste though and this is when we will be getting into the Pinot Noir, Sonoma Zinfandel, Merlot and much more. “Oh no, more wine to sip – it’s a tough job LOL”.