After the harvest, when the grapes have been picked, brought into the cellar and fermented, and the wines have been racked off the skins and moved into barrels, the weather stops mattering, the cellar work ebbs to a day or so per week and a sense of plenty and of ease sets in. I no longer need to measure the sugar in every tank daily, to sniff it for carbon dioxide or acetone, to taste it for the presence of lactic acid. Alcoholic fermentation is finished, and I file away the charts that tracked it and label the barrels in chalk with the wine they contain. For a few months, the cellar will hold two vintages, the old one, not yet bottled, and the new one, just made. It is unlikely that the new wines will start their malolactic fermentation—that second transformation of tart, apple-like malic acid into the lactic acid that gives wines a smoother, creamier texture–until the cellar warms up toward March. Although they contain almost no sulfur, they are less subject to oxidation, evaporation and bacterial activity at low temperatures, so in my mind, they are safe.
It is even too early to start pruning the vines. What they want now is frost—a few weeks of ice-cold weather to kill off diseases and pests and start the growing season cleansed. It is best if that cold comes now, before the lymph in the plants starts to flow, before newly-swollen buds risk being burned by frost. Barring cold, rain is welcome, although there is plenty of time for that in the months to come. And wind serves a purpose, too, blowing off dead leaves and twigs, drying the plants and the land, helping to shift, mix and scatter the soil, and opening it up to attract birds.
Agriculturally-speaking, in the northern hemisphere, the Judeo-Christian holidays come at a time of year when there is nothing left to do. The land that constantly begs my attention and effort, the cellar I dare not neglect, seem for once to ask nothing, and I am free to relax, much more so than in August, when, although I may be on holiday, the vines are full of grapes and thus vulnerable, and I am heading into the harvest, such that plans, hopes and fears for the vintage are never far from my mind. So these weeks feel like a gift—the only time of year without a looming task. At most, I can think about the coming year and plan the first cellar and vineyard operations.
With an eye to bottling last year’s wines in February, their barrels and tanks should be combined right after the holidays, so that the masses of wine—originally fermented (born!) together but aged in a variety of barrels and small tanks—can re-amalgamate to produce an even wine.
Some of this year’s wines will be moved, too. Because grape yields from some vineyard parcels were unexpectedly low in 2020, we have only 200-300 litres of some wines, enough for either a barrel or a small tank. Putting 100% of a wine into a barrel risks masking some of the characteristics of the wine that come from its terroir—the particular texture of the tannins–or its varietal flavors. But leaving it all in a steel tank, without access to any oxygen for its year of cellar aging, might leave it hard or flat–banal. Cement is a good compromise–inert like steel, but natural like wood. But cement vats tend to be big and immobile, and I work small and like to stay flexible. A French grower told me about a Northern Italian company making barrel-size ceramic containers, so I am thinking of trying a few of those.
These few, quiet weeks are also a time to reflect on the recent harvest, take pleasure in positive surprises—such as a vineyard parcel that produced unexpectedly complex grapes—and figure out how to avoid repeating any mishaps. Finally, it is a time to drink wine—mine and that of other winemakers, whose wines in their differences help me know my own.
Originally published in the fall of 2020.