Losing the title ‘virgin of the vintage’ & diving in at the deep end in Rioja!

Yesterday saw words from a text book come to fruition. Currently studying for my Master of Wine exams I find text books and Internet searches are my life at the moment. The exams in June consist of four papers, each covering a different aspect of wine and the industry. Paper I covers all the processes from vine up to and including Malolactic fermentation. This is why I’m sitting in Haro, Rioja in the middle of their harvest anticipating a day in the vineyards with Javier; vineyard manager with Ramon Bilbao.

From trying my first Tempranillo off the vine to drinking fresh grape juice from the vat I’ve been surprised by how sweet the juice is. My little boys would go mad for it at the breakfast table!

The winery is buzzing with activity at this time of year. Tractors queuing up to weigh in their loads and register their weight. Each winery has an official from the Consejo Regulador to check each arrival and note down its entry. Maximum yields in the area are 6,500kg/ha; if Jose down the road on his 1 ha vineyard comes in with over 7000kg it’s immediately noted and investigated. Maximum yields have to be adhered to. Each grower has a magnetic card which automatically registers each load onto the Consejo Regulador system.

Later in the afternoon I went to a small winery in La Bastida, 5km from Haro. Rosana Lisa the assistant winemaker there took me through the processing of the grapes once they arrive. Destemming and sorting happen as a matter of course. I got the opportunity to make up the yeast mix  and start the whole fermentation process off in one of the 40,000L vats. There’s a children’s book all about a world made out of expanding dough, the scale involved in the stirring of our buckets and the activity of the yeast were reminiscent of the illustrations in the book!

Every 60 minutes for 6 minutes pumping over ensures the optimum maceration and extraction of colour.

Adding the yeast to the mix…

Into the mix went the following ingredients:

  • DAP – Diammonium Phosphate which feeds the yeast cells and builds their walls.
  • Organic food (pictured) which does the same.
  • Yeast. A saccaromyces strain which ensures constant and uniform fermentations.

If you were following a recipe it may read like this..

  1. Fill a large bucket with warm water, optimum temperature 36c.
  2. Add the yeast nutrients and stir to dissolve
  3. Slowly add the yeast whilst stirring continuously, ensuring its all dissolved.
  4. Put to one side for 20 minutes to allow the yeast to activate and expand.
  5. Watch it bubble and grow!
  6. Add a small amount of the must to the bucket.
  7. If the temperature difference between the vat and the mix is negligible add the yeast mix to the vat.
  8. Wait 8-10 days and your colour and alcohol should be nicely cooked.

Today it’s raining (I have my raincoat), this has delayed my trip around the vineyards checking the ripeness of the grapes. I’m donning a hat, gloves and apron later to sort some of the incoming grapes and ensure that only the best get into the Ramon Bilbao mix!

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