Wine making is a science without rules
By Heather Meade
VERSAILLES — Between the Winery at Versailles and the Winery at Wilcox (Pa.), nearly 1,400 tons of grapes are purchased or grown each year.
This year has been challenging, said Mike Williams, owner and winemaker. With drier weather, the chemistry of the wine doesn’t turn out quite how it’s expected to, because of the uptake from some of the varieties and vineyards didn’t have enough metal uptake, which eases the bitterness of wine, Williams remarked. Wines are harder to predict, because they aren’t buffering acidity as well.
They grow about 10 tons of grapes on-site at the Winery in Versailles, and have also been fortunate enough to find partners in Ohio, with nine new vineyards, only three of which are producing so far, they are able to buy some of their grapes locally. The Winery also purchases grapes from Pennsylvania, Kentucky, New York, and Michigan, stated Williams.
“This year’s been a challenge, to say the least,” Williams declared. “In good years, anybody can make wine, but it’s in the bad years you find out whether you’re going to earn your money or not. It can be very difficult, especially here in the east.”
It’s also difficult to source consistent fruit, especially right now, said Williams. He stated that wine makers have to keep up with the technological advances and techniques, despite using a traditional, hands-off technique at the Winery at Versailles.
“As time goes on, you have to know and understand the new techniques and why they’re in place, and the tools you can use when you have grapes that are substandard,” Williams continued.
The wine making process requires chemical testing, balancing the pH, acids, yeast, nitrogen, and sugars along the way to be sure to stay on track with the type of wine they’re aiming for, remarked Williams.
“You have to know where you’re starting from,” Williams said. “Wine making is a science without rules, because when you try to follow the rules and make wine according to a chemistry standard, you’ll fail. The difference between a $4 chardonnay and a $400 chardonnay is obviously $396. However, they can be priced appropriately. Chemically, there’s not a lot of difference, but aesthetically, there’s a huge difference.”
The Winery also buys juice, sells juice, and makes bulk wine for other wineries, Williams shared. They begin by bringing the grapes in and crush and destem them in a machine specifically designed for that process. For white wines, the crushed grapes go immediately into a press, get pressed off, and the juice sits in cool tanks for 24 hours to four days, Williams stated. Then the settled juice is racked out and fermented. Then it is clarified, and mixed with other fruits and juices if that’s what the winemaker decides to do.
For red wines, it’s a similar process, but after crushing and de-stemming, the grapes are put into open top fermenters for the fermentation process to begin. The grapes get punched down four times a day, and from that point a secondary malolactic fermentation, changing the malic acid to lactic acid to curb the sourness of the wine. Along the way the wine is filtered, clarified, and amended if it needs to be.
“The wine making process is done in stages. Sometimes, all you do is hook up a hose from one tank to another, and that’s it,” stated Williams. “Then you sample and adjust, and do it again, and then filter…You have to have a laboratory, because if you’re going to make a wine, you have to know where you’re starting from.”
His advice? Start with quality fruit. He also suggests throwing away most of the recipes that can be found on the Internet. Also, don’t add water to grape wine, Williams asserted.
“You don’t want to adulterate it with water, not with grape wine,” he said. “Fruit wine is a little different.”
The Winery’s best-selling wine, Rodeo Red, is made with table grapes, but an older style of table grapes, Williams said, not the modern, seedless grapes that can be found at the grocery. They also use blackberry juice, among other fruit juices, to create their fruit wines, he stated. And there are a lot of health benefits to using so many natural products, he said.
“There’s resveratrol, which is predominantly in red wines, shown to reduce the incidents of heart attacks. Blackberry wine contains ellagic acid, the most powerful anti-carcinogen that occurs in nature. Our blackberry wine is between 12 and 18 percent blackberry juice,” Williams commented. “The antioxidant effect of red wine and blueberry wine has also been well-documented. I tell people it’s a beauty aide if my wife drinks enough, I can be really good looking,” Williams chuckled.