A Harvest Tank Tasting
October 9, 2007
When I told my husband I was going tank tasting with Erik at 8:30 this morning he chuckled sardonically. “You’d better eat a big breakfast . . . and spit a lot.” What he knew, and what I didn’t, is that tank tasting at the end of harvest means a lot of sipping—as in several dozen sips from several dozen tanks. Panic. I’m a very disciplined pourer-outer when tasting a wine or two or three, but I’ve never been a very lady-like spitter. (In fact, I’m determined to hit Erik up on tips for a spitting primer).
But a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. So I caught up with Erik and two of his team—Jimmy and Maureen—amidst the rows of stainless steel tanks. Inside each, freshly pressed wine was bubbling and churning as it ferments the sugars in the grape juice into alcohol. All in all, the process takes about 6–7 days for a red, so there’s a lot of pumping and swapping and moving of wines as more of the harvest comes in and as each tank works its way through the process.
As I joined them, Erik twisted a valve on a tank and crimson liquid shot into a plastic tub. Then he gave each of us a shot (in our own plastic tubs) while Jimmy read the vital stats off a clipboard—varietal, which vineyard it was from, brix level, etc. I swirled and swished and spit through a few tastes and then finally turned to Erik and asked what, exactly, he was looking for.
It turns out that the purpose of tank tasting during fermentation, for the winemaker, is two-fold. First, if the wine has completed fermentation, tasting it helps him decide whether it’s ready to be pumped over to barrels or whether it needs to mellow out for a few more days. Second, it gives the winemaker a sneak preview, in a way, of the palette he’ll have to play with come blending time in terms of flavor, density, tannins and balance.
As we moved down the rows, this second purpose became more and more clear (either that or I just wasn’t spitting enough). One Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley, for instance, could be deep and concentrated and plummy while another right next to it from Dry Creek might be lighter and more vegetal—two totally different hues for Erik to use in crafting various wines. I was surprised to notice subtle differences even in the early stage wines with higher brix, where the sugar and fruit are still so prominent. Yet there they were.
Weather-wise, it’s been an ideal vintage—an early start followed by a long, dry summer with consistent heat. But an added bonus to the lengthy season has been that Erik and has team were able to stay in close touch with the vineyards as the fruit ripened, so they could pluck the berries from the vines at the perfect moment for each block. Which translates into juice that is at its prime from its very infancy. In the tank.
I can vouch for that . . . I tasted it today.