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Red Wine is Only Skin Deep

Finding a Balance

"Cold Soak"

By Jim Clarke

The deep purple of a vintage Port. The orange rim of a Barolo. Go to a restaurant where the wine display is backlit – you can pick out the Pinot Noirs by their more transparent, ruby profile. Color is the first thing we notice about a wine. Like a tan, a grape’s color is in the skin, but color is just the beginning; the skins also give red wines much of their flavor and tannins, which give red wines that drying, sometimes astringent effect, and helps them age.

The skins, pulp, and juice need to spend time together if things are going to rub off on the wine. First, the grapes are crushed to release the juice and pulp; quality time generally starts with fermentation. As the yeasts start chewing on the sugars and converting them into alcohol, the must (the mix of pulp, skins, juice, etc.) heats up to between 70° and 90° F; both the heat and alcohol help extract elements from the skins. But too hot, and fruity aromas can boil off, making for a stewy, uninteresting wine, so winemakers keep a close eye on the temperature and on the mix of solids and liquids in the must.

Remember those old photos of guys in their boxers jumping up and down in a vat of wine? Lucille Ball aside, it’s not for laughs; rather, it pushes the skins and other solids down into the juice; otherwise they separate and float on top. Nowadays winemakers are more hygienic, either pumping wine from the bottom of the tank over the “cap” of skins (a technique called remontage), or “punching the cap” down into the rest of the wine manually – one of the most labor-intensive parts of winemaking. Instead of stripping down, today’s winemakers have to decide how often to mix things up. In 2003, for example, Seghesio used both techniques – pumping and punching – on their Sonoma Zinfandel to get a balanced, flavorful wine.

After fermentation, everything macerates together for a while before the winemaker decides they’ve gotten what they want out of the skins; then, the wine is pressed and the skins can go on to their next life as fertilizer or feed. Fermentation and maceration together can last anywhere from a week to a month.

Consumers these days don’t make it easy; they want to have their cake and eat it, too: rich, deep color and aromas, but moderate tannins. Tannins will drop out as the wine ages, but we aren’t as patient as we used to be (Industry professionals estimate somewhere between 80-95% of all wine is consumed within a week of purchase.)

Finding a Balance

Some grapes are easier to balance than others. Piedmont’s “second” grape, Barbera, is very cooperative; it’s naturally given to rich color, but low in tannins. In fact, when a winemaker wants to make a Barbera which is capable of aging well, they need to use lots of aging in French Oak barrels to impart the tannins that the grape lacked. Piedmontese winemakers have to be versatile; their star grape, Nebbiolo, has the opposite problems, tending toward an orange-tinted color and massive tannins. Michele Chiarlo offers a good example of this range: the “Le Orme” Barbera is intended for immediate consumption, and receives no oak; the “La Court” Barbera is fuller and more ageable, spending a year divided between old wood vats and new oak barrels; and the Barolo Cerequio (100% Nebbiolo) is aged only in large, old barrels, but, while enjoyable now, has the firm tannins needed for extended aging.

Pinot Noir shares a food-friendly streak of acidity with Barbera, but is opposite when it comes to skins, where it, like Nebbiolo, can offer rich tannins but tends toward a lighter color. Winemakers sometimes go to great lengths to create a Pinot with a Cabernet-like hue. In traditional terms, this would mean a long fermentation, lots of maceration, and aggressive tannins. Or it could mean cheating – in earlier times, adding some elderberry juice to the vat, or, more recently, blending in darker wine surreptitiously trucked in from, say, the Rhone Valley (Some Barolos and Barbarescos have faced similar accusations.)

“Cold Soak”

Lebanese-born winemaker Guy Accad is credited with popularizing a more honest technique for darkening Burgundian Pinot Noir, one which provides rich color and flavor but moderate tannins: pre-fermentation maceration, often called a “cold soak.” The winemaker keeps the temperature of the must too low to ferment for several days; at these temperatures the flavors and color extract more quickly than the complex tannin molecules, so astringency is avoided. Fermentation is then allowed to proceed as normal, with little or no post-fermentation maceration. Critics are divided; while most agree that the wines are richly colored and flavorful, many feel they don’t represent the best qualities of Pinot Noir and the Burgundian terroir. Certainly there are many light colored Pinot Noirs that do live up to the grape’s reputation, and dark ones that are overpowering and indelicate.

Generally, it’s proven easier to take out tannins rather than add flavor or color. Gentle exposure to oxygen can soften tannins, for example. Some oxygen is introduced during barrel-aging, especially when racking the wine into new barrels to separate it from sediments – the age-old answer. In the wine documentary Mondovino, Michel Rolland’s rallying cry is “micro-oxygenate,” a more high-tech procedure for slowly introducing oxygen into a barrel of aging wine.

Truth be told, sometimes we don’t want what red grape skins have to offer at all. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier were originally planted in Champagne with hopes of competing with Burgundy, further south; however, the climate created wines that were too thin and acidic to support the flavors and tannins of red wine. Historians say that Dom Perignon’s first big success was not in putting bubbles into wine (in fact, he struggled to prevent them), but in finding a way to keep the color and tannins out. By gently pressing grapes in the morning, when they were still cool, he separated the juice from the skins before they could put their mark on the wine. And even without the missing flavors, color, and tannins, Champagne still gets under your skin


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       Published: April 2006
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