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Russ Briley Wine-ing

Science in making wine

Posted: March 9, 2012 6:00 a.m.
Updated: March 9, 2012 6:00 a.m.

This column originally ran in the Ventura Star in 2011.

As our 2009 vintage of pinot noir is put to bed, we can now turn our attention to the 2010 vintage we have in barrel.
This year we got our grapes from Cottonwood Canyon Winery in Santa Maria Valley. Due to the crazy weather spikes last year, the grapes were picked later than normal. When we got the call that the grapes were ready, the decision was to crush the grapes at Cottonwood Canyon and then transport them. Before we picked them up, the grapes were put in cold tanks to prevent fermentation. But mother nature had her way and the grapes started fermenting because of natural native yeasts.

We decided to let the wine do its thing and pick up the lot after fermentation.

This year two barrels of pinot noir sit in Cantara Cellars. Last week we decided to test the intensity of acid. Grapes contain three types of acid; tartaric, malic and citric. The first work with the acid in our wine came right after fermentation when we did malolatic fermentation. We introduced bacteria in the wine that converts the malic acid into a softer and smoother lactic acid. This also is called a secondary fermentation.

The adjustment we made last week was much different - we were actually lowering our original pH reading by adding tartaric acid to create a balance in the wine.

Our initial pH test had a reading of about 3.90. This is very high and the wine tasted every bit of that 3.90. It was huge fruit and very little acid. We brought down the pH in three small glasses by adding tartaric acid to the wine and measuring the pH with a pH meter. Our three glasses contained wines with a measured pH of 3.63, 3.57 and 3.52. We also had another glass with the original 3.90. These adjustments might seem small on the surface, but they are huge in reality.

This is the point where decisions are made and wines from the same vineyard can taste so different based on a winemaker's style. Many winemakers bring the pH way down to promote aging, trying to emulate wines from areas such as France. Other winemakers might want to make a minor adjustment to keep the wine very fruit forward and more appealing to a certain segment of wine drinkers.

However, I feel as do many other winemakers smarter than I - you have to let the fruit express itself and any acid adjustment is to just create balance between the acid and fruit. Based on the comments from others, I believe our 2009 vintage accomplished this.

Three of us tasted the three samples of wine and we came to a consensus that the 3.63 created the most balance. We added tartaric acid to the barrels and brought the wine down only part of the way as we want to taste again after we rack the wine in a month and make a final determination and adjustment.

© Ventura County Star

As well as writing a wine column for the Ventura County Star, Russ Briley, long time Santa Clarita Valley resident, recently completed the Wine Studies program at COC. Russ and his wife Nancy also own Nuggucciet Cellars, where they produce small lots of Pinot Noir wine. Visit Email Briley at


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