homebrew wine kit: week 3 update

So it’s the last week or so of the wine kit. For the past 12 days, the young Chardonnay has been sitting in the most even-temperatured part of the house, which, as it turns out, is on top of our skate sharpener between stacks of books. The glamour of winemaking, folks.

Today was all about degassing the wine, aka chasing away any CO2 that was trying to hang around after fermentation. I would eventually like to make fizz, but not this batch.

I cranked up the light on most of these pictures- and it really is that yellow! I’m a little worried, but there are a few more clarifying steps yet.

So here’ s the secondary fermentation vessel as I found it after the 12 day slumber. We’d kept it in a box to shield it from light.


Before anything, I had to take a specific gravity reading to make sure there weren’t residual sugars. The kit said anything under 0.995 is good to go, and after the hydrometer had stopped dancing around in the test tube, my final reading was 0.990. We have a dry wine, at the very least.

Finally getting the hang of using a siphon. So here’s the primary fermentation vessel, slowly filling with the wine. I had to be careful not to vacuum up the lees on the bottom of the jug- the purpose of this step (called racking) is to remove particulates with each transfer.

A look down the mouth of the jug at the silty lees. They always remind me of the soft sand in Hawaii.

One of two additives during this process. Potassium metabisulphite gets the CO2 to express itself from the wine. Also, not to be confused with the sodium metabisulphite that comes with the kit. That there is part of the sanitizing routine, and would likely make the wine taste…not…good.

The other additive is kieselsol, aka silicon dioxide. It’s used to remove bitter compounds, and will work in concert with the chitosan I’ll be adding in the next few days.

Stir, stir, stir!

After some vigorous mixing, the lid, bung, and airlock go back in. I’m going to stir the wine a few times a day for the next two days before the final additives go in, and then it’s left to fully clear for about a week.

See you in a few days!

Two more pink wines vie for your affection. Who will get the…rosé?

Always good to start off a blog with a clunker of a pun. But hey, wouldn’t a nice crisp glass of not-red-not-white wine make it better?

A brief on rosé: it’s usually the juice of red (or purple, or black) skinned grapes that is macerated with the skins for a short period. Leave it longer, and you’d just end up with red wine, because the skins impart the color (that’s how Blanc de Noirs Champagne is made— the juice from black grapes is still white!). There’s also the palest pink wine, sometimes referred to as vin gris that is just the juice with no skin contact. It all depends on the color of the pulp of the fruit. There are other methods, but it’s not red and white wine mixed, for the most part.

The two suitors for your hard-earned $15 or less this week are 2016 vintages of Crios Rosé of Malbec and Les Hauts de Lagarde Bordeaux. Bordeaux is a region known for blends, so the grapes in this concoction are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec.

I played with the tone in the picture, but only so the image more closely resembles the actual color of these babies! They are vivid and deep hued, nearly electric looking.

The Malbec is a bit more orange, a bit more transparent. The Bordeaux is basically the definition of “pink”. I picked it, in fact, because it was the deepest one on the shelf. Continue reading “Two more pink wines vie for your affection. Who will get the…rosé?”

the waiting game

In a few months, harvest, aka “crush” begins in the northern hemisphere. The exact date depends on where a vineyard is, what the weather has been like, and what kind of elements they’re trying to coax out of the grapes (acid, tannin, sugars).

As a student, it has been impressed upon me that working several crushes is essential to becoming a professional winemaker. So in January I started contacting all manner of wineries, from hyper-local 1200 case producers to some of the mega corporate outfits who somehow churn out several million cases a year. Mostly, I was looking for places that weren’t asking for a previous harvest in their description. For some of the more attractive local opportunities, I went  ahead and applied even if they did require it. Fortune favoring the bold, or so I hope.

I’ve interviewed with a few wineries, all of which have me in a holding pattern after at least moderately promising conversations with the folks in charge. My suspicion is they’re hoping someone with more experience shows up, or perhaps someone younger. I keep considering what an important choice this is for them: to winemakers, this is not just a professional gamble, but also a personal risk. Many of them are farming land that has been in the family for over 100 years- one vineyard here in Maryland has been in the proprietor’s family since before the Revolutionary War. Nearly all small and medium sized producers employ mainly relatives and in-laws and a few highly skilled vineyard workers who are, for all intents and purposes, also family. Inviting some career climbing interloper with a semester of Davis under her belt into the inner sanctum to share in this labor of love is not done lightly.

It is something I appreciate, even though it causes a little bit of heartburn in the meantime. For now, it’s lots of tasting, a few cello students, a bit of tinkering with the homebrew Chardonnay, and being seriously in the weeds in my chemistry course. And of course, waiting.

bargain wine of the week: 2015 Joseph Cattin Pinot Blanc

Of course, a wine with “Cat” in the name has to get special treatment around here! What’s that, you say? Pinot what? Indeed, Pinot Noir and perhaps even Gris are more common, but Pinot Blanc isn’t something you see every day, unless you’re looking for it.

In nature, the P. Noir grape will occasionally have an entire spur present white grapes alongside otherwise deep purple counterparts. A genetic mutation of P. Noir, P. Blanc is the result of an unstable bit of DNA that then gets selected for, producing consistently white grapes. 

This Joseph Cattin wine is from Alsace, and has much in common with the region’s favorite grape, Riesling. A bit floral and bright in the nose, with citrus and (don’t laugh at me) something like fruit compote rounding out a clean, cheerful mouthful. I’m drinking this a bit on the old side— conventional wisdom says to enjoy these wines young, so when the 2016 shows up, I’ll abscond with a bottle or three. Still, this holds up well over time, and I’d absolutely buy the 2015 again. $16.

Thirsty Cellist score: 8/10

Pros: Beautiful, restrained, fresh. Yields to food rather than challenges it. Bright and summery. 

Cons: It’s not Chardonnay or NZ Sauv Blanc, so if those are your steadies, this might not seem as robust as what you’re used to. 

Recommendation: buy, try, maybe compare 2015 and 2016. Save the lovely long bottle for a single stem flower. 

War of the Rosés: two cheap pink wines battle it out for this week’s bargain selection

I absolutely LOVE rosé. Far from being the neglected middle child between red and white, pink wine can deliver some of the best parts of both. There’s complexity, acidity, astringency, fruit, herbs, wood…and you get to drink it cool or cold, which really hits the spot when summer comes around.

Our contenders, which both weighed in around $10:

Domaine des Nouelles 2016 Rosé d’Anjou


Ruby Red Rosé with grapefruit flavor

Yes. You read that right. And as wacky as it might seem, it makes sense- we don’t think twice about juice in wine for mimosas or sangria, and apparently last summer adding grapefruit to rosé was the thing in France. This bottle has grapefruit essence in it- similar to those satanically addictive La Croix sparkling waters.

As its name might suggest, the d’Anjou was absolutely full of ripe pear flavor, with notes of strawberry and white nectarine. It finishes neatly, with only a slight lingering apple Jolly Rancher hint at the end. It smells more acidic than it tastes, and is just a kind of no-brainer “porch pounder” wine. Off-dry, well incorporated, it smells like a rosé (complex, acidic, some woody notes) but tastes much like a white.

True confession: the aroma of the Ruby Red was so offputting that I had to talk myself into the first sip. I would bring it to my nose, inhale deeply and then put the glass back down. Some deep breaths, once again inhale…and no, no, I don’t think I want to try this. Do it for the blog, Emily! an inner voice whispered. OK fine, here goes, big sniff, down the hatch she goes.

It has all of the assertiveness of a Body Shop grapefruit lotion with a sickly sweet caramel/brown sugar hit running right through it. The best way I can describe it is the difference between fresh squeezed juice then tasting the stuff made with sucralose. There’s something slippery and false about the taste, as if the sweetness is parallel to the flavor instead of incorporated into it. 

The smell is actually much worse than the taste (high praise indeed!), although this is not the wine for me, to be sure. I threw some frozen peaches into it to see if that would do anything. Alas, nothing. This tastes like an unpopular Boone’s Farm limited edition. In my humblest opinion, this is wine for college freshmen. I’d take a Miller Lite over this.

What I would use this for is a base for sangria. Add some prosecco, stone fruit, lime juice, brandy or maybe cointreau, now there’s a party.

So the clear winner here is the d’Anjou. I was looking for a rosé, and it delivers on all of the qualities that makes pink wine so delightful. I also did an experiment where I added some grapefruit juice to it, and although I still like it as-is, it was much more tart, clean, and refreshing than Ruby. This is definitely something I’ll keep tinkering with. It’s akin to the difference between a margarita made with rail tequila and mix and one made with fresh ingredients and premium spirits. The things you have to do to stabilize the components are usually to the detriment of the product.

Thirsty Cellist score: 8.5/10

Pros: super easy to drink, affordable, fruity, clean, pairs with all kinds of stuff

Cons: if you’re not into fruity wine, you won’t like this. Slight residual sugars might offend purists. 

Recommendation: buy now, drink positively screaming cold all summer 

homebrew wine kit: week 1

I finally got down to business with the small batch of Chardonnay from the Master Vintner kit! Here are the steps required to kick off the first part of fermentation.

Not pictured: sterilizing the sink and counter, then doing an oxygen wash of all equipment.

To start, I filled the secondary fermentation vessel with a gallon of water and poured it into the wonderfully-named “Big Mouth Bubbler”.

Marking the one-gallon line. You’d think they could just have a notch there, but I guess this works too.

Next up, I filled the bubbler with the juice concentrate. It had an incredibly sweet smell and deep color.

Then I re-filled the juice pouch with filtered water and topped it up to the one-gallon line. The temperature of the juice is crucial, and I ended up tossing the bubbler into the fridge for a few minutes until it reached the ideal 72-77 range. Too cool, and the yeast will be sleepy. Too warm, and the yeast will be overly vigorous or worse still, dead.

Used the wine thief to fill the test jar and then lowered the hydrometer into the juice to get a reading of specific gravity. It actually was a tad too sweet, so I added a little more water and stirred like mad until the reading was appropriate for table wine.

This strain of saccharomyces cerevisiae is from Champagne, and is one of the most widely used yeasts in the world, because it’s easy to work with and fairly predictable.

In it goes! It was magical to watch the yeast spread out over the surface and then slowly begin to fall.

Finally, the lid and bung go in the top of the fermentation vessel. The airlock (filled halfway with water) allows gas to escape but keeps oxygen out.

So now the vessel sits on the kitchen counter, away from light and heat, loosely covered by a paper bag. I keep peeking at it, and the yeast seem like they’re having a good time munching on the sugar and creating a layer of foam on the top of the juice. This stage takes a week. Here’s hoping it goes as planned.

I had the pleasure of interviewing at Dodon last week, where the owner assured me that “The great thing is […] nothing that can kill a person can grow in wine.”

So even if this Chardonnay turns into Chard-o-hell no, at least it won’t be lethal. 🙂

Wine of the week, coming up next! Warm weather = time for the pink stuff.


bargain wine of the week: 2016 Emiliana Natura unoaked Chardonnay

Chile is a wine producer on the rise. This is short-term good news for thrifty shoppers, because it does not have the kind of highbrow prestige associated with the region the way, say, Bordeaux does. So right now, fairly inexpensive Chilean wine is flooding the market, most of it pretty delicious, some of it exceptional, and the odd example here or there that you’ll want to avoid.

I say “short-term” because I have it on good authority that Chile is making some outstanding stuff that is holding its own against many of the heavy hitters in California and Europe. It’s only a matter of time before a real division appears, and like so many other “new world” producers, the improbably wonderful bargains will be fewer and farther between.

Here: check out this clip of the inimitable Joe Fattorini talking a little about a visit to Chile he had for an episode of The Wine Show, aka the only reason I subscribe to Hulu.

This week’s selection is Emiliana Natura Chardonnay, made from organically raised grapes that are farmed sustainably. I’m not even going to wade into the insanity of the natural/organic/biodynamic controversy in this post. First off, I don’t know enough to have a position. Second, I know that each country has unique labeling laws, so one can make a wine seem like it’s made in some hippie commune with minimal intervention and then another country’s labeling laws will require the label to state that it contains sulfites and won’t get the “bio/organic” label at all on a technicality.

That said, I picked this up at Mom’s Organic (Rockville only…ain’t no hooch at the other locations) who has a pretty killer stable of wines for a place that is more about alfafa sprouts than alfredo sauce. If you’re local, the beer selection is on point, too. Lots of local brews, including nearly every DuClaw, Dogfish Head, DC Brau, and Flying Dog variety on offer, and even Charm City mead, which is a –potent– treat.

Anyway, back to the vino! It’s just what you expect from a steel-fermented and aged Chardonnay: some citrus tingle in the nose and on the palate, maybe a whiff of a sprig of herb, and a generous dose of tropical fruit with zero sweetness. This is definitely a crisp wine, but unlike other white varieties (Sauv Blanc, I’m looking at you) at this price, it’s not crass or so huge that it competes with food. It’s usually $12, but I picked up a few bottles for $9 a pop earlier this week. 

Thirsty Cellist score: 8/10

Pros: an easy, affordable, reliable Chardonnay that goes with food or a warm night on the patio. 

Cons: the structure might get a little disorganized as it comes to room temperature, so drink it on the colder side of cool.

Recommendation: buy multiples, excellent for bringing to parties or giving as gifts. 

PS: Unless you’re local to the DC market, I understand that many of the recommendations here are sort of academic. Technically useful information, but perhaps your vendor in Florida or Mpls doesn’t carry the same bottles. I hope that each wine of the week can serve as a loose guide. So maybe you can’t find this particular bottle, but maybe seeking out other Chilean Chardonnays below $15 is a place to start.

shine bright like a diamond

Have you ever found shards in your wine? My first experience with crystals aka “wine diamonds” (of course there’s a bougie name for them) came a few years ago, when I saw something unexpected at the bottom of my glass.

This was before I knew much of anything about enology, and as I fished the flecks out of the wine, I figured that I had chosen a bad bottle, or maybe some fault had occurred during production or storage to cause the strange see-through corn flakes to appear.  Earlier this week, I found the little buggers (circled lovingly in red) in my not-so-cheap Gewürztraminer, and before running back to the merchant to complain, I decided to figure out what was what.

As it turns out, there is some debate about what crystals indicate in terms of quality— but there is no debate about what they are: KC4H5O6: potassium bitartrate. It’s basically cream of tartar, and cold temperatures (like those found in a refrigerator) cause potassium and tartaric acid (which both naturally occur in grapes) to link up and precipitate into these glass-like shards. 

Totally harmless, natural, no problem to find them in your wine. The debate revolves around whether the steps some vintners take to eliminate the risk of crystals forming— namely cold stabilizing— has a deleterious effect on the wine itself. There’s another camp that insists that crystals only form in really nice wines, because a certain combination of components is required for them to exist at all.

Cold stabilizing is done solely to prevent crystals, and usually involves taking the wine down to near freezing (most people agree that below 40ºF is the standard) and then keeping it there for a few weeks. You’ll hear arguments that doing this can stunt, mute, or otherwise freak out the flavors and aromas in the wine. I’ll let you know what happens when my teeny batch of Chardonnay is done fermenting: I’ll cold-stabilize one bottle FOR SCIENCE!

Sigh. Real Genius (source of the above gif) is one of the few movies that just brings me right back to the unbridled optimism of growing up in the 80s. Potent nostalgia. Killer soundtrack too.

So, you can avoid crystals by not storing your wine in the fridge- storing it in a chiller is more gentle and keeps it closer to the ideal drinking temperature. If you do find diamonds in your vino, it’s probably best to decant the bottle and leave them behind: although they are harmless, they can have a bitter taste and a downright bizarre texture that ruins the experience.

I’ll be back with the bargain wine of the week tomorrow! Cheers, friends.