I have to say, I’m really enjoying wine week, here on stonesoup. Not that I needed an excuse to enjoy wine more – best to make the most of these opportunities when they come along.
DP wrote that becoming a winemaker is a daydream of his (or hers) and asked me to share a bit about what winemaking life is like. So here we go. Firstly a winemaker’s life has two distinct seasons: vintage and all the time that is not vintage.
Vintage, or when the grapes are harvested is the most intense, crazy time. It’s when it all happens. Grapes are picked, delivered to the winery, crushed and fermented. There is no such thing as work-life balance during vintage. There’s not even really such a thing as sleep. It’s all about getting the grapes picked at their optimal ripeness then getting them to the winery and fermenting them into the best wine they can be.
Vintage happens in the Autumn (or Fall). Depending on the size of the winery and the location, vintage usually lasts a couple of months. It’s long days, without weekends and it’s very hands on. There’s a wonderful sense of camaraderie that develops between all the winery staff and there are a lot of laughs. But mostly it’s really hard, physical work. My favourite job was monitoring the fermentations as they happened. Testing and tasting each day as grape juice magically turned into wine.
One of the great things about vintage is that there’s a huge demand for staff so it’s easy to travel from the Northern hemisphere to the South, chasing an almost eternal Autumn. It was fun, but like I said, hard work and not very lucrative because there are so many people enchanted by the magic of wine and willing to work for very little.
There is a big difference between big corporate wineries and the small boutique places that I preferred to work. In big wineries the winemaker role is a lot more corporate and hands off. Sure they get involved in the decision making and the tasting. But in small wineries, the winemaker is involved in everything, it’s much harder physically, but far more rewarding.
The rest of the year, winery life is a lot more idyllic. The pace is far more leisurely. It’s all about looking after the wine that was made during vintage and fine tuning it. It’s about crafting the wine and getting it ready for bottling. Depending on the style of wine, it involves putting the wine into barrels to age. It’s about monitoring the barrel aging process (which involves lots of tasting). It’s about blending different parcels of wine to get a finished product that tastes its best.
So I hope that gives you a feel for what it’s like to be a winemaker. It is amazing fun, but I still think the best part about the whole process is drinking the finished product, and thankfully you don’t need to be a winemaker to do that.
the dos of enjoying wine
do figure out which styles you like most
Everyone has different preferences. It’s a great idea to taste different styles of wine and figure out which works best for you. Are you into big, ballsy reds? Or aromatic whites? By learning to talk about the general styles, it’s easier to know in advance whether you’re going to enjoy a particular wine.
do learn which areas produce the best examples of your favourite styles
Different wine regions have different strengths when it comes to the different grape varieties. If you’re into big reds, you should know that McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley are great for Shiraz, or that California has it’s Zinfandel, or that the Rhone Valley in France produces magical Shiraz (or Syrah, as the French call it). Likewise if you love aromatic whites like Riesling, it’s good to know that Clare Valley and Eden are probably the best Australian regions along with Mount Barker in WA and that in France, Alsace is the place for Riesling.
The benefit of this is when faced with a wine list, you may not know any individual winery, but you can increase your chances of finding a winner if you know that the Coonawarra is great for Cabernet Sauvignon or that Oregon produces some pretty special Pinot Noir.
always ask the sommelier
One of my favourite things about going out to dinner is having a chat with the sommelier, if there is one. They’re there to help so why not be brave and take the opportunity to learn something new. A good sommelier will be more interested in finding something fun, than trying to upsell you to something beyond your budget. So don’t be afraid to let them know what you’re willing to spend.
do save some empty half bottles
A great trick for when you’re on your own and don’t want to polish off a whole bottle is to have some empty half bottles on hand. Open the wine and fill up the half bottle. Seal it up and it will keep fresh for weeks. Then you can enjoy the remaining wine without fear of overindulging.
do keep opened bottles in the fridge
On the off chance that you do find yourself with leftover wine that you’d like to save for the next night, best to keep it in the fridge (yes even for reds). The theory here is that all of the aging reactions occur slower at cooler temperatures so by chilling the opened wine you’ll keep it fresher for longer. The tick is remembering to pull it out of the fridge with enough time to come back to room temp before you are ready to drink.
do decant young reds
One of the best tricks to making young red wines more drinkable is to decant them. You don’t need a decanter or anything fancy for this. Just pour the wine into a clean empty bottle, or jug or whatever you have on hand. Then pour the wine back into the bottle. This process introduces oxygen into the wine and gives it a bit of ‘speed ageing’. It’s really amazing what a difference a good splash can make.
do decant older reds
If you are lucky to be drinking old reds (10 years+) decanting is a great way to avoid getting sediment in your guest’s glasses. In this case you don’t want to splash it too much as it will already have enough oxygen, it’s about being gentle and just leaving the sediment at the bottom of the bottle.
invest in some decent glasses
You don’t need to go all out on the Ridel (I keep breaking them and have given up), but wine does taste better from good quality glasses so do invest in some reasonable glasses. In Sydney the Chef’s Warehouse has a great range of very reasonably priced glassware. In other citys try and seek out a restaurant supply shop that sells to the public.
do find a wine merchant you can trust
As the wine retailers get bigger and bigger and start to offer less choice, I can’t recommend finding yourself a small merchant who you can develop a relationship with. Someone who will learn your preferences and be able to make recommendations for you. If you’re in Australia, my mate Rhys from The Vine Press is well worth checking out.
the don’ts of enjoying wine
don’t be afraid to taste the wine
In a restaurant the reason you are given a chance to taste the wine is to make sure that it is free from any faults. Even if you’re not sure, there’s only one way to learn, so have a try. If the wine smells unpleasant like wet cardboard or nail polish remover tell the sommelier. If you think there’s something wrong there probably is, so be polite and ask for a second opinion.
don’t forget to taste wine bottled under screw caps too
Lots of people think that if there’s no cork then there’s no reason to taste the wine. And while the risk of getting a wine with cork taint is removed, there are other problems that can occur with screw caps. It’s a lot less likely that you’ll need to send something back but don’t just assume.
don’t serve your wine too cold
When wine is served too cold, the aromatics (the lovely smells) are too cold to jump out of the glass into your nose, so the wine will smell flat and far less enjoyable than it would if it were served a little warmer.
don’t be a wine fashion victim
Unfortunately wine is not immune to fads and fashions. The problems is that when a wine is fashionable, the demand is great and the industry struggles to keep up supply, so as time goes on the quality can tend to slip. At the same time the prices are rising so drinkers who follow what everyone else is drinking tend to get the worst of both worlds. Better to follow your own sense of taste and try new and different styles.
don’t be a wine snob / bore
When you’re getting into wine and discovering a whole new world, it can be tempting to talk about it non-stop. I’ve been there and it’s not that pretty, so be mindful of those around you. By all means get excited but don’t bang on about it too much.
don’t feel guilty about not having a cellar
When I was getting into wine in my 20s, I always felt like I wouldn’t be a real wine lover until I had a cellar stocked with all manner of delights. But the reality of modern life is that we don’t always have the luxury of space (and extra cash) to invest in cases and cases of wine. These days we are lucky in that the wine industry has recognised that people tend to drink wine as soon as they buy it. Modern winemakers have changed the style of their wine so that most are now designed to be drunk within a couple of years.
don’t be afraid to break the rules
Words to live by!
[5 ingredients ]
‘european’ chicken burgers with sage & white wine
I’ve called these burgers ‘European’ because I knocked off the idea of serving a hamburger patty without a bun as a main course from a hip little restaurant in the beautiful city of Barcelona. And I wanted them to sound a little bit fancy.
I could have cut this recipe down to less than 10 minutes by making the burgers smaller and flatter, but I think it’s nicer to have a big chunky burger here. And with chicken you definitely don’t want any rareness.
If you can’t find sage – I know it can be tricky to find if you don’t grow your own, some thyme leaves would be lovely instead.
These are lovely served with bitter radicchio leaves. I like to leave them undressed and let the buttery sauce serve as a salad dressing. But by all means serve with a normal green salad or your favourite green veg.
400g (14oz) minced (ground) chicken
1 small bunch sage, leaves picked
1/2 cup dry white wine
60g (2oz) unsalted butter, diced
radicchio leaves to serve
Season chicken mince with salt and pepper and form into two burger patties.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over a medium high heat. Cook burgers for 4 – 5 minutes on each side until nicely browned on the outside and cooked through. Remove burgers and keep warm.
Add sage leaves to the pan and stir fry for a minute or so. Add wine and allow to simmer, stirring to get all the chickeney goodness off the bottom of the pan. When the wine has reduced by about half, add the butter and whisk until it is melted. Bring to a simmer and cook until the butter is just starting to brown.
Divide chicken burgers between 2 plates and pour over sage and the buttery sauce. Serve with radicchio passed separately.
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