Goals for Abeille 2012

Robert – October 18th, 2012
In the words of the great Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

I probably should have written my goals down before we started winemaking this year, but it has been busier than most and I haven’t had the opportunity to convert my notes scribbled on a Post-it® to a full blog post. They don’t call this part of winemaking the crush for nothing. Here is what we hope to achieve with this year:

Goal #1 (red and white): more flavor complexity.
Great wine should have many levels of flavor as you drink it. Previous vintages have been very tasty, but I’m not sure they’re particularly complex yet.

How we’re going to get there:
I think this comes down to two factors: using really great fruit and mastering basic techniques. 2012 produced a great harvest with ripe, flavorful berries that have needed very little modification or manipulation. Additionally, this being our third year making wine, we’re more comfortable with the basic techniques and their impact on the final product. By being diligent and mindful throughout the winemaking process, we hope to improve the complexity of our final product.

Goal #2 (red): improved color.
My biggest complaint about my two previous vintages is the color. Being a big Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blends, Abeille should be dark, opaque, and trending more towards purple than red. To date, it has been much lighter than I would prefer; looking more like Pinot Noir than a big Cabernet blend. This seems to be one of the more difficult problems for home winemakers, as compared to commercial producers. Why? Because of a big industry secret: most wineries use food coloring in their wines.

How we’re going to get there:
I’m conflicted from a philosophical standpoint. Do I take a purely natural approach to wine color, or am I comfortable using some additives to improve the color if necessary?

Some coloring agents used in wine aren’t totally cheating, because they’re derived from powdered grape skins. They are, however, still looked down upon in some circles. I’m going to do as much as I can to naturally improve the wine’s color, including an extended cold soak to allow for more grape skin extraction. During this cold soak, we used an additive called a pectic enzyme which breaks down the grape cell walls allowing for more extraction into the wine. I’m also working to minimize the chance for oxidation, which could discolor the wine.

If the color isn’t ideal when it’s time to bottle, I’m not above using powdered grape skin. Is this cheating?

Goal #3 (white): figure out what the heck I’m doing on the most basic level.
As we’ve discussed previously, we’re making a white wine for the first time this year. I don’t have any previous experience to pull from. My experience making red wine has proved only somewhat relevant, as the white pressing and fermenting stages have been markedly different so far.

How we’re going to get there:
Trial and error: what could possibly go wrong? We’re learning as we go. In many ways, I feel like a new teacher. As long as I can stay one chapter ahead, it’ll be just fine.

Goal #4 (red): control our final blend.
We’ve always made a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. We haven’t been strategic about it. We mix the grapes together at the vineyard and ferment and press everything together. If we keep the wine separate, we’ll have more blending options at bottling time.

How we’re going to get there:
We’ve taken great pains thus far to make sure the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc stay separate. When it comes time to press, we’ll make sure they stay in separate carboys to age for the next few months. Testing and tasting many different blend percentages to determine our final blend should be more than enough reward for our organizational efforts.

Bonus goal (red): experiment with wine barrels.
Because of our limited budget and space, we don’t have the option of using a full size wine barrel for aging. Full size barrels are 55 gallons, just a bit beyond the capacity of a 16 foot wide Baltimore rowhouse. Barrels are also messy, leak, and require year-round maintenance to ensure they aren’t tainted with bad bacteria. On the other hand, there is no better way of getting toasted oak and vanilla flavors into a wine. Not to mention, the tiny amount of air let in by the barrel result in microoxygenation, which some people say does wonders for the wine. Plus they look so cool!

How we’re going to get there:
This is a multi-part plan. Step one – convince Caitlin this is a good idea. The drawbacks listed above are real. I’ll need to convince her that the romance of having a basement full of wine barrels (ok…wine barrel singular) outweighs the negatives*. Step two – when step one fails, ask Santa Claus for a wine barrel. Seriously, what have elves even been doing since Gameboy® overtook the rocking horse? Surely an industrious elf, eager to get back in the game, could bust out the old woodworking tools and cooper up a barrel for me. Something in the 10 gallon range, like this one, would be nice. Santa reads this blog…right?

*Editor’s Note—the editor of Robert’s posts is me, Caitlin, and I have the following to say about his plan to convince me to buy him a wine barrel for Christmas: Robert loves Alton Brown. Alton Brown is the inventor of the dreaded Flower Pot Smoker, an egregious sin against humanity that requires a terra cotta pot and bowl, hot plate, grill grate, pan (for wood chips), bricks, and wood chunks, and is intended to replace…you know…an actual smoker. Did Robert build the smoker? Yes. Did he use it? Yes. Did he clean it? No.

Remember that time I told you about how Robert confessed he had purchased white grapes without telling me? In the middle of dinner? In a public place? This was the same situation. It might have even been the same restaurant. Except the confession this time was: I think I might have left a hot plate, used wood chips, and your favorite grilling tongs inside of the Flower Pot Smoker. Along with the charred remains of what you must admit was a really good batch of pastrami. On our deck. For the last year.

Yes, I have my totally justified doubts about the wine barrel.



  1. nicholascowling

    As a fellow Alton Brown/Good Eats fan, I would respectfully ask that the sins of Robert not be transposed to Alton, the man who taught us about the Maillard reaction. In Robert’s defense, I don’t think he forgot anything on the deck, but was just working on a well-aged Charcuterie plate.

  2. Grubarazzi (@Grubarazzi)

    Bee guts and food coloring? Lawdy. Every time I read your blog my wine choices get slimmer and slimmer. I hope you make extra of your home blend for little ole me this year… so you can save me from food coloring. Love, your friend.

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