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Debating the Best Berry Size (or Adding Water Redux)

Posted: Oct 26, 2006 12:53pm ET

After Thursday night’s Grand Tasting at the Wine Experience, I went out for some bubbly with another Pinot producer, Adam Lee from Siduri. We grabbed a cab and headed over to the Bubble Lounge to meet David Mokha and my fellow blogger Kevin Vogt, who head up the wine programs at Emeril’s Miami Beach and Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas, respectively. On the way there, Adam started asking me questions about one of my previous blog entries, where I discussed why adding water to the fermenters doesn’t dilute the wine.

As a bit of background, Adam usually bleeds off some of the juice from the fermenter before he adds any water. His idea is to keep the liquid-to-skin ratio the same as when the fruit came in. We don’t do any bleed-offs, for the reasons I detailed in my previous blog.

So Adam’s question was: Do I believe there is a “correct” berry size? I had made the point that, when we decided to pick, we often saw that some of the fruit had dehydrated a bit. My contention was that by adding water to the fermenter, we are just replacing the water lost to dehydration.

Adam’s response was that I'm saying the optimal size for a grape is its maximum size. I countered that I was saying no such thing - that it depends upon the sugar levels and the amount of dehydration. Adam pressed me a bit, saying that I was indeed making a determination of which size was best, since maybe the dimpled size was actually best. And as such, we should do whatever is necessary to maintain that juice-to-skin ratio – which means we should bleed off juice before adding water. Truthfully, I hadn’t considered Adam’s point of view.

While I acknowledged to Adam that he may indeed be right, I really needed to think about it a bit. So, I asked myself, what is the optimal berry size? Is there such a thing? I think Adam believes there is an answer – or that as a winemaker, you should take a definitive position on such issues. I’m a bit more relativistic than that, but I think Adam did hit upon a key point: Why do we believe that adding water without bleeding is OK?

Adam’s question doesn’t affect our ideas of picking the grapes for optimal flavor. I think it’s more about the desired concentration of flavor, which is probably the most stylistic issue a winemaker faces. So as not to disappoint Uncle Sid (Adam’s nickname), I will take a stand. Deep breath … here goes:

I think that the volume of the grape pre-dehydration is the optimal size. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it’s because I don’t like pruney, raisiny flavors. So anything that feels slightly raisined might create those flavors, and needs to be rehydrated. But that’s just a WAG (Wild Ass Guess).

Am I right? I have no idea. Am I wrong? Nope. I just think this falls under the umbrella of winemaking style. And I'm not saying I find Adam’s wines overripe – because I don’t. It's just another thing that falls under my winemaking worldview. And an interesting way to pass the time during a 10-minute cab ride.

R M Kriete
October 27, 2006 10:30am ET
Brian, Maybe try one fermentation vat with only water added and another with the bleed off first. I'd be happy to blind test the barrels for you before bottling:)
R M Kriete
October 27, 2006 10:50am ET
Brian, Maybe try one fermentation vat with only water added and another with the bleed off first. I'd be happy to blind test the barrels for you before bottling:)
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 27, 2006 11:38am ET
Help me Mr. Loring, when you say here that you are worried that "slighly raisined" fruit might create "pruney, raisiny flavors' but in your first or second blog you mention waiting to pick until the flavors are ripe and that to get these ripe flavors (and then you add h20) you often have to wait until the grapes are dimpled a bit. So which is it? -- See why it was such an interesting cab ride? Adam LeeSiduri Wines
Daniel Sogg
San Francisco, CA —  October 27, 2006 1:35pm ET
Brian, This post raises a question that I'd like to address to you, Adam and any other winemakers who'd like to chime in. What occurs during the ripening process when fresh fruit flavors morph into dried fruit flavors? It's more than a function of dehydration. Rehydrating raisins, prunes or dried cherries never makes them taste like grapes, plums or fresh cherries. Any ideas?

Dan Sogg
Associate Editor
Wine Spectator

Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  October 27, 2006 3:38pm ET
I've always associated the last phase of true ripening with palpable softening of the skins. Unless it rains and plumps them back up again, that almost has to be a dehydration process. From what I've observed, raisining is not as easily reversible for the grape.

Wouldn't the overripe (prune/raisin) flavors come less from dehydration and more from a significant drop in acid? It seems to me that you could have some skin dimpling, with high brix and OK acids but no overripe flavors, where the must would benefit from a little water addition to get the sugars down to an acceptable ETOH potential. I'm not sure that rehydrating must that has already developed those flavors, even with acid additions, will get rid of them.

I would think that H2O addition and overripe flavors are an apples and oranges kind of thing. You guys are the pros, what do you think?
Doug Wilson
October 27, 2006 4:55pm ET
Brian, Could a measure of concentration be how many gallons per ton you get? Some wineries seem to get 160-180+ gallons per ton, on my best day I can only get 140 gallons per ton. I only produce Zinfandel and usually pick at ~26.0 brix, so there is always some dehydration or concentration going on there. Any thoughts there?Doug WilsonRusina Wines
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 27, 2006 9:36pm ET
Adam - There's something I'm never quite sure about when tasting fruit... and that's what pre-fermentation flavors will become after the yeast do their thing. So when I taste for flavor in the grape, I guess I'm looking for the lack of green notes, and then depth of flavor. Bland is bland... tasty is tasty. Sorry to be so scientific.

I've seen from previous vintages, where we didn't do as well getting our post harvest irrigation numbers "right", that those wines did develope more along the pruney side. When we've done the water additions "better", we've avoided those issues. All I can ascribe that to is concentration.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 27, 2006 9:42pm ET
Daniel - You're right... but the goal is to pick way before you get to dried fruit flavors. It's really a misconception that we pick raisined fruit.

But, I will grant you that some of the flavor profile we like may indeed involve some slight crossover point. Even if we pick fruit at 23 brix, there's still some amount of raisins that make it into the fermenter, since no fruit is uniformally perfect. And I kinda like that... it's like the marbling in a steak.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 28, 2006 12:12am ET
Charles - Peter Cargasacchi and I were talking this evening (over punchdowns) about acid being an important factor. While I do agree, I think that concentration must play some role. But that's a SWAG (Scientific Wild Ass Guess)
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 28, 2006 12:56pm ET
Doug - I think that gallons per ton is interesting, but ultimately a potentially misleading number. Especially since it's almost impossible to determine until after the fact.

When we estimate how much juice we have in a fermenter, it's a total SWAG. But we use that as our base and go forward, thinking that as long as we do our additions slowly over 5 - 7 days, we'll get to the correct brix and pH level. But there's no way to know for sure the gallons until we press to barrel.

What was the ratio of skin to juice? What amount of the weight was stems? How much dirt was in the bins? How about bugs? :) (More on buggoir some other time.)

I guess we could run experiments, like R M Kriete suggested, but that's got its issues as well - as I explained in the science vs religion blog. Getting valid data is difficult. I understand the desire to do stuff like that... but I'm of the opinion that you're just as likely to mislead yourself as find the truth.
Michael Donohue
Toronto ON Canada —  October 28, 2006 6:44pm ET
One of the beauties of wine is that is the sole alcoholic beverage that occurs completely "sui generis" - NO additional hops or distillation required. Saignee or bleeding the vat might be acceptable IMHO if you are trying to make a rose or make your wine more concentrated - but adding [chlorinated???]water to compensate for deliberate raisining - quelle Frankenestein horreur!!!
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 29, 2006 3:29pm ET
Michael - if you read my blog entries carefully, you'll note that the small amount of dehydration is in no way raisining. Not even close. And the water added is completely de-chlorinated.

Adding water and/or acid isn't like adding hops. Water and acid are already present in the juice - we're just adjusting the levels.

And you forget that wine is aged in oak barrels - which add a significant amount of flavor. That's way more invasive than the water or acid we add. :)
Delmonico Stkhse @ Venetian
Las Vegas, Nevada —  October 31, 2006 11:01am ET
Brian - I know of a Cult California Cab producer that produced a 100 point wine in a particular year, that did what I would consider too much manulipulation. They harvested at over 30 brix, so the potential alcohol was very high. They had to add water to dilute the juice so that it would ferment dry. They added acid to bring the acid levels back to a normal range -- then they fermented. After fermentation, they used and Reverse Osmosis to draw out the added water. They used spinning cones to spin off the excess of alcohol, then they de-acidified the wine. The reason I know what occured is I asked because I thought the wine tasted like "Dry Port" with lots of volatile acidity. It was and still is very raspy on the palate.

My point is... where do you -- man of science/man of faith -- draw the line on this kind of thing? Or is there a line?

BTW, I had a great time at Bubble Lounge with you, Uncle Sid, and David.

Kevin Vogt
Delmonico Steakhouse
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 31, 2006 1:05pm ET
Kevin - I don't think I would draw a line. I see no issue of morality or ethics in deciding when to pick, adding water and/or acid, or the use of technology. As long as the product is tasty, I'm fine with it.

That being said, we don't view things like reverse osmosis or spinning cones as something we'd ever want to use as a normal part of winemaking (with one exception I'll describe in a moment). I'm just afraid that either tool might strip something from the wine. But I'd never be hesitant to use such tools to help correct a problem like high VA or stuck fermentation due to excessive alcohol. I think we can get our desired results without pushing so far as to have to depend upon RO or spinning cones. And using technology isn't cheap - so there's a built in desire to avoid it whenever possible.

The exception I mentioned above is sparkling wine. Kimberly decided we need to make some bubbly - but we wanted to try something different. We're picking chardonnay and pinot at a much higher brix level than normal for sparkling wines - hoping to get more developed, riper flavors. Less green apple and more citrus notes. By doing that, we end up with a still wine that's too high in alcohol, so we're taken it to a spinning cone to take the wine down to 11% alcohol before we start the secondary fermentation. Since a lot of the flavor of sparkling wine comes from the yeast, we're OK taking this approach.

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