Shooting the Moon

Normally, once the yeasts have consumed all the sugar in a must, they stop producing alcohol and CO2, and as a consequence, you lose a protective layer of gas on top of the wine that helps inhibit bad bacteria from colonizing your wine. So, when the “cap falls” — when there’s no longer CO2 pushing the skins to the surface, it’s time to press, if not before.

Now, if you’re feeling lucky, or if you have a way to float additional CO2 on top, you can certainly leave it be for a bit. Presumably, what you’ll get is even more stuffing from the skins and seeds, so if you like your wines tannic, this could be a way to go. The trouble is that the skins and seeds are now soaking in 14% alcohol, so not only will you get more flavor from the skins, the alcohol will act as a solvent, leaching more bitter, mouth-drying tannins from the seeds.

So because we’re not looking for the taste of the Home Depot lumber yard in our wines, we’ve always pressed just before the cap falls, ensuring along the way more healthy wines.

Some winemakers, however, are not so leery, and in fact, shoot the moon with a process called “extended maceration” — rather than pressing when the cap falls, they seal the wine up in tanks, protected by CO2, and leave it soaking for as much as a month and a half. Yes, you read that right: 45 days.

So this year, throwing caution to the wind, we’re going to try it ourselves. How will this mad gamble work? And why would we want our wine to evoke the subtle flavor of a 2×4? Find out below…

Unwrapping a new, variable height stainless steel tankPeeling the protective plastic off the inside of a new, variable height stainless steel tank. So shiny!
Assuming you can keep the wine protected for that long, what apparently happens is that, at a certain point, those bitter tannins suddenly become smooth and velvety. Chemically, it’s that harsh, “short chain” tannins link together and become “long-chained” and soft. I’ve heard and read that when this happens depends on a number of factors, but when it does, it often occurs over the course of a single day, at which point you want to press immediately.

This isn’t a new technique, but we’ve never had the technology to give it a go. So this year, I began looking into a way to seal the fermenter currently holding the Cab. Maybe a piece of plywood with weather stripping around the edges to form a seal? Another Garagiste suggested a plastic cutting board material (at 4’x4′ size) so it would be cleanable. We could shoot some gas under this lid and hope the weather stripping holds…

Not the most fool-proof way to do it, to be sure. So the other day, I was talking to Garagiste friend François, also a prosumer winemaker, about how we could possibly pull this off, since he’s tried it before himself. Eyeing our variable height tanks, he said matter-of-factly, “Why don’t you put it in one of those?”

A variable height tank is simply a stainless steel tank with a lid that floats on top of the wine. The lid itself has a food-grade inner tube around its perimeter, so you let the lid float and find its calibrated level, then inflate the tube to seal things up. We use them for overflow storage in place of a forest of carboys.

Anyway I turned to François with a blank look, slowly working out the math that would add one and one together. Uh, that would be a dumb idea because… um… it’s… damn, it’s so brilliant! I can’t believe we didn’t think of it before. It’s like we’d been pushing aside the bucket of water because it was in the way of our getting closer to the fire to determine how we might put it out. Thanks, François!

So I think we’ll go for it — we’ll float a little argon on top of the wine before we seal it up (evacuating most of the oxygen), and create a pretty stable, secure environment to try an extended maceration. And shoot the moon we will, but with the knowledge we already have a lot of hearts in the hole.

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