The heart of the Harvest season can be a surreal and crazy time. Yes, of course I guess, it’s crazy when you have a ton of things going on at once, including actual tons of ripe fruit to process and 15+ hour days dragging down your health. Indeed, I was sick twice during weeks 4 through 6 at the Rock for Man Falls in the Vines – #MFITV, with the entire Chimney Rock Winery (Twitter, Facebook, WineLog) crew coming down with something, at some point. Crush isn’t easy, that is known the industry over, but I was happy to see that I persevered along with everyone else (who are all harvest veterans) and learned quite a bit about what it was to work some of the most taxing parts of the harvest: digging out the fermentation tanks after barreling off our new free-run wine.
One of the things has also continually been of interest to me during this project has been the interesting mix of old and new technology at Chimney Rock. Like most wineries that have been around as long as the Rock, they have a mashup of equipment that has been bought over the last 20 some-odd years, some of it even brought in as others joined the team. A great example is the dichotomy between the equipment we use to measure the alcohol level of a finished wine and another set that we use to gas our tanks. An ebulliometer measures the alcohol content in a wine by using a simple boiling assay, to take the boiling point of a particular lot of wine, after first calibrating the machine by boiling distilled water. You then compare the lowered boiling point of a liquid mixture containing alcohol to get the final percent alcohol in the wine. Ours is French, like most, and looks like it was a few decades away from being new in the ’50’s, much less now. Very cool.
Most red wines undergo a process called maceration, following the completion of the primary, or alcoholic, fermentation. This means that the new wine sits in the tank with the skins and seeds and other physical matter left from the now spent grapes. This allows for further extraction of color, tannin, flavors and aromas in the finished wine. While this is happening over days or weeks, we need to make sure that no contamination takes place inside the tank, by bacterial growth or other contaminating microflora. To do this we gas the free headspace in the tank with an inert gas, one that will displace any oxygen found in the tank (during fermentation this happens naturally with the CO2 that is released by the happy yeast). It can be expensive to use rented argon or nitrogen tanks to do this, so Chimney Rock has made the wise investment in a permanent nitrogen generator. This is then hooked up to our gas piping system connected to each tank in the winery and it works much of the day, gassing any tanks open to the system. Our generator is state-of-the-art, and is actually something pretty new and novel to have in the wine business, and its newness contrasts interestingly with the old school ebulliometer.
Digging out tanks towards the end of harvest is a right of passage for any cellar worker. I had my own right of passage a few times this harvest, but with the sharing of the grape loads that goes around at the winery, I only had two large tank digging experiences. It’s extremely hard work and a doozy on your back. Basically, there are literally, tons of grapes that are loaded into a stainless steel tank to ferment and finish primary fermentation before being drained off and barreled down to age. The resulting grape must, a mixture of remaining wine, grape skins seeds and other matter, needs to be dug out of said tank to be sent to the press to be pressed off. My largest tank this year was also the winery’s largest lot of wine; 18.5 tons of grapes fermented in that tank. Taking a rough estimate of the percent remaining matter in the tank, as estimated by ETS one of the winery’s oenological lab test providers, about 40% of that original tonnage was still remaining. This means that I dug out between 6-7 tons of must over the course of 50 minutes! Whew. You can see my first tank experience in the video above, hilariously narrated by Jeff van de Pol, Assistant Winemaker for the Rock.
Follow all of my adventures during that crazy sabbradical, by keeping up to date here at Vinopanion and by following the #MFITV hashtag on Twitter. You can find even more content by checking out my Facebook. The project also has it’s own photo albums on said Facebook, as well as on my Flickr. Lastly, all of the videos are being posted at my YouTube channel. Don’t be shy, I’ll add you to any profiles. 😉