The WinePod design and hardware has several advantages. But, having great hardware won’t help you if you don’t have great fruit and the best methods. The 2013 harvest was another high quality harvest in California. Last week, there was an article on the BBC about the WinePod and a wine critic in the U.K. commented that he was quite sure that a home winemaker could not create a wine with the same complexity and quality as a commercial winery. Of course, this is not true. Maybe more importantly it really misses the whole point of the joy of making something of quality and sharing it with people you love. In this post I want to explain exactly why you can make a high quality wine by way of explaining how to make great Cabernet in the WinePod.
The Cabernet winemaking process taught via the WineCoach software is the same advanced method used to create many of the top Cabernets in the world. Briefly explained, a warm fermentation followed by an extended maceration of the newly made wine on the skins. Then gentle pressing and ageing in a high quality French oak barrel. If you have high quality fruit and follow the same method, you will get the same results, right?
Not if you don’t have the right equipment. Does your winemaking hardware allow you to create the same conditions as those found in a winery? Very few home winemakers have the equipment and methods necessary to do this. The critical difference for home winemakers is small scale vs. winery scale.
Scale means several things I want to tell you about in this post. Scale means the size of the “biomass” All things being equal, such as punch downs, larger fermentations extract higher levels of flavor and color due to higher, more prolonged, temperatures. Many small scale fermentations just don’t get warm enough and stay warm enough. This is true for red wines only. In fact, the opposite is true for white wine fermentations. Most home wineries do not have a cool enough environment.
Last month we made Merlot from a friend’s vineyard here in Almaden. We filled the WinePod with about 15 gallons of must and an equal amount in a food-grade 18 gallon tub. The grapes were from from the same vineyard block and picked the same day. Otherwise the wines were treated exactly the same way with the same yeast and same number of punch downs. The WinePod’s heating system kept the fermentation temperature in the mid-80s during the second half of the fermentation. The wine made in the tub was markedly cooler as the temperature at night was in the mid-50s. The tub was not able to maintain temperatures. The heat created by the fermentation was not enough to overcome the coolness at night. It was a cool fermentation. The results were immediately visible: the WinePod wine was deep purple. The tub created wine that was ruby colored. The WinePod Merlot had much more flavors extracted. The tub was a lighter flavor. The tub wine was nothing like what you would get in a larger fermenter in a winery because the temperature was too low. Therefore, being able to heat small scale fermentation is critical to making high quality Cabernets or any other red wine. It’s not just critical during fermentation, its critical during post-fermentation too.
But what about access to high quality fruit? When the WinePod is coupled with high-quality frozen must from a top vineyard, the potential of what a first time winemaker can accomplish vs. a high end artisanal winery is unparalleled.
But, getting your hands on grapes from high quality vineyards is not easy. Ignoring the proximity issue for a moment, you are competing with established wineries, with strong relationships to growers. Wineries buy grapes literally by the truckload or buy the vineyard block. Wineries can increase a grower’s prestige and value via a vineyard designated wine. Wineries often will agree to long term sales contracts. So even if you are in physical proximity to a great vineyard, when you call asking to buy a couple hundred pounds of grapes, many times the grower doesn’t want to bother because they are already working 24/7 during harvest and you are small potatoes.
But, we can help. We can offer you great quality grapes anywhere you live. How do we do that? We supply frozen grape must. What? How can that be as good as fresh grapes? Well, actually, it is better than fresh grapes because you can store and ship them anywhere the WinePod owner lives.
I have had tastings with winemakers where they could not tell the difference between wine made from fresh grapes or frozen. In fact, it has been scientifically proven by several studies.
One such study done in 2007 by the University of Adelaide claims, “Chemical analyses of six wines showed little variation in color profiles and final ethanol and organic acid concentrations. More importantly from a winemaking point of view, a descriptive sensory analysis revealed that all wines across each treatment and fermentation scale compared very well to each other. Key differences were limited to more appealing characteristics (i.e., lower tannin hardness and burnt/smoky attributes and higher fresh/fruity and red berry attributes) in the wine made on a 300 kg scale from frozen must. This study therefore provides quantitative data on the effectiveness of freezing for fruit preservation as well as the ability of small volume fermentations (20 and 50 kg) to be representative of conditions approaching those found in industry.” Yes, you read that right. Many of the frozen grape wines in this were superior to fresh grape wines.
Another variable of small scale vs. winery scale is risk of over oxidation. Everyone knows that a wine that becomes over oxidized loses its quality. Oxidation is a very complex thing in winemaking. Exposing a newly fermented wine to small amounts of oxygen is critical to enabling long term ageing. The ability of your young Cabernet to absorb oxygen drops more than 100x as it ages. Small scale winemaking invariably means that there is more surface area of wine exposed to oxygen because the volume is smaller. This can be very good, but you have to be careful. It means that you can age wine in a barrel more quickly. But it also means that you should not rack your wine as often as a winery. In fact, I don’t rack my Cabernets at all and I don’t think you should either. If you follow this method, you will not be at a disadvantage due to small volume and in fact will have an advantage in less maturation time.
The other important variable of small scale vs. winery scale is blending. Big wineries have more individual lots to choose from. Many wineries will sell their lower quality lots as bulk wine. Some wineries have so many lots, that they may have trouble giving individual attention to a particular lot. For example, did you know that very large wineries don’t even measure the Brix of all their barrel fermented wines? They don’t have the manpower to do this. They just use statistics to guess when the barrels are finished fermenting. This lack of ability to babysit each fermentation gives you an advantage over a large winery. As the saying goes, “it’s OK to keep all your eggs in one basket –just watch that basket!” A wine made in a WinePod is normally just a single lot. Where a wine from a small artisanal winery may be several lots from several vineyards aged in many different barrels. The increase of lot size can create complexity due to different vineyard blocks and different fermentation temperatures, barrel treatments and other factors. A winery will also blend in small amounts of different varietals. A Cabernet is usually not 100% Cabernet, but may have small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Merlot or other blending wines.
So how does a small scale winemaker create complexity? It is very simple, if you get high quality fruit, it will have complex flavors. That is one reason why it is high quality. In addition to that, you can blend small amounts of commercial wines into your wine and you can separate your fermented wine into several lots for ageing. One can have American Oak and another can be French or unoaked. In fact, I feel perfectly comfortable using good quality commercial wines to top up a barrel if necessary. It is very convenient and it will add complexity or otherwise balance a wine. In fact, I think it is no problem to add a couple percent of commercial wines to your wine. A 30 liter WinePod barrel is approximately 40 bottles of wine. If you were to add a bottle of Cabernet Franc and a bottle of Merlot would be an addition of less than 5% and can add a lot of complexity to your wine.
Home winemakers do make great wines when they have high quality fruit, good equipment and methods. That is why the WinePod enables first time winemakers to make great wines. As many WinePod owners can attest, creating a wine of beauty is a joy to share.