Thursday, May 12, 2011

Viña Aquitania, Santiago, Chile

On April 21st, Robin and I visited Viña Aquitania on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile. It's a rather small vineyard and winery, but with a pretty spectacular heritage. It was founded in 1990 by Bruno Prats and Paul Pontallier. Prats is the former winemaker and owner of Chateau Cos d'Estournel (, while Pontallier is the winemaker and CEO at Chateau Margaux (

Viña Aquitania and the smoggy Andes in the background. The gentleman walking down the path (low center of picture) is Felipe de Solminihac, the winery's CEO.

The visit was quick but memorable:  The production area was quite ordinary, and nothing jumped out at me as unique or interesting -- pretty basic stuff. They used a basket press to press the fermented must (vs. a pneumatic press), and they also sorted each cabernet cluster by hand, but that's typical for cabernet production.
In the barrel room, I noticed that they only stacked their barrels 2 high. I found that odd, because in California earthquake country, we stack 'em 6 or 7 high! Maybe they have the right idea and we're kinda dumb...  I don't know.

Viña Aquitania barrel room. It's quite small, as you can see.

The wine tasting, however, was pretty exceptional. We got to sample a 2000 Paul Bruno cab that tasted very peculiar. The fruit was completely gone, the color was that of tawny port, and it tasted of leather, tobacco, and dark chocolate.  Pretty cool, and quite a contrast with their more recent wines! It was one of those "love it or hate it" wines, and we both loved it. 


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Spilling the Beans

I've tried (more or less) to keep the name of my employer a secret. In this age of digital media, I thought it best to keep my commentary separate from the reputation of the winery, especially since negative remarks can spread so quickly throughout the Internet.

Since I no longer work there, however, I think it's now safe to reveal the name: JC Cellars. If anyone was truly curious, it wouldn't have required much work to figure it out (especially since I've posted pictures that were dead giveaways, such as the ones uploaded on September 21st).

Why now? Why reveal the name a few weeks after my last day? Well, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate published its review of JC's 2008 wines and the results are absolutely spectacular. I just had to share:

Robert Parker Reviews JC Cellars' 2008 Vintage

It would be terrific news if one day the winemaker behind all these brilliant wines, Jeff Cohn, gets his own winery and vineyard. He certainly has a knack for putting together super wines, generally from Rhone Ranger varietals, but also Zinfandel.

95+ points - 2008 Buffalo Hill Rockpile Vineyard Syrah
93+ points 2008 Rockpile Vineyard Syrah
93 points 2008 Sweetwater Springs Zinfandel
93 points - 2008 Misc. Stuff
92 points - 2008 Iron Hill Zinfandel 
92 points - 2008 The First Date
91+ points - 2008 Sweetwater Springs Petite Sirah
91 points - 2008 The Impostor

As my wife pointed out, when a wine named Misc. Stuff scores a 93, you're doing pretty well.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


My apologies for disappearing for the past month. The harvest ended rather suddenly, as we expected to get a good-sized load of white grapes in mid-November. Unfortunately, the grapes were harmed by the rains and literally disintegrated into mush when picked. We never even bothered to truck them up to Oakland.

And so my colleagues and I spent our last few days cleaning up the mess we made during the busy weeks of the harvest. We cleaned out the fermentation tanks, the racking tanks, our tools, and the cold room. We even washed down the forklift, which has been thoroughly coated in wine when the bins were emptied into the press!

The harvest of 2010 ended with a whimper, but there's more interesting info/news to come...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Yeast: Part I of XVI

During my time at the winery, I've written about most every step in the winemaking process except for the following:

- Adding yeast & nutrients for primary fermentation
- Malolactic (secondary) fermentation
- Fining and filtering (the steps that precede bottling)
- Blending
- Bottling

If there's one step that's more critical than all others, I'd have to say that it's adding yeast. Unfortunately, it's something that I didn't witness very often. We typically started working at 8:00 am, but the winemaker often added yeast and nutrients to the fermenting must around 7:00 am.

The process is not too complicated, but many things can go wrong. First, a package or bottle of dried yeast is mixed with warm water. The resulting mixture looks like a giant latte (coffee + milk colored, opaque) and smells like baking bread. There are different types of yeast, and choosing the right one(s) is what makes great winemakers great. We typically fermented different bins with different strains of yeast to obtain varying characteristics in the wine.

Syrah yeast.  There are hundreds of different types of yeast that can be used
to ferment must into wine.  We used about a dozen varieties this year.

The liquid yeast is poured into the tanks and bins, and this procedure is called "inoculation". The yeast cells then process the sugars in the must into CO2 and alcohol. And herein lies the difficulty in making wine: As the level of alcohol rises, it kills the yeast. As the sugar gets depleted, the yeast cells run out of food. If the temperature rises too much, the yeast dies. If the temperature is not high enough, the yeast doesn't process the sugar. If the pH isn't just right, the fermentation can be affected. And so on... It's a pretty delicate process, and getting it right isn't so easy.

The amount of alcohol that is produced by the yeast is directly proportional to the sugar content of the must, and since we crushed very ripe grapes we often had to add water to dilute the must. Too much sugar will create too much alcohol, which will kill the yeast before the fermentation is complete (but we have a secret weapon to fix this problem). Sometimes, the fermentation can be re-started once the wine has been transferred to barrels:

The master adds a little bit of WS yeast to some barrels of wine that are
still a little too sweet. This yeast will ferment the remaining sugar and
dry out the wine. It's not the preferred way to do things,
but sometimes you don't have much of a choice...

I'll post a few more things about yeast, most notably a little something about some very special yeast that we use in desperate cases. Stay tuned...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Smoked wild game, herbs de Provence and hints of bitter Swiss chocolate"

If you've ever read some of Robert Parker's wine reviews, you've probably laughed out loud at some of his descriptions. He'll routinely toss in words like "graphite", "roasted meats", "bacon fat", "wet slate", or "cedar" and "spicebox".

But what words would you use to describe the flavors in your wine?  Here's a handy little illustration of a flavor wheel.  It'll help you figure out what basic flavors you're tasting when you're swishing that wine around in your mouth:

Here's a handy wine "aroma wheel" to help you decipher some of the
flavors present in your wine (click for larger image)

If you're making wine, you obviously don't want to find yourself anywhere near the "chemical" section of the flavor wheel, nor do you want your wine to taste like yoghurt. Floral, spicy, or fruity flavors are great, though, and there's a trend toward more herbaceous flavors like hay, herbs, and menthol/licorice.
Print out the wheel and take it with you when you're wine tasting!