Sunday, January 27, 2008

Wine & Food

I love wine with food. More and more Americans are discovering just how enjoyable combining wine and food is. While Europeans have know the pleasures of wine and food for centuries, it is a relatively new experience for we "New Worlders". In this regard, I have had the advantage of being of Italian descent, my paternal grandparents being Italian immigrants and my maternal great-grandparents likewise so. Thus, wine is something that was fairly common at the dinner table for me as a child. I cannot say however, that it was anything like you would find in Europe. Although my paternal grandfather made wine annually and drank it as you would find in Italy, my father did not follow suit. The product of a time in this country when being an Italian immigrant was not as glamorous as it may seem to me now, he and his siblings endeavored to be more "American" than Italian. He was much More likely to have enjoyed a beer with dinner or a ginger ale for that matter. My mother is another story. She has loved wine as long as I can remember. Well wine in the sense of fermented grapes. She enjoyed, and still enjoys the Italian homemade style wines. These wines are far from what you would consider "fine wine". The commercial equivalent of these are jug wines like Fortissimo or Piasano. While I can say that I cut my teeth on these wines, they are not what I strive to grow and make. I have become somewhat of the family wine snob, tasting my way through these jug wines on up to California Merlots of the late 80's, later Cabernet's and eventually finding my palate planted in old world wines like Chianti, Barolos, Super-Tuscans and Bordeauxs.
My discoveries in fine wine also led me to enjoying wine and food pairings. I started with the usual Cabernet or Merlot with red meat. Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling with seafood. Chianti with pasta and Chardonnay with poultry. It has always amazed me the way wine can enhance, or be enhanced by different food pairings. Have you ever tried good dry, champagne and then taken a bite of a ripe, sweet strawberry and tasted the champagne again? You will be amazed at how the flavors compliment each other. I just can't seem to get enough of these pairings. I love them so much that I have, in my quest for deliciousness, begun to break the rules. What I mean is I now regularly fore go the usual wine and food pairings and try my own combinations. I might drink a Chianti with fettuccine alfredo or Viognier with pasta and meat sauce. How about Zinfandel and seafood fra diavolo. When I'm with "wine snob" friends or at "fancy" restaurants this often causes an eyebrow or two to raise. I might incur the ire of a "connoisseur" or other aficionado. You know what I say? Who really cares! I don't. I don't make or drink wine because I want to impress some self proclaimed Robert Parker. I drink it because I truly enjoy this wonderful and mysterious nectar of fermented grapes. I try it with foods that I love and if I find a pairing that isn't status quo then I guess I'm a pioneer. This is why I make wine. My wife loves to cook and experiment with recipes. I love the excitement of coming home and finding her cooking a delicious meal. It is so nice going down to my cellar and having enough different wines so I can try and pick one that will be the perfect compliment to her meal.
Hence the beauty of wine and food pairings. There is just so much variety. Don't get me wrong, I love Riesling and seafood. It's just that in my mind there are endless possibilities when it comes to pairings. You could think of a new one every day of your life. Some won't work and some will be amazing. I just hope I live long enough to experience as many different combinations of wine and food as possible. I guess I'll have to live forever.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Winetasting -The Other Part of Winemaking

The essence of cherry and Chocolate. Red fruit, currants and cigar box. Strawberries and cream, oaky vanilla and luscious earthy notes. The intriguing, exotic flavors and aromas of wine have mesmerized mankind as long as history has been recorded. Wine is, without question one of the oldest beverages known to man. But more than that it is one of the oldest pleasures known to man. The bible is filled with references to it and mythology is littered with it; wine. It's the reason so many precious acres of this planet are devoted to growing grapevines instead of staple crops. The love of wine seems quite universal in nature and there are no signs of that trend changing.

Winter is the perfect time for grapegrowers and winemakers alike, to taste their wines. The vineyard is dormant and the new wines are safe in barrels or secondary fermenters. Some pruning is going on in milder climates, but much of that will wait until more hospitable temperatures arrive. For some reason the cold quiet of January and February in the Northeast provides a seemingly ideal backdrop for tasting your wines. In the cellar the cold temperatures really contribute settling the wines down. The cold temperatures cause suspended solids left from fermentation to precipitate. The wine begins to clear brilliantly. It's at this time of year you can really get an idea of what this year's wines, though still in their infancy, will become. What brings even greater pleasure to me at this time of year is tasting wines nearing release. Most full-bodied wines like Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc (which I grow and make) need to age nearly two years before they really become approachable. It takes that long for tannins to soften, aromas to mature and flavor components to develop. That's why when you go to the store to purchase wine you'll rarely see a red wine that's for sale with a vintage date less than two years previous. There are some, but not many younger than that.

When it comes to wines you've made, you already know how they're doing. You've been tasting them all throughout the winemaking process. You know which of your wines are flawed and you are exited about those that hold promise. Even wines that seem less than pleasing are hard to give up on when you've grown the grapes yourself and turned them into wine. You keep hoping that someday you'll taste them and magically they will have turned the corner toward deliciousness. This can happen in some cases. For example, if a wine is otherwise good but overly tannic or just a bit too acidic, these characteristics will soften over time and the wine may become outstanding. But a wine that is made from underripe or otherwise flawed grapes, will never lose it's undesirable characteristics. You have to let go at some point and accept it, no matter how hard it may be. I can testify to the pain of pouring a 5 gallon carboy of wine that you have invested one year to grow, and two years to make, down the drain. It's a good thing there was a good glass of wine nearby to help me through it. Sadly this has happened more than once in my winemaking career. The bright side of this is that your knowledge of how to make good wine grows from experiences like these. So I don't really view them as failures.

What makes it all worth it are the good ones. When you draw some wine from a carboy full that has been developing nicely, to taste. You swirl it in the glass to get some air into it and hold it up to the light. Lovely color, deep red and great legs. You raise it up and draw in a deep breath. Currants, rich oak and earthiness flood your senses. If it tastes anything like the nose, this will be your best ever. You take a sip and it covers your tongue like silk. Fruitiness, black pepper and structured tannins fill your mouth. That's it. This is the best wine you've ever made. This is why you do it, why you work so hard in the vineyard and why you sacrifice your relaxation time to make wine. For all those people who think you're crazy for doing it, wait till they taste this... yes, then you'll finally get some objective opinions. But hey, you like it. So who cares what anyone else thinks, Right?

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Winter Doldrums

As far as the vineyard is concerned, winter in the Northeast is a time of inactivity. In the wine cellar it's a completely different story. Harvest in my vineyard starts in late September and runs through the beginning of November depending on the variety. This time period brings to an end the constant vigilance of the growing season but mobilizes the time sensitive, whirlwind of winemaking itself. It's absolutely critical to get the perfecly ripened grapes that you've patiently labored over all season long, crushed and turned into wine as quickly as possible. So from the day of harvest for each variety, your goal is to crush that fruit immediately after picking. The sooner you turn those grapes into must, the less chance they have to degrade or be affected by spoilage organisms and the like. I crush within an hour of completing harvest of any particular variety. Once you have the grapes crushed and in the primary fermentation vats covered, then begins the huge task of cleaning up your equipment and the winemaking area. This is vital to prevent organisms like acetobacter or brettanomyces from invading your cellar to infect your wine, tainting it with vinegar or "barnyard" aromas and tastes. Now you can breathe for a moment. Eveything is clean, the wine is safe and protected from the air. You've given it a dose of postassium metabisulfite (sulfer) to kill of the wild yeasts and you've covered the wine with CO2 to protect it from oxidation.

24 hours later you will add your cultured wine yeast and within a day or so primary fermentaion begins and your grape juice is on its way to becoming wine. The fermentaion vats begin to foam and froth from CO2 produced by the happy yeast feasting on the sugar in the grapes and converting it into alcohol. Now you have another job to do if your making a red wine. It's called "punching down the cap". This is the act of pushing the red grape skins, which have floated up to the top of the vat, back down into the fermenting juice to extract color, tannins and other flavor components from them. This should be done at least three times a day. This is one of my favorite times of the year because the whole winemaking area is filled with the warm, sweet smells of grapes and yeast together. It's a delightful aroma. When the fermentation starts to slow down after anywhere from 5-15 days you have to watch the wine carefully. Up until now the CO2 that has been produced by the yeast has kept the wine protected from air and the molds and spoilage bacteria it contains. Now, as fermentation slows down there is less CO2 and thus less protection. So if you're going to let the maceration continue, you'll have to add CO2 again yourself.

Now you have to gear up for work again, it's time to press the wine. You set up your press and secondary fermentation containers such as glass carboys. Pressing you also want to do as expeditiously as possible so as to again, minimize the new wine's exposure to air. You drain off the free run juice that is easily poured from the skins. Then you scoop or pour the remaing skins and juice into the press basket and extract the rest of the wine from it. Now you have glass carboys filled with new wine. You have to top them up leaving not more than an inch of airspace, and then place a fermentation lock in the opening. This will let CO2 out, but no air in. Clean up again, wash and sanitize your equipment, and it's time to open a good bottle and remind yourself why you've done all this work. Your young wine is safely tucked away in a corner of your cellar slowly tranforming itself into something you'll be proud of, hopefully, and you can take a breather now. Really it's the first time you can relax and not worry about your grapes since budbreak. It's a wonderful feeling. Just don't get too comfortable, you've got three more varieties to harvest! Then there's raking, fining and oaking. Suddenly it's mid January, how'd that happen? Ah, but never fear, the winter doldrums will soon be here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A walk Through the Vineyard

Here again is some video from 2004. It is footage of my vineyard in mid September as the grapes began approaching ripeness. My vineyard has changed a lot since then as I've detailed in my posts. I have removed varieties and replanted with others. I've also learned a great deal since then and it's reflected in how I mange my vines now and how I did back then. My video skills need some work and I think a better camera is in order, but you'll at least get a feel for the layout of my vines. I will film an updated "vineyard tour" this summer and post that as well for comparison.

I hope you enjoy this little walk through my vineyard. The varieties you'll see growing are Cabernet Franc, Marechal Foch, Frontenac and Riesling.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Winemaking Videos

I thought I would try something different. I have been wanting to include video of my vineyard and some of the techniques I use to grow grapes and make wine. To get started with it I experimented with some video of winemaking from back in 2004. My friend Rich Schell and I make wine together every year. Before planting my vineyard in 2001 we purchased all of our grapes from a local importer of California grapes. We still purchase some every year but now we also have our "estate grown" grapes from Villa Ruzzo Vineyards, my backyard of course.

In the video I've uploaded from 2004, we are making Zinfandel. We bought 288lbs(8 crates ) of Zin and went to town. In the video you'll see the old Italian way of crushing the grapes. We've since gone hi-tech, but that was a lot of fun. If this "test" video uploads and works, I'll put something together with video of my vineyard. This one is rough and it's a little dark. At the time we filmed it we weren't thinking about adding it to a blog. We just wanted to have some video of our winemaking to look back on and laugh. So please forgive the poor quality. What I'd really like to do in the near future, is make videos by subject and upload them. The first one will be on pruning and I plan on completing it in the spring of 2008 and then I'll upload it. I'm very much an amateur at making these videos and editing them . I'm sure I'll get better along the way but "you gotta start somewhere" right? Hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

2007 Villa Ruzzo Riesling

I really love red wine, but I love white wine too. After the first few successful years of my vineyard and in particular my Cabernet Franc vines, I realized it was time to expand and plant some white wine grapes. I was again faced with the dilemma of deciding which variety. I tasted through a whole bunch of French-American hybrids like Vignoles, Seyvel Blanc, Aurore, Vidal and the like. I've always liked these hybrids. As a matter of fact the White hybrids are excellent and compare well with white viniferas. But since I had some success with Cab Franc I checked on the cold hardiness and growth characteristics of some white vinifera varieties. The ones that seemed to hold promise were Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and, to my surprise, Riesling. I say this because I didn't want to grow Chardonnay. I just don't like it well enough and I would have chosen Vidal Blanc or Vignoles instead. Pinot Blanc was a possibility but Riesling... now Riesling has always held my interest of all the white wines I've ever tasted. It's steely acidity, hints of tropical fruits, green apple and the haunting aroma of petrol. I love it! If I could grow it in my way! I did some more research and was thrilled to find out it is the hardiest vinifera white, hardy to nearly -10F and it can survive down to almost -16F. The most encouraging news was though, that some of the world's best Rieslings are being grown just 200 miles or so from my house in the Finger Lakes. And the variety ripens earlier than Cab Franc.

That was it, Riesling it was. I planted 10 vines just to make a few gallons and it has been the easiest grape to grow and make wine with. It seems no matter what the weather is or what the numbers come in at, the wine is always good. The exciting thing is, just like the other varieties, I think this year's fruit gives me a shot at not just good wine but, dare I say, great wine. It was sweet, clean and balanced. I simply can't wait to see how it turns out. I'm very happy so far.

Here are the numbers:
Brix: 21
TA: .6
PH: 3.38
The quality and taste of the juice was unprecedented for grapes from my vineyard, or even grapes I have purchased in the past. We'll see if my skills in the cellar can coax the best from this delightful fruit produced by God and Earth . I hope I know what I'm doing.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

2007 Villa Ruzzo Cabernet Franc

My quest to grow grapes worthy of making great wine caused me to be willing to experiment and take risks. The biggest risk was deciding to try and grow some vinifera vines when I planted my vineyard. Although everything that I read and researched told me I couldn't do it because of my winter lows and too short a growing season, I tried anyway. I did a lot of research and found what I determined to be the only red bordeaux grape that had a chance here: Cabernet Franc. It is one of the three main grape varieties that comprise a classic Bordeaux wine or an American Meritage(the Bordeaux style but grown in the U.S.) along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It is actually a genetic parent of Cabernet Sauvginon along with Sauvginon Blanc. It produces a much less tannic, lighter red wine than Cab Sav and a bit more herbaceous in character. It generally makes up the smallest percentage of the Bordeaux stlye blend. The best ones however, can be excellent and there are parts of the Loire Valley in France where it is the primary part of the blend. I have had some excellent "old world" style Cab Francs as a single varietal wine from the Long Island and Finger Lakes regions of New York State, as well as some more "fruit forward" New world style Cab Francs from California. I like them from both coasts for their respective characteristics. The variety just happens to be the most winter hardy of all vinifera varieties. It can survive well between -5 and -10F with minimal bud damage and the vine will not be killed until temperatures drop lower than -16F. It also ripens earlier than many red wine varieties including Cabernet Savignon. My only concern was that weather records showed a -28F record low for my City in upstate New York.
I was hoping to achieve something along the lines of the Long Island versions since I liked them the best. My climate here is closer to the Finger lakes in the winter, but Long Island in the summer with the big exception of the fact that there is no large body of water near me to lengthen the ripeneing period by moderating temperatures in the late fall, when the water holds some heat and delays the first killing frost for a couple of weeks. I had read that some growers in places like Minnesota take their vines down off the trellis and bury them under a layer of dirt due to winter lows that prevent the growing of fine wine grapes. I figured hey it's only five vines, these guys are burying hundreds or thousands. No problem! And it wasn't, the first year. It didn't take me long at all an hour or two maybe. The vines came through with flying colors. Then I had a great idea; I was struggling to keep ten of the original vines I planted healthy. The variety was Chancellor another French-American hybrid that was very susceeptible to fungal diseases. So I ordered 25 more Cabernet Franc vines and in the spring I ripped out Chancellor and replanted with the Cab Franc. They grew nicely but pruning them down and burying them now that there was 30 was a lot of work. I did it for three years and as the vines got bigger, it got even harder. There was also the problem of a very short window of opportunity between leaf drop in late October/early November and the time the ground froze solid in mid-December. Especially when you only have weekends to get it done.

The coldest temperature I have recorded in my backyard since I planted my vineyard is -17F. Fortunately I had the vines burried that year. But there have also been three years when the temperature never dropped below zero. The bottom line is I have stopped burrying the vines. Instead, I have devised a riskier but much easier method. I leave the vines up on the trellis and do what is done in the Finger Lakes - I "hill them up". Basically I mound up dirt around the base of the vines over the graft union. That is where the "Cab Franc wood" is grafted to the rootstock. This way if the worst happens and the whole vine is killed by low temperatures, you can regrow from the ground up. Then I take it a step further. I also let the vine grow a sucker each year, which is basically a shoot from the base that could be another trunk. Since the shoot is so thin and flexible it is very easy to bend down and pin to the ground before winter. If winter temperatures don't cause any damage, I'll just prune it off in the spring and grow a new one for next year. After "hilling up" I blow any snow from my driveway throughout the winter, onto the vines to add a layer of insulation to the vines for further protection. Is it a perfect method? No, but so far I have had a full crop every year. There is still the possibility I could have 100% kill of everything exposed to cold air if the temperature drops low enough, but that's where the extra shoot/trunk will come in. It will at least give me a small crop the next year and a full crop the year after. So far my risk has paid off. I better watch my tongue, it's only January!
This year was the very best quality fruit I have taken from the vines. It was clean, disease free and very dark blue (as you can see above). Here are the harvest numbers:
Brix: 22.5
TA: .55
PH: 3.51
Not bad for our frosty and unforgiving climate Huh? The wine tastes great so far, but we'll know better in about six months. I'm very excited though, maybe I'll be the first person to make a good red vinifera wine in the Capital Region of New York State. Now that would be something.