The quality of wine – October 2018

I would like to remind all great wine lovers of Beppe Rinaldi: “the critic”, a man of rare intelligence and humanity, a great Barolo producer and a dogged defender of his people, his beautiful territory and his traditions. He was a very dear friend and I will miss our long discussions on every subject, as well as the dinners with wines and food that we liked. I have some unforgettable memories of vintages of his Barolo, which I think is one of the greatest wines in the world.

Dear Beppe, you will always be with me.

The 2018 vintage has been very difficult, and I think I understand what has caused this succession of events that have conditioned vineyard management: the absence of the north wind and other winds, which dry out the vineyards, make the light very clear and lower the night-time temperature, therefore I have had higher air humidity. This has forced me to intervene on bunches and leaves, with labour costs rising to three times what I spent in 2017. Fortunately I can afford it, both economically and in terms of finding staff capable of working how I want them to. Of the 35 people I use, the only Italians are my wife, myself, my daughter, my son, my son-in-law, and at vintage time, my daughter-in-law and my oldest granddaughter, which means 7 out of 35. The other 28 are non-Europeans who have been working at my winery for years.  This work enables me to limit damage that would otherwise be catastrophic for the quality of grapes destined to winemaking.

We are already halfway through the number of winemaking days and I am very happy with the must quality and especially the vinification, which has been the easiest of the 43 I have done so far; the internal temperature of the two vats (out of the existing 5) has reached 37.1 degrees, much to my satisfaction; the Saccharomyces yeasts from different strains, existing in the two vats, have exceeded one million for every square millimetre of must and produce alcohol, phenols, glycerine and all the other substances that make the must (and consequently the wine) great; the carbon dioxide produced has protected the must very well and pumping over has been briefer than usual. The thought that leaps to mind is that nature always astonishes us: this vintage with its humid air is very difficult for preserving grape ripening, but the rigorous selection of only the healthy, ripe and intact berries that go into the vats (very low amounts of grapes), has produced an extremely clean must, which is very scented and complex, with significant chemical values and easy vinification.

I would like to repeat what I wrote several years ago on what I consider essential for overcoming this extremely difficult economic period for wine producers:

  1. Drastic reduction of grape yields (30/40 percent of what is allowed by the production regulations).
  2. Systematic checks by third parties (universities): from the vineyard to the harvest, vinification, maturation, bottling, points of sale, all with the relative certification.
  3. Research, experimentation, advice from universities on:
  • Climate change
  • Experimental fields for vine selection
  • DNA
  • Vine diseases
  • Microbiology of grapes, must and wine
  • Native yeasts
  • Studies on wine contaminants (ochratoxin, quercetin and several others that have already led to considerable amounts of wine being confiscated).
  1. Shrewd choice of terroirs and habitats that are particularly suitable for vinegrowing; cultivation without weedkillers, only manuring – lightly working the surface in winter – manual hoeing of each vine – pruning only when the plant is absolutely dormant (these operations were already described in more detail in chapter three in May 2006).
  2. We must remember that if we intend to face the crisis by lowering prices, there will always be someone else offering an even lower price, whereas if we can make real quality, we won’t have many competitors; because there is only room for a few at the top of the pyramid and there will always be a market for real quality.

The chemical industry provides lots of products that can help tackle the enormous difficulties of such a difficult vintage, ranging from:

  • Nutrients for fermentation
  • Enzymes
  • Nutrients
  • Tannins
  • Coadjuvants
  • Bacteria
  • Fining agents
  • Antioxidants
  • Yeast nutrients

And so on … but for me, only healthy, whole, ripe berries should be present the fermentation vat, and  only very small amounts of sulphur dioxide in the barrels.

Professor Massimo Vincenzini must be congratulated on his appointment as President of the renowned Accademia dei Georgofili (which is just acknowledgment of what he has done throughout his long career as a scientist). I am certain that this new responsibility will enable him to achieve important results: “Good luck in your new job, Massimo!” His help is essential and gives me great security and peace of mind: every morning must is taken for sampling and, in the late evening the progress of the situation of each vat is phoned through to me. It goes without saying that fermentation is only done with native yeasts, also wild ones, and without temperature control within the musts; each fermentation convinces me more and more that nature is much better than man and the less you intervene, the less you break the natural balance. If anyone would like to delve deeper into the question of vinification, I recommend the paper “Microbiology of Wine” by Professor Vincenzini. It is a very important treatise for finding out more about the wonderful work of yeasts.

Spontaneous fermentation is characterised by the development and the combined and/or sequence action of various species of yeasts naturally present in the must and coming from the grapes and/or cellar environment. Generally, non-Saccharomyces yeasts are present, dominant and active at the start of the process. They are mostly apiculate in shape, without high alcoholigenic power and destined to be replaced, within a few days, by Saccharomyces yeasts, which are responsible for the so-called tumultuous phase of fermentation and able to complete the fermentation process. There are countless possible variants, especially in terms of quantity, of this extremely simplified picture, because the development and activity of each species depends on numerous factors. In any case, the type of species present, the extent of their development and the persistence of each population in the fermentation process, thanks to the metabolic features that can be considered species-specific, are all elements that can strongly influence the sensory characteristics of the end product, for good or for worse, it should be underlined.

Wines produced with spontaneous fermentation display more complexity of aroma and taste compared to wines obtained with induced fermentation, which are sometimes judges as “great”, with personality and character and “one of a kind”. It is easy, at this point, to attribute the origin of more complexity to the combined and/or sequence action of different yeasts as regards species, and within the same species, as regards strain.

On this theme, an investigation I carried out on intraspecific genetic variability of

Saccharomyces cerevisiae (we studied 145 isolates from spontaneous fermentation of grape must from each individual vineyard during six consecutive vintages, from 1994 to 1999) highlighted astonishing biodiversity, both for each vintage as well as between different vintages: of the 145 isolates examined, 50 different restriction profiles of mitochondrial DNA, 50 strains out of 145 isolates!

Of course, as well as the chance of achieving products of particular “greatness”, spontaneous fermentation may also give rise to products of more modest quality, due to its intrinsic unpredictable results. In my personal experience, however, these cases are very often linked to poor grape health and/or poor care of cellar operations. In any case, analytical methods available today enable us to monitor the microbiological progress of spontaneous wine fermentation almost in real time, thus making it possible to take any necessary corrective action.

What do you think?