I was driving home from the bodega at about 6pm yesterday evening, the temperature gauge in my car showing an outside temperature of 27°C (81°C). Wow, it’s hotter than July, I thought to myself, and this this week that could very well be true. On Monday afternoon the mercury hit 29°C (84°C), and has remained at that level all week. This is in complete contrast to a week ago, when our bodega was in danger of being washed away after a day or two of non-stop, torrential rain. Of course, now that we are busy working inside the bodega, with the fruit safely gathered in, the temperature and rainfall holds much less significance to us, but it’s still an indicator of how unpredictable our weather is, or has become in recent years. When I finally arrived home it was just like summer – people of the beach, and supper prepared on the barbecue!
By the way, when I mentioned ‘hotter than July’ I immediately thought of the Stevie Wonder album of that name (I could even picture the album cover), and then it occurred to me…. there’s probably a few (younger) people reading this post who might well be thinking ‘Stevie who?’
Firstly my apologies for the silence over the last few days….. we have been a bit busy. All the additions have finally been made to the fermenting tanks and so the only thing left to do is wait. Of course, it goes without saying that we have to monitor the progress of each and every tank, and sometimes make small adjustments to the temperature if things are not progressing as we wish. This is exactly what we mean by ‘temperature control’ – we can adjust the speed of the fermentation simply by altering the temperature. Fermentation generates heat, and if left unchecked would career out of control and the whole fermentation process would probably be over in less than a week….. but the resulting wine? Well, perhaps not so good.
By monitoring the density twice a day, we can accurately measure how quickly the must is being converted into wine, and if we see that it is moving too quickly then we can simply reduce the tank temperature by half or maybe one degree, and this will bring the process back under control. Of course the speed at which we chose to make the fermentation is down to the individual winemaker, and relies both on experience, but also has to take into account the type of yeast being used. Different strains of yeast behave in very different ways, some are far more vigorous than others, and in addition they will often work within a completely different temperature range. For example, making the temperature too cold might simply kill some strains of yeast, leaving a partly fermented wine. In addition, towards the end of the fermentation, we have to raise the temperature of the tanks slightly to allow the yeast to fully ferment and complete it’s job. Stopping the fermentation too early will simply result in a little more residual sugar being left in the finished wine – not a typical characteristic of albariño. Having said that, anything less than 5 grams of sugar per litre of wine will be barely discernable to the average consumer.
Usually the grape harvest in our D.O. is spread over a period of about two or three weeks, sometimes more. Under normal circumstances the sub-zones in the south start well before their counterparts in the north, and may even finish before the north picks its first fruit. Despite there only being some 60 km between north and south, it can actually make quite a difference, especially as one moves inland away from the coast, and the cooling influence of the Ocean. This year however, it seems that things were quite different.
We have just received some stats from our local D.O. office showing that almost the entire 2014 harvest was collected in a little over one week. We often talk about waiting for a window in the weather, and this year it appears that almost everyone in our region took advantage of the very same window! After a period of torrential rain, at the very first opportunity, bodegas and their grape suppliers rushed out into the vineyards to gather in their precious crop. Of course, Castro Martin was no exception, mirroring the graph in today’s post and peaking at the very same moment as the rest of the region – Saturday 27th September, when over 3 million kilos were harvested (but not all by Castro Martin).
The total crop for 2014 of 24 million kilos is largely what was estimated before picking began, and although larger than 2012, it is still one of the smaller harvests of recent years. (Remembering that the area under vine has been growing steadily year-on-year since the very creation of the D.O., owing to the vagaries of our weather, growth in production does not always follow suit)
In the cellar our fermentations are all well under way, but it will be at least another week or two before the first stage of winemaking is concluded for this year.
In terms of activity inside the bodega, this is without doubt, our busiest time of year. It’s not just a question of throwing a bit of yeast into the grape must and waiting for something to happen – it is slightly more complicated than that. Apart from monitoring the tanks on a very regular basis, there are all sorts of additions and processes to be carried out, some that require the tank to be pumped over, and others that don’t. Pumping over is simply a method that we use for thoroughly mixing any addition that we make to a tank – Bentonite for example, a natural product which is added to clarify and stabilise the wine. Once the Bentonite is added we simply attach hoses to the top and bottom of the tank, and pump the grape must over from top to bottom in a cyclical motion. This is just a mixing process (which differs from the pumping over in red wine making where it is done as part of the process to help extract colour from the skins). Clearly, this doesn’t apply to white wine making.
Despite all this activity, there’s really not that much to see. A visitor to the bodega might see a bit of mixing, and perhaps the odd pump connected to a tank, but nothing that interesting to look at. Inside the tank there is a bit of foam and some bubbles, but as we mentioned a day or two ago, putting you head into a tank of fermenting wine is not recommended. As a keen photographer I have been trying to find some interesting pictures to add to my post, but to be honest most potential examples are pretty dull and don’t really show too much. By way of compensation I have made a small collage of various tank shots, and as you will see it does not make the most colourful compilation….
The dreaded chore of cleaning is well under way, and there are areas of the bodega that are already returning to their more usual appearance – clean and well ordered. The space that bears the initial brunt of the annual harvest onslaught, our grape reception, is already clean, albeit that the 2,000 odd plastic cases we use for gathering our fruit are still piled high at the back of the building, awaiting their turn to be blasted with our jet washers. These cases and our grape reception actually have one thing in common – they are both only used for about one week out of every year, the rest of the time they simply gather dust!
Meanwhile, inside the winery, more tanks have now been seeded at the start of their alcoholic fermentation. As we all know, this is the process that converts the grape juice into wine, but one of the things that we cannot afford to forget is that winemaking not only creates alcohol, but also produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide. For this reason, our bodega is fitted with a powerful extraction system that blows air through the cellar at a rate of knots – once switched on the constant background hum of their motors serves as a subliminal reminder that fermentation is in progress. They are not switched off until the last tank has finished its transformation. Of course carbon dioxide at these levels, is a killer, and very occasionally, even putting your face too close to the top of a fermenting tank will take your breath away, and leave you gasping for air. Perhaps in a slightly more sinister fashion, concentrations of as little as 7% to 10% (which are largely odourless) can cause eventual suffocation. Symptoms begin with slight dizziness and headache, leading to visual and hearing dysfunction, and finally unconsciousness. This can all happen in less than an hour, which is why we have to remain very vigilant throughout.
TRAGIC FOOTNOTE: This is really quite odd, and extremely distressing. Only a few hours after posting this story I have learned of the tragic death of a young winemaker, caused by carbon dioxide suffocation. In the D.O. of Bierzo (which borders on Galicia), 25 year old Nerea Pérez died when she was overcome by this odourless gas and fell into the vat. She was discovered by her uncle, himself a well-known winemaker from the region, but unfortunately she could not be saved. We send our deepest sympathies to her family.
Although we breath a big sigh of relief once the picking has finished, this is of course, only the first part of the process, but I’m not going to stand, hands on hip, and boldly declare “mission accomplished” like one famous politician that we all know and love (or not)! There are now two very big, and equally important jobs that follow: cleaning and winemaking.
I have to be honest and say that I know that cleaning is not one of the most popular jobs, but it’s just one of those things that has to be done – roll your sleeves up and get on with it. As I have described many times before, it’s all about the must – the thick, sticky grape juice gets everywhere, and when it does, then boy does it stick. The worst of all is when it appears in an exposed place where it can be ‘baked on’ by the sun; then it simply dries like a coat of varnish. Take for example, the pathways and loading area in front of the Bodega. In today’s photo you can see the containers of ‘bagazo’ (skins and stalks left after pressing) lined up waiting to be collected by the distillery, to be made into aguardiente (grappa or eau-de-vie). It doesn’t matter how careful you are, they always leave a trail of juice and skins behind when you move them. The big problem is that the front of our Bodega faces due south, and so this trail becomes baked on to the terracotta pavement. It can only be removed with pressure washing machines.
Meanwhile, in the cellar, the first step of the winemaking process has already begun, as we seed the very first tanks with yeast. In another week or two we will actually have wine – but still a very long way from being finished. More on that as we go along.
Another fine day greeted us for the last leg of our annual journey. The only plot left to pick was in our Family Estate vineyard known as ‘El Pazo’ – sounds like a small job, but even with our entire team (see today’s photo) working flat out, it would still take us the entire day. As always we were running a non-stop shuttle between the vineyard and the bodega, a distance of less than 2km, and, as the grapes arrived, we sat with our calculators making sure that the presses were fully loaded. Most importantly of all is that we make sure that we are not left with a few odd kilos at the end of the day, as if we don’t have something even approaching a full load, then they simply can’t be pressed – it would break the machines. This calculation is actually more difficult than it sounds, especially as you never know until the final basket is weighed, the exact kilos that you have to load.
By early evening, as sunset approached, the job was finally finished, and the final presses were loaded. There is no doubt that 2014 is a small harvest for us (and also for the region as a whole), but I have to say that we are more than happy with the potential quality that we think we have – as I have said before, small is often beautiful.
Finally, I would like to thank our teams, in the vineyards, on the tractors, in the bodega, and not forgetting Luisa on her computer – the organisation and professionalism of everyone makes this demanding job a whole lot easier. Bring on 2015!
Now on the downhill stretch, with the end in sight, we started picking once again under clear blue skies. Considering the weather of only one week ago, when it looked like the end of the world (or perhaps just the end of the vintage) had arrived, we are quite fortunate that not one drop of rain has fallen during the entire campaign. With every single forecast looking good until the end of the week I don’t think that I am tempting fate by saying that.
The grapes entering our cellars during the last 48 hours are looking very good indeed, with a typical degree, correct acidity and pH, but above all else, with a lovely thick, honeyed juice. Whilst on the subject of QC, Angela is, as usual, beavering away in her laboratory analysing every batch of grapes that enters, often finishing in the early hours of the morning and last to leave the wine cellar. In fact our body clocks are actually quite well co-ordinated at harvest time – as a morning person, I cover the early shift, whilst Angela tends to finish a little later than me, and our paths cross occasionally in our bedroom! Anyway, today’s very brief clip shows Angela secreted away in her laboratory carefully studying must samples.
Today was not a very hard day, indeed, it hasn’t been a particularly tough harvest so far…… and the reason. It’s going to be a small crop, owing to this year’s reduced kilos and lower yields. Despite last week’s rain the berries have remained very small (which is actually quite typical of albariño), and the combination of a thick pulp and gentle pressing means that we are extracting less litres per kilo. The final count, that comes tomorrow, will tell the whole story.
Sunday, a day of rest…… for some, but not for us. OK, so we started an hour later than usual, to give our picking team at least a few more minutes in bed (you see, we do have a human side after all!) The morning started brightly enough, but not the clear blue skies that we had enjoyed last week. The weather forecasters had actually predicted the possibility of rain overnight, but this did not materialise, simply a bit of cloud cover that presented no danger at all to our precious grapes. As the day progressed, so the weather improved and the cloud cover started to break, giving us intervals of warm, pleasant sunshine.
Today’s picking was limited to just a couple of vineyard sites – one grower (whose vineyard is managed by us), and ‘El Pazo’, our biggest single vineyard site of 5 hectares. We had been anxiously awaiting the grapes from the Pazo vineyard, and of course, had our fingers crossed that there was no further rain. We were not to be disappointed – the old vines on this site yielded some of the very best fruit of the vendimia so far. Very ripe, good viscose juice and just the right amount of acidity (the makings of a very good Family Estate wine). Indeed, our video clip of today shows the team picking in our Pazo vineyard – it’s only a very short clip but at least it gives you an idea of what it might be like to work on a canopy above your head (for days on end).
A short day, but nonetheless satisfying, gathering in some very good raw material.
Saturday! Traditionally our busiest day. As I mention every year, everyone loves to pick on Saturday, as the majority of our grape suppliers recruit their family and friends to help out in the vineyard, it’s not for any other more complicated reason. We started yet again, under blue skies and managed to get at least one press working early in the day. As the afternoon progressed so the flow of grapes increased, but with good organisation and fortunate timing we managed to stay on top of the situation. (I use the phrase timing because the secret is always to keep the presses loaded and working in a continuous cycle, before the incoming grapes have a chance to swamp our reception area).
Today’s brief video clip shows Fran loading the presses. It’s almost impossible to see on this clip as the fruit is pretty much a blur as it rains down into the press. Owning to the thoughtful design made by our founder Domingo Martin, our pressing room is located directly below the grape reception, and the fruit is simply emptied into a hopper on the floor above to fall by gravity almost directly into the press. In the video Fran is using a special wooden rake to distribute bunches evenly throughout the press (he is actually working on a platform built alongside the press, about six feet off the ground). The machine that you can see is actually the smaller of our two presses, and has a capacity of 3,500 kg when pressing whole bunches. Repeating last year’s decision, we are only using a very short, gentle pressing cycle to extract only the very best juice.
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