Expect the Unexpected

Has it really been three weeks since I’ve posted anything? Yikes. No wonder I started getting threatening text messages and e-mails from Caitlin earlier this week. During the work day, of course. We really can’t escape one another in our hotel room.

I got into an argument with a girlfriend inside of a tent. That’s a bad place for an argument, because then I tried to walk out and slammed the flap. How are you supposed to express your anger in this situation? Zipper it up really quick? – Mitch Hedberg

As we’ve mentioned, our wine was whisked away to our friends’ basement for safekeeping while we work on re-building our house. Specifically, our friends Nick and Sara. Nick and I (mostly Nick if I’m being honest) have been hard at work on the next steps in our winemaking process. I’m going to provide you with a general update, as well as three big surprises from our first round of tastings.

General Update
We pressed our red grapes as soon as primary fermentation was complete (meaning the yeast had converted all of the sugar in the grapes into alcohol). Now we start secondary fermentation (technical term) for our red wine juice. This time around, instead of converting sugar to alcohol, we’re converting the malic acid in the wine to lactic acid. Why do we want to do this? Well, grape juice is naturally very high in malic acid, which is very tart (think of biting into a granny smith apple). This is fine for a white wine (and in fact we’ll be working to ensure our white wine doesn’t convert its malic acid) but for a red wine, we want a round, more full, more buttery taste that only comes from lactic acid.

This process is very simple: we add some packets of freeze-dried malolactic bacteria (Lalvin Bacchus Malolactic Bacteria Culture) to a little water and then pour it into the carboys holding the wine. The bacteria converts all of the malic acid into lactic acid. Secondary fermentation can take several weeks to several months, depending on the speed at which the bacteria multiply. We’ll have a red wine with a more complex mouthfeel when the secondary fermentation is complete.

Surprise #1: Our white wine is fantastic.
It’s too early to say anything for sure and I shouldn’t get cocky. But, on first taste, our Vidal Blanc is going to be awesome. It has a great, floral aroma and strong grapefruit flavors with really nice, crisp acidity (no malolactic fermentation yet, which is a good thing). We’ll see how it ends up over the next few months as we age and refine the wine, but considering I have no idea what I’m doing, this is turning out really well.

We did our first racking of the white wine last Friday, which means we siphoned the clear juice off the top and into a clean carboy, leaving behind spent yeast cells and some remaining grape pulp that had settled to the bottom. We filled a 3-gallon and a 1-gallon carboy all the way to the top to minimize air exposure. The wine now goes into storage and we don’t have anything to do for a while. We’ll come back to the white wine when it gets really cold outside. Why does the weather matter you ask? You’ll have to stay tuned to find out.

Surprise #2: The King is unseated.
I’m reading Game of Thrones, so I’m currently seeing everything in terms of Starks vs. Lannisters. Anyway, we’re making two varietals of red wine this year: Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Almost everyone is familiar with Cabernet Sauvignon, sometimes referred to as the king of red grapes, because it is the primary grape in many of the most expensive and collectable wines in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon also happens our personal favorite, which is why we’re so keen on trying to make it.

Cabernet Franc, on the other hand, is much less well-known. It is traditionally mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to make red blends (Bordeaux style). It is sometimes bottled as a stand-alone varietal, but it is not nearly as common as Cabernet Sauvignon.

Well, you’ll probably be as surprised as us to learn that on first taste, the Cabernet Franc is trouncing the Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s way too early to make our final judgment call, but it’s an interesting development nonetheless. Why do I think the Cabernet Franc is beating the Cabernet Sauvignon, you ask? Likely because they were both grown in Maryland. As much as I would like Westminster, MD to be Napa Valley, CA, the truth is, it’s a significantly colder, wetter part of the world. Cabernet Franc grapes bud and ripen a full week earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, which may make them better suited to Maryland’s shorter growing season.

Surprise #3: The Twilight Zone. Dah nah nuh nuh dah nah nuh nuh.
I have no idea what’s happening with my free-run and pressed juice. You’ll remember from our post on pressing that we kept our free-run juice separate from our pressed juice for the first time this year. The reason was to isolate the two styles to see how pronounced their differences might be. Everyone will tell you that free-run juice is a higher quality juice and reserved for a winemaker’s best offerings.

Here’s the problem: at the moment, our pressed juice tastes better than our free-run juice. This is equally true for both the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cabernet Franc. Don’t get me wrong, they both taste very good at this stage, but the free-run just tastes a little watered down compared to the pressed juice. As the wine ages, and oak is introduced, the two types may do a reverso on us, but at the moment, the pressed juice is unexpectedly better.

Going by current results, the best carboy of wine is the Vidal Blanc in a landslide. In a huge surprise upset, the pressed Cabernet Franc is leading the reds. My whole world feels upside down.


  1. White wine better? Really? Caitlin I thought we raised you better :-) Michael

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