This is the second of a two-part series on making Pinot Noir. Read Part One: Making Incredible Pinot Noir: Tips for the Micro-Winery
One of the greatest and most challenging wines to grow in the vineyard and make in the cellar is Pinot Noir. For all its troubles, Pinot Noir can be one of the most rewarding wines to make.
Depending who you speak with, one method of making Pinot Noir is invariably better than another. The main idea with Pinot Noir is to retain the aromas and create a prettier wine. To me, this means using cultivated yeasts, an active nutrient regimen, lower fermentation temperatures (80-85ºF), and fewer cap manipulations.
Watching and mapping the temperature and breakdown of sugars are important parts of this process. This allows you to monitor the fermentation and react to any potential problems (excessive heat, sluggish/stuck fermentation, reduction of aromas). Ideally, you want the fermentation to stop on its own, at complete dryness – a specific gravity of about 0.9. An easy way to detect complete dryness is by using a blood sugar test. This doesn’t work for sweet wines, only wines that are close to dry.
The complete conversion of sugar to alcohol is the preferred practice. Once the wine is dry, the grapes should be pressed off and the wine settled in a full container. Limiting the amount of headspace will help to keep the wine healthy and happy. Having multiple containers is best, offering multiple options for storage. This is important. Do not sulfur the wine yet. The wine is not finished ‘fermenting’. The wine must go through another stage called malolactic conversion/fermentation (ML).
This process is very sensitive to sulfur and will not (typically) engage in the presence of sulfur. If possible, keep the native fermentation and the cultivated yeast fermentation separate once you put the wine to barrel. This will help you follow through on your experiment.
Once the wine is somewhat settled, it should be racked clean to barrels. Again, depending on the winemaker, varying methods of oaking the wine will be used. In my opinion Pinot Noir responds well to some oak ageing.
In this case, you will likely have one full 60-gallon barrel of native fermented Pinot, and one full barrel of cultivated yeast fermented Pinot, plus a third barrel in which you could combine the balance of the two wines. According to my numbers, and your potential combined yield, there will be a left-over quantity of wine for topping the barrels as they age. (Old beer kegs and carboys are great places to store this topping wine.) Let’s say you have one new oak barrel and two older oak barrels. I would combine the two wines into the new oak barrel and use the older oak for the pure versions of the wines. This would give you a 33% addition of new oak to your Pinot Noir – a good ratio.
There are Pinot Noir camps that believe a higher percentage of new oak makes a better wine. This might be true for their particular wine program, but Pinot Noir is often (not always) a delicate wine. Pinot Noir’s unique aromas can quickly be absorbed and covered up in new oak barrels.
The barrels should be stored in a warm room, at about 72ºF, for the next phase of its development. The wine could begin ML conversion on its own, but a small dose of Oenococcus bacteria and ML nutrient can help get this process underway. A good place to look for these bacteria products is ScottLabs. Typically, a short lag phase will follow the inoculation – it could be several weeks.
One byproduct of ML conversion is the creation of carbon dioxide. To know if the wine is going through ML, simply place your ear at the bung hole of the barrel. If the bacteria are working, there will be a slow and persistent popping of gas. The wine will also be slightly hazy.
Eventually, all of the malic acid in the wine should convert to lactic acid. A simple way to tell if the wine is finished with ML is to do a paper chromatography test. An even simpler way to watch ML is to note the cloudiness of the wine. If the wine begins to clarify and settle out, it is likely finished with ML. Tasting and looking at the wine are quantifiable ways to determine this.
Aging and Racking
Once your Pinot Noir has finished ML, it can be sulfured. A dose of about 30 ppm will safely protect the wine. A dose of 50 ppm will do the same. The amount of sulfur is another subjective topic. In my opinion it is best to keep a healthy, not excessive, level of free sulfur in Pinot Noir. I lean toward a 30 ppm initial addition, and keeping that level for the duration of ageing. Once the sulfur is added, the temperature in the room should be turned down to about 60ºF to aid further settling. The barrels should be topped up on a semi-monthly basis.
After the wine has had time to settle, a uniform sample of each wine should be tasted and analyzed. The wine should smell of light red fruits (strawberry, cranberry, raspberry, cherry) with some fine grain tannins and a structured finish. Ultimately, it is the winemaker’s palate and the analytical results which should determine whether any additions of sulfur, acid, or other products are needed. A healthy pH for Pinot Noir can hover anywhere from 3.4 to 3.7, depending on the individual wine and winemaker. As I stated before, a free sulfur of approximately 20-30 ppm is good for this point in the wine’s life. Although the wine can be outside these limits, it is best to keep it within them.
One question to ask yourself is whether to blend the barrels together. This would be a good time to do so, if you are so inclined. Because Pinot Noir is sensitive to oxygen, it should be racked (without lees) gently into a tank with gas (nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide). The previous analysis should be re-confirmed with another uniform sample of wine. The necessary adjustments should then be made, the barrels cleaned, and the wine returned to the barrels.
After another several months of ageing, topping up and settling, the wine will once again need to be racked, analyzed, and adjusted for bottling. It is important to make all subsequent wine movements with gas. Once your Pinot Noir has been blended and adjusted to your specifications, it will need to be cold stabilized. This is done by chilling the tank to a very cold temperature (30-40ºF). This allows any tartrates and remaining lees to precipitate out. Hold the wine at this temperature for several days to several weeks.
The wine should be racked and/or filtered off this final lees and warmed to approximately 60ºF. The wine should warm naturally over the course of several days. The wine can then be bottled. Although filtering would further stabilize your Pinot Noir, it is my belief that if you have been careful in the cellar, you will not need to take this invasive step. There may, eventually, be some sedimentation in the bottle – as the anthocyanins and tannins bind over time – but this seems to me a non-issue. If you do not filter it, your Pinot Noir will likely have better structure and mouthfeel, and it will age better.
Pinot Noir is a special wine for a reason. If you have the chops to make it and make it good, you have done something that centuries of winemakers have attempted and failed. Following a focused regimen will help you succeed vintage after vintage. Read other articles about winemaking.