Cellar Stank and Citric Acid

I left you on a harvest break, relaxing in the grass with an overstuffed mortadella panino and a sawed-off plastic water bottle of crisp, orange wine. Not a terrible way to unwind before moving from the field to the cellar, where things are equally hands-on and aromatic. Cellar work requires feline-like agility to climb between the various massive tanks and barrels. Also helpful is knowing how to drive an antique 1970s tractor (manual transmission, of course) loaded with tons of crates and baskets. Most cellar tasks also involve cleaning, and I never ceased to marvel at just how much winemaking resembles the fine janitorial arts.
I often spent my days transferring juice from one vessel to another, employing pumps to flush the young wines with oxygen, leaving behind the spent yeast cells or lees. This tedious, albeit fundamental, process helps avoid any reduction, wine parlance for those sulfuric, stanky aromas that arise from a lack of oxygen. These wines also undergo carbonic maceration, typical of Gamay-based reds from Beaujolais. Following the carbonic maceration, I spent hours digging the compressed grapes from the vat before transferring them to a press. Then I used plenty of elbow grease to thoroughly and comprehensively clean all the tools and vessels involved with citric acid.

The continuous cycle of cleaning, while monotonous and definitely less glorified than harvesting, is of paramount importance. There cannot be any residual juice, fruit, or winemaking byproducts in the pumps, pipettes, or any of the other countless elements employed. Any cross-contamination from unclean tools engenders some decisively off aromas and flavors in the final wine. Although this funk tends to dissipate after a few minutes, winemakers can avoid the whole issue through a comprehensive regimen of cleaning and cellar maintenance.

Freelance Winemaking, Sulfur Needed

Up in the volcanic mountains around Vicenza, Tenuta Armonia vinifies almost all of their wines without added sulfur, fermenting using native yeasts. The winery usually eschews oak barrels in favor of more interesting vessels, such as terracotta amphorae and stainless steel vats.

However, Andrea also serves as a consulting winemaker for myriad local growers, many of whom do not operate on a level as rigorously natural or environmentally responsible. We’re talking about sulfur as a pesticide, excessive irrigation, and plenty of agricultural practices prioritizing fruit quantity over quality. These consulting and freelance gigs, while requiring some small ideological sacrifices, are also the only way to maintain financial stability in a sector beset by continually rising costs.
In summary, I cannot overstate how much natural winemaking relies on pure, unadulterated fruit and the importance of a healthy vineyard. If you want to produce wine without the help of stabilizers and additives, then the first and most important work is with the grapes, the soil, and through a symbiotic relationship with nature. Natural winemaking, by its very definition, precludes the production of an industrial quantity of bottles. As a result, return on investment is minimal and not seen for months, if not years at a time. These bottlings require an investment on behalf of the winemaker and the customer. Comprehending the arduous process behind the juice makes it much easier to fork over a bit more for the requisite quality and environmental responsibility.

“Natural” Lambrusco and Organic Tannin by the Bag

Located amongst the rolling, verdant hills of Poggio Rusco, Fondo Bozzole is a winery producing supposedly clean, unadulterated Lambruscos. Franco, the vineyard manager and winemaker, refuses to plow or remove the weeds that wind and snake around his 40-year-old vines, leaving the endless rows of grapes as nature intended. These gnarly old creatures produced half as many grapes this year. However, the quality is excellent, and Franco is bullish on the potential for long-term aging.

Despite the ageability and overall agreeable nature of the wines and their producer, one unpleasant surprise awaited me in the cellar. While navigating the patchwork collection of tanks and stainless vats, I noticed bags of organic tannins and precultured yeasts hidden behind some empty boxes. I recall my initial disappointment, as I believed the operation was natural and based on indigenous or native yeasts.
Native yeasts introduce an element of unpredictability and the potential for volatile acidity or VA, among many other faults, if not appropriately managed. VA can be measured in the final product and produces noxious nail polish remover aromas. Working with native yeasts is an even bigger gamble when making sparkling wine, and this gamble is one most natural winemakers embrace, as the ends almost always justify the means. Also, as I discovered firsthand, only being on-site and in the presence of the winemaker can one truly determine the cleanliness and authenticity adhered to in production. This observation is not an indictment of quality or effort, just a level of dedication and experimentation that is perhaps too radical for some and not enough for others.

Despite using bagged yeasts and tannins, Franco’s wines are deliciously profound and surprisingly elegant, even after almost a decade of bottle age. His vintage ‘rosato’ is particularly noteworthy. Franco makes this wine in the champagne method, with less than 12 hours of maceration and almost no sugar added at bottling. Hallmarks of these artisanal productions are a bone-dry palate and chiseled minerality, not to mention an incredible potential for food pairing. I was astounded at how well the effervescence and acidity formed an excellent accompaniment to the richness of a fatty T-bone made from a prized local breed of cow. I came away thoroughly inspired by Lambrusco’s food potential, albeit a bit jaded about the lack of transparency between the winemaker and eventual Florida distribution.

Can’t win ‘em all!

TO BE CONTINUED IN DISPATCH #4

Join Us for Dinner!

The Italian Dispatch Wine Dinner with Chef Evan Kretmar

Sunday Februry 5th 5:30 and 8:00

Inspired by working harvest in Italy this Summer, our very own Evan Kretmar presents a four-course wine dinner of elevated Italian comfort foods. This one-night-only event is the culmination of his travels, documented in his Italian Dispatches. Join us as Evan shares his inspiration and the food of Italy that sustains him. Wine pairings by Tim and Evan, Food and words by Evan!

Menu:

First Course:

Antipasti misti (mixed appetizer plate):
Cacio e pepe arancini, Sgagliozze (fried polenta), House-cured olives, Seared cheese, Sott’aceti stagionali (seasonal pickles), Finocchiona salami

Second Course

Insalata Invernale (Winter salad)
Seared radicchio, bibb lettuce, assorted citrus, castelvetrano olives, grated walnuts, horseradish vinaigrette

Third Course

Lasagnette al Forno
Eight-hour bolognese and parmesan bechamel, caramelized fennel, herb salad

Fourth Course

Torta alla Nocciolata:
Hazelnut chocolate tart, brown butter graham crust, ricotta gelato

Dinner

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Wine Pairing

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