The first wine I ever made was a shocker.
It started with noble intentions. A key part of part my Wine Technology subject in 2011 revolved around making a table wine, and I thought that such a project would be the start of a serious winemaking career. I was going to be a winemaker and I was going to smash it.
Inspired, the key challenge was securing fruit. Thankfully Paul Starr, at the time helping out at Canberra’s Quarry Hill, offered some Shiraz grapes, with the only condition that I had to pick it myself. No sweat!
Needless to say I was there in a flash, snips in hand, ready to fill my small collection of eskies with Shiraz fruit, naturally excited to be nabbing grapes that make their way into Clonakilla O’Riada Shiraz.
I was pumped.
Only problem was that I was early. A few weeks early in fact, with the Shiraz still a bit crunchy. But not to worry – there was a backup solution! The Quarry Hill Pinot Noir block was unpicked and the fruit was ripe, with the grapes facing an uncertain, uncontracted future.
Suddenly I was inspired – what about a Maurice O’Shea style homage blend of Shiraz and Pinot Noir? I’d pick the underripe Shiraz and ripe Pinot and make a super-blend! Yes!
So off I went, carefully picking the least ripe (with bright green stems) Pinot bunches and ripest looking Shiraz, hoping that everything would cancel out…
With excitement now sky-high I came home to Sydney and got to work. I’d bought a selection of plastic beer fermenters and demijohns for the task and seperated out the wines into different parcels. This was serious. I had one that lot that was all Shiraz (painfully hand destemmed), one that was destemmed Shiraz and Pinot, and a final fermenter all 100% whole bunch Pinot Noir. This was going to be excellent!
After some serious foot treading I inoculated my little fermenters with cheap packet yeast, and then stood back and waited for fireworks.
Almost immediately there was fermentation action, with little bubbles appearing in the purple coloured juice. I was even more excited than ever!
I’ll never forget the fantastic smell that wafted out from those three tanks over the following week, with all three ferments kicking into high gear. I had them stashed in the garage of my (now ex) girlfriends house and checked on the progress morning and night, drinking in that unmistakeable jammy fruit delicousness that is a warm ferment every time I opened the garage door. Magic!
Ferment was over in less than four days, and I then hand pressed (that was unfun) and blended the lot, adding the Shiraz into the Pinot to make for two fermenters of Shiraz and Pinot.
From there I didn’t want to muck around and added malo bugs straight away, keen to get everything done and dusted ASAP.
But then, well, it got awkward.
Sometime during the (slower) malolactic fermentation I stuck my nose into one of the fermenters and was horrified. It no longer smelled of berries and plums, the fruit replaced with hard greenness and little fruit in sight. Deflated, I closed the lid and crossed my fingers that it was just a phase.
It wasn’t a phase.
Two weeks later and the wine had finished its malolactic fermentation and things had only gone downhill. That nose was weedy, hard, mean. No fruit. No generosity. Plenty of pepper! But otherwise awful.
I hung my head.
So then I added a little sulphur (‘maybe that will help!’) and left it again. Praying. Hoping. Maybe it will improve!
It didn’t improve.
Several weeks later I opened up the fermenter and it was worse than ever. Weeds. Pepper. More weeds.
From there, I could see only one decision to make. One way to make myself feel better about the whole situation.
I poured it all down the drain.
In retrospect, that was the silliest decision I could make. Not only did I then have no wine for the next part of the course, but also I’d literally tossed away what could be a constant source of inspiration – a reminder that winemaking can be bloody hard, and how you need to admire winemakers who can get it very right.
Others who I’ve spoken to since have related similar stories about wine gone wrong, only for it to come right again. Alex Head, for example, thought some of his early whole bunch Grenache ferments were disasters, but wisely hung on to them and watched them turn into wine butterflies. I don’t think i had created anything more than an undercooked moth, but it’s still a lament about a missed opportunity.
On the flipside, I did learn a shedload from the process. I learnt about how important it is to get ‘ripe’, lignified stems if you’re going the whole bunch route. I also learnt what happens if you try and make wine from underripe grapes – ie you get wines without flavour. Or how the healthy looking shaded bunches inside of the canopy with the bright green stem might not be the ones you want.
Now, five vintages on, I think I’m ready to go again. Not #v16, but maybe #v17 could be ‘my year’.
So who wants to give me some grapes?
(Photo – Sy Clark)