Ramble On

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Racking the Lees at Wisteria

Last weekend, with temperatures in the high 90’s, I set out on a little hike to summit Hazeltop Mountain in Shenandoah National Park. As I was making my way back to Hawksbill Cabin, I decided to make a stop by Wisteria to pick up a bottle of their Traminette, which Mary and I both enjoy.

The tasting room was busy – I always love to see that – so I was quick about my business. Although it eventually turned out that Mary really likes the sparkling traminette, which is a new offering this summer, I bought the still. Sue had challenged me on this point, trying to make sure I was correct in my choice.  Despite this egregious error, the day was not a total loss for me.

Approaching the parking lot, Moussa emerged from the cellar and said hi. Then he told that he was working on a small batch of apple wine, adding “Would you like to taste some?” He invited me, and two of the folks who’ve been helping out there, in for a little sample.

On first blush, when your local vintner asks you to come into the wine cellar, where the temperatures are at a constant 55 degrees or so, on a sultry 100 degree day, well, how long are you going to think about that? Since I’ve been interested in apple wine for some time, for various reasons. I accepted the invitation for research – the second of my two justifications – and for my faithful readers, I’ve got to report what I learned.

Wisteria, being the working farm, has quite a few fruit trees around. I learned that they had combined part of their crop – the trees are still young – with some heritage varieties from a neighbor up in Kite Hollow. Moussa told me he’d used about 150 pounds of apples to produce about 20 gallons, if I have that right.

We tasted our samples, and the wine was very nice. It reminded me of a late harvest white, although the fruity overtone was apple and not grape. Everyone congratulated him on a winner, and then my colleagues were on their way to their Sunday dinner.

I have to be honest, I was enjoying the cool too much, and I lingered. Moussa told me he had to get back to work on the wine, and asked if I’d like to stick around and watch him rack the wine. “Yes, I'd like that very much!” I said.

Racking the wine is a clarification and stabilizing step in the winemaking process. The new wine is siphoned off of the lees – this is the particulate residue of the fruit that is suspended in the wine during the pressing activities. I’m told, that just as in brewing, it’s important to separate the wine off of the lees (in brewing, the trub) to reduce the potential for off-tastes.

The wine is siphoned between containers – Wisteria uses 15-gallon carafes for small batch vintages – and this is the process that Moussa carefully executed while I watched, nosing around in the well organized and cool cellar. You know, it’s a treat to encounter the tools of the trade for a process you think you understand, but only because you enjoy the end product.

I had admired the peach trees at Wisteria, which earlier were so burdened with fruit that the branches had to be propped up, and asked if he’d thought about using them for a vintage. He told me that with the temperatures and drought conditions this summer they had lost much of that crop, and didn’t have enough to make a go of the wine. “But we will be trying some blackberry wine soon.”

These are small batch, special production wines, and aren’t likely to be brought to market just yet. Still, the apple wine was a real treat. I hope to get invited back when the blackberry wine is in the works.

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