Harvest cellar operations are fast coming to a close. This time of year we often say we’re “buttoning up” the wines. For non-ML (malolactic fermentation) white wines, they will have been racked off their heavy lees a while ago and received SO2. They’re now settling out their “light lees” and being given their second SO2 addition. New wines bind just about all of the SO2 you give it with their first addition and many winemakers are caught off guard how fast they have to make a second addition. Fortunately, hazy wines have more anti-oxidant protection at this stage in their life than any other. Lees provide a very reductive (without oxygen) environment for the wine and it’s a good idea to leave any wine on light lees up until the time of bottling.
For wine undergoing malolactic fermentation, most are coming to an end by this point and our job as winemakers is to monitor the end so we can quickly add SO2 and protect the wine. As long as the wine is colonized by a live ML bacteria strain there is little risk of spoilage. But as soon as the ML fermentation ends there is vinegar-producing bacteria waiting to take over. Malolactic fermentation does produce CO2 gas so there is a small amount of protection immediately after the end of ML, but that quickly dissipates and the wine is very susceptible to spoilage.
Wines intended for oak aging are being racked to barrel and quickly show their true character afterward. This happens much sooner than wines that don’t see oak. Why is this? Hazy wines (i.e. wines with suspended yeast lees) mask just about every character of wine – nose, palate, acidity – you name it. And settling the lees takes time, months even. But you can hasten this process with a technique called tannin fining. Few winemakers actually add tannin for the purpose of clarifying a wine, but it inadvertently happens anyway due to aging the wine in barrel and the extraction of oak tannin from it. So for this reason barrel aged wines progress quickly from settling off of heavy lees to a being a clarified wine.
Speaking of barrel aging, wines are always at their most disjointed and awkward a few weeks after being barreled down in new oak. Oak take time to integrate – months. Avoid the temptation to judge your new barrel selections until at least March. I’ve seen barrels that I didn’t care for turn into my favorite barrels months later. And promising barrels early on that lose their character later.
Part of good winemaking is monitoring the chemical parameters of your wine. Immediately after the completion of alcoholic and malolactic fermentation one should perform an acetic acid test on the wine. This does two things: it prevents any surprises later on from a wine that has elevated, but still imperceptible, VA (volatile acidity), and it provides a baseline reading by which to judge future measurements. Aging wines will always increase in VA, and you need to know if the increases are small and gradual or large and indicative of a problem.
People often ask me “what do you do in the off season?” I smile (sometimes smirk) and say there is no off season. You’re either making wine or botting wine. And December is the start of the bottling season. I encourage clients to bottle any wine not intended for oak aging soon after harvest. Wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Vidal, rosé, Albariño, stainless steel Chardonnay, and Seyval don’t benefit from extended time spent in a tank. Once the wine clarifies it begins to deteriorate. Bottle it and open up cooperage you might need for processing the barrel aged wine later on. These wines are often bottled in the spring after harvest. This is fine, but there’s nothing special about the spring. If you can keep up the pace after harvest there’s no reason to delay the bottling process.