The incredibly complex process of winemaking has so many intricate pieces, all of which can have an effect on the resulting wine. Viticulture plays a gigantic role, and decisions regarding trimming of leaves, how many bunches of grapes per vine, and the length of time the grapes spend on a vine are all crucial. Grape growing techniques are a science unto themselves, and one that I will not delve into here. I am sure many newcomers to wine will more often hear about oak ageing and the use of sulfites, and this blog will focus on a few of these common winemaking techniques and how they can impact the wine in your glass.
The Role of Sulfites in Wine
Sulfites play a vital role in many wineries, and are principally used to protect the wine against the effects of oxygen. Oxygen can greatly change a wine, as its molecules can dilute a fresh and aromatic varietal, or even turn wines to vinegar in extreme cases. Sulfites act as a buffer to those oxygen molecules, and prevent wine from losing its flavor and structure. Sulfur also acts as an antiseptic, helping rid equipment of unwanted yeast and bacteria. Although the limit for sulfur in wine is much less than that of canned soup and dried fruits, many winemakers believe that sulfites are not necessary at all, and are actually harmful to a wine. The natural wine movement is gaining momentum, and winemakers like Giorgio and Stefano at Terrasol feel that sulfites can suppress a wine’s flavor and ruin its integrity. It is hard to disagree, as the sulfite free wines in the Mucci Imports portfolio are some of the most complex and beautiful wines I have tasted.
Stainless Steel Versus Oak
When I first started going to tastings, I remembered always hearing “6 months in French oak” or “fermented in stainless steel then 2 months in concrete”. At first, these figures all sounded like a different language to me, but now it has become a bit clearer. Inert vessels, such as stainless steel, are meant to be temperature controlled and to not add flavor to the wine. Generally, these are used for lighter and fruitier wines, which would be overtaken by oak flavors if they were to be aged in wood. For wines made to have more body and structure, oak barrels are used, the most popular being French, American, and Slovenian. The effects of these barrels can differ depending on their size, how much they are charred when produced, their age, as well as where they are from. For example, Cantine Mucci’s Santo Stefano Montepulciano has a sweet vanilla taste that goes well with the younger fruitier wine; that vanilla coming from the American oak. Their Cantico Montepulciano sees more age and French oak, allowing for the grapes to soften and blend very well with the soft spice imparted by the French barriques.
Different types of aging vessels have a big impact on the finished wine; the oak at Rocco di Carpeneto, adding complexity to their wines.
Other Helpful Winemaking Phrases
Outside of ageing and sulfites, there are a few other key terms that I can remember hearing and wondering about as I first started tasting. One was malolactic fermentation (MLF), a process that occurs in all red wines and some whites. Bacteria convert tart acids into softer ones, leading to a sometimes buttery and nutty flavors. Another technique that can lead to richer flavors is when a winemaker allows the wine to spend time on its lees, or the yeast cells that die after completing the fermentation. As the yeast break down, their components are absorbed into the wine, releasing some rich flavors. This is very common in champagne and can be found in Cantina della Volta’s lambruscos, adding a toasty nuttiness to the wines. There are so many more key parts to the winemaking process, one that this blog will surely touch on in the future. As for now, hopefully these keywords and techniques help you understand the next time you hear “this wine has no added sulfites and sees six months in stainless steel”!
Wines and Spirits: Understanding Style and Quality. London: Wine & Spirit Education Trust, 2012. Print.
“The Bottom Line on Sulfites in Wine | Wine Folly.” Wine Folly. N.p., 15 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 July 2014