White wine wistfulness

Rain on netted Fiano vines.

Rain on netted Fiano vines.

It was raining when I wrote this. Forgive me if it goes astray…

This year, I will be making my first white wine: a Fiano. I have some Fiano vines in large pots, but before I put them in the vineyard (and spend the money on the posts, labor, irrigation and water, etc), I want to see if I can successfully make a white wine with my resources.

There are some very essential questions I have to answer about the first part of primary fermentation: if I use a low foaming yeast, should I expect the wine to surge up the air lock? Should run the fermentation in one vessel filled to the top, or two vessels with some head space and then consolidate as the ferment slows down?

Anyone reading this, and who knows the answer to that question, is welcome to comment or contact me.

Now, the second part of the primary fermentation will be decisive in determining the structure of my finished wine. I opened a bottle of the most recent vintage of the Fiano I want to replicate and did some testing. I had the following results:

RS (Clinitest):
  • 2-drop method (2X volumes – 20 dr H20, 4 dr wine): about 2.5%
  • 5-drop method (done twice: 1X and 2X volumes): 1% to 1.5%
  • Very Highly Positive: >500mg/L
  • 3.25

My main goals in this part of the primary fermentation are to: 1) preserve RS at about 2%, and 2) prevent malolactic fermentation.

There are several ways to arrest primary fermentation: 1) high-dose SO2, 2) chilling the wine to about 30°F for about six to eight weeks, 3) Pasteurization or flash Pasteurization, and 4) sterile filtering the wine. Re-fermentation can be prevented by both filtration and addition of sorbate to the wine at bottling.

Malolactic fermentation can be prevented by the addition of lysozyme (trade name: LysoVin). It is an egg extract which inhibits lactic species. Because it is an egg extract, it may be allergenic, as has been recently reported. But I am not concerned enough about this to exclude the use of lysozyme from my regimen.

Sterile filtering requires a financial investment and a large quantity of wine because a good amount of wine is absorbed by filter pads. I’m not sure whether filtering increases the risk of oxidation. The surest way to get 100% guaranteed sterile wine is to use a cartridge filter with a sterile cylinder insert. This will easily cost well over $500. I did find a Boun Vino Mini Jet at Napa Fermentation recently. I could potentially use some 0.45 micron filter pads to achieve nearly sterile filtration.

About 7 pounds of crushed white tables grapes.

About 7 pounds of crushed white tables grapes.

While pasteurization or flash pasteurization will kill both the yeasts and the malolactic bacteria, it is likely to result in cooked wine, at my scale of production.

So I set up an experiment. I crushed and pressed some white (green seedless) table grapes.

I acidulated to 3.1 pH, as I’m told wines below 3.2 pH generally do not undergo malolactic conversion. I chaptalized to 25.5 Bx to allow for a target of about 13.5% ABV and about 2% RS.

After letting the mixture macerate overnight in the fridge, I added DAP and inoculated with Côte des Blancs.

Pressed, acidulated, chaptalized and inoculated.

Pressed, acidulated, chaptalized, inoculated...and not fermenting!

I waited patiently for two days for signs of fermentation. When fermentation failed to start (the yeast was left over from last year), I started up some Pasteur Champagne yeast and pitched it. But this failed as well, leading be to conclude that table grapes must be treated with something (maybe sorbate) to prevent spoilage.

If the substance used on table grapes is, in fact, sorbate, then the failure of the table grape juice to ferment is testimony to the effectiveness of sorbate at preventing re-fermentation.

Well, at least that’s encouraging…

Unfortunately, the time to get my Fiano arrived and I had no time to experiment again with alternate juices. I had to abandon this experiment and go with my gut feeling about what will work best for my Fiano.

Here goes….



Father, husband, physician, amateur guitarist, wine lover, wine writer, wine grower and wine maker trying to do it all within eye shot of downtown Los Angeles. http://www.shutupandmakewine.com http://twitter.com/Dr_Arthur_P
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29 Responses to White wine wistfulness

  1. Markark Ryan says:

    Why not just ferment it in an open-top vessel using no cultivated yeast and let it run its course? Don’t you want to see what your grapes will give you before you ‘impose your will’ on it?

  2. SUAMW says:

    Hi Mark.

    The problems there are multifold but revolve around two main issues:

    1. You have no control of which fermentative species run the conversion and what off aromas they will introduce and to what extent.

    2. White wine is much more susceptible to oxidation than red (which can go through primary in an open top fermenter but must go through MLF under an air lock in a topped-off vessel).

    As a matter of fact, I was getting some whiffs of VA and ethyl acetate in my tiny batch of Aglianico even thought I was constantly punching it down. Since acetobacter is an obligate aerobe, and since the primary was close to being finished, I pressed it off and put it in a jug, under an air lock. This way, the CO2 generated suppresses acetobacter and will hopefully keep my wine clean.

  3. Mark Ryan says:

    While I understand what you are saying, I would suggest still doing a small amount as a ‘control’ using no additives. Natural yeast and open-top fermentations have been what winemaking has been all about for millennia. Typically, fermentation lets off enough CO2 to protect the fermenting wine as long as you partially cover the fermenter, such as with a towel which also helps with fruit flies. In fact, there is a debate even in conventional winemaking whether or not to let your must oxidize before fermentation.

    I would not be concerned about a small whiff of EA/VA in your fermenting reds – fermentation throws out a lot of funky aromas (especially since it’s warm and the alcohol seems even more present on the nose) so as long as you’re punching down regularly you are discouraging acetobacter formation.

  4. SUAMW says:

    Lots of bad wine has been made for millenia, as well. I want a drinkable wine, not an experiment. I can play with the reds but not this white, I have too many critical decisions hinging on the outcome.
    Also, oxidative practices are OK for Chardonnay, not for aromatic whites like Fiano (see today’s post).
    In general, oxidative practices – particularly in small batches made at home (where you will inadvertently introduce more O2) -should be eschewed.

    EA/VA are always a bad sign and I am not inclined to dismiss it so easily. I want to do what I can to stop the infection. I was punching down regularly, but this was not enough. The only thing that would definitively stop further acetobacter issues during a ferment is to eliminate O2 from the ferment surface.

  5. Mark Ryan says:

    As usual, it all comes down to philosophy. Personally, I would prefer to make a wine that is not made in a commercial/industrial way (using bisulphides, pectinase, cultured yeast as you are doing). It would be much easier to just buy a Fiano wine that you like rather than try to “emulate” it. No risk, no rewards!

  6. SUAMW says:

    It takes a vine 3 years to start producing usable fruit. Water costs about $4 per HCF of water in LA. Then there is irrigation, gopher baskets, posts, and the time and labor involved. After those three years and extensive expenses, I don’t want to pick fruit to find the variety does not do well in the site and that it is hard to make 7-10 gallons of white wine in a basement.

    What kind of successes have you had with aromatic white varieties that you’ve made at home using the methods you propose?

  7. Mark Ryan says:

    As a home winegrower, I have been very intrigued by your blog posts. They are honest and revealing…and completely the opposite way about how I have gone about growing and making wine. And that is fine. All I am trying to say is that there are other perfectly valid ways to make wine other than the textbook UC Davis school of commercial/industrial winegrowing.

    We have home vineyards…so why pretend that they are anything other than that? When I open a bottle of my wine for friends I would be insulted if someone said, “Wow, it tastes just like the California Fiano from so-and-so”. There are many ways to skin a cat.

  8. SUAMW says:

    Of course this is just home wine making. But that does not mean I should not seek ways to make a fresh, tasty wine that remains stable in the bottle (with up to 2% RS).

    I definitely would be interested in trying your whites that you’ve made. Maybe I’m missing something.

  9. Mark Ryan says:

    The point of this exercise in home winegrowing to me is NOT about what the finished wine tastes like. Of course, I would hope it tastes fine – but at the end of the day I know that it was made without any manipulations or additions and that it is as close to the natural grapes as it can be.

    When I go to a fine restaurant I want perfectly-executed food. When I go to someone’s house I hope for real, honest home cooking, warts and all. I don’t want a friend to cook a Michelin-starred meal for me.

    And there is a reason why most top chefs prefer home cooking…

  10. Mark,

    I understand your concerns, and I agree with most of what you say–but not the yeast conversation: cultivated yeast is not the same thing as industrial chemistry. They are isolated crosses of yeast strains to create new strains that perform more reliably.

    To make a finer point, ask yourself about the grape varieties that you grow: are they wild varieties or have they been cultivated through the centuries to perform more reliably to produce? If the answer is yes to the second part of the question–and it is–then you’ve already started from an “unnatural” baseline.

  11. Mark Ryan says:


    Of course one can always debate what’s natural/unnatural, but I don’t buy the argument that once we establish that growing irrigated/grafted/selected grape varieties is ‘unnatural’ then that gives one the permission to add whatever they please to the wine and still think that it is somehow acceptable.

    My definition of ‘natural’ is not adding anything you don’t need to the grapes in the vineyard or in the cellar. For most winemakers it comes down to the ‘kust in case’ scenario: “Let me add sulfur/yeast to my grapes – ‘just in case’ they weren’t 100% clean and won’t ferment by themselves”

    As an experiment I took 6 bunches of white organic table grapes bought from the farmer’s market, pressed them off the skins, and let them sit in a bowl on my counter covered with a towel. Within a few days it was bubbling away and within a week it had fermented dry. No off flavors, no VA, no oxidation. This method goes against everything that is taught in an enology class and yet it produces perfectly good wine. It’s how people have been making wine forever.

    Why does trusting what nature has given you and intervening as little as possible such a radical concept?

  12. SUAMW says:

    So what would you do to achieve a wine that, when finished, is ~2% RS, 3.25pH and has not undergone MLF if the the fruit at crush is 3.53 pH and 24.5Bx?

    Let’s say you have 100 lbs of fruit and no way to cold-store the three cases of finished wine and not have it spoil or re-ferment in bottle over the next 1-3 years?

  13. Mark Ryan says:


    BINGO! You are attempt to ‘design’ a wine according to your taste and that’s where our philosophies diverge. The grapes are indicating you will have a low acid, high alcohol wine. And that’s fine – it’s true to how the grapes were grown. Just add some SO2 at bottling and store in a cool dark place, they’ll be fine for a few years.

    • SUAMW says:

      How have the white wines you’ve made this way held up? I’d be curious to taste them to see if there are some alternatives available to me.

  14. SUAMW says:

    Mark, How do I stop primary to get the 2% RS and how do I prevent MLF?

  15. Markark Ryan says:

    Why does the wine need 2% residual sugar? Why does it need its malo stopped? If you insist on ‘designing’ the wine to your taste then you can of course rack off the lees when there is 2% sugar and add SO2.

    • SUAMW says:

      Because it provides balance. If it goes all the way dry, it is too “dry” and angular. It does not do well (especially in CA) with lees time, let alone in oak.
      This is not designing. It is making the wine taste its best (including a much lower ABV than you would get if it went completely dry).
      Racking and SO2 do not prevent the wine from going dry. It does not prevent MLF in a 3.5 pH wine. (Fiano does not do well with MLF, especially at 3.5 pH) Neither does this keep the 2% RS wine stable in the bottle.

      I keep asking about the white wines you have made. Please tell me about your experiences and observations. Please share.

  16. SUAMW says:

    By the way. Did you see Alice Feiring’s new book? She set out to make a natural wine and ended up compromising a lot of her beliefs about wine making in order to achieve a stable, clean wine.

  17. Mark Ryan says:

    If you start with an inferior base product no matter how much you try to re-jigger it in order to fit it into a mold that you have pre-designed (a light, aromatic Fiano grown in a cooler climate) – it will still be an inferior (albeit better tasting product), so why bother to make that style of wine with the material you have been given? A 14.5% Fiano with lowish acidity is going to be a flabby alcoholic mess, so at this point your adjustments and chemistry are only doing damage control. Perhaps a fortified late-harvest Fiano would be your best option.

    BTW, I hope you don’t sense any hostility – I’d love to hang out and chat over a bottle of wine sometime!

    P.S. You are misreading Alice’s book – she had no choice on the picking decisions nor on the decision to add water to her wine (those were decisions made by the winery in the interest of creating a ‘commercial’ product). I have alerted her to this thread, so hopefully she will chime in.

    • SUAMW says:

      We can certainly hang out. I will bring my wines. Will you bring your whites which you made without interventions and with spontaneous ferments?

      As to having restricted decision making: I think that much of wine making is making the most of what you are given be it by the vineyard manager or nature.

  18. SUAMW says:

    No Hostility percieved.

    I have not read Alice’s book. I do speak with her on occasion, and this comes from the conversations in which she said she had to deviate from her beliefs in making her wine.

  19. Hi Arthur, I had no idea that this was your blog. Hope you are well.

    I am so surprised at your takeaway from our conversation (which was quite a while ago).

    About that sagrantino; my beliefs were compromised from the beginning as I didn’t grow the grapes and the wine was never mine.
    This was an experiment.
    It belonged to someone else and ultimately his needs supplanted my own desire.

    The picking was done later than I’d have liked. The farming sucked. The water was done behind my back.

    My beliefs had nothing to do with this project. However, I did have some influence.

    Native yeast. Pigeage (I would have done whole cluster). No temperature control other than the sun. Native malos. No commercial additives. The wine, per my desire, received sulfur addition ONLY after malo. And that addition happened as it was someone else’s commercial product. If I were in charge, if it were my wine, it would have received sulfur only at bottling.

    Really, you should read the book if you are going to comment on my thoughts and beliefs like this. –Alice

    • SUAMW says:

      HI Alice. Nice to hear from you,

      I do not see a difference between what you have said above and what we discussed on the phone. I don’t think I am editorializing or distorting what you said to me or wrote on your blog: You got a chance to make wine. The process was different than what you would have liked to do. The process was was divergent from your ideals and you made some compromises to keep the project moving (and probably to make a viable, stable wine).

      Did you say something different than that in the book? I was under the impression, from what you told me, that this was what was in the book.

      I do have to ask a question, and it is an honest question:
      If there were all these limitations and deviations from your beliefs and ideals, why get into the project? It seems that if you do not get 100% control over farming, picking and vinnification, the situation is a setup from the get go. No?

      Didi you vehemently and repeatedly say you did not want any water added to the must or was the water added behind your back because the ferment was stuck?

      I do have to say that many of these compromises would have been inevitable regardless or the amount of control you had over the whole process.

      If you lived closer, I would let you have a section of my vineyard to run your way (short of changing the training of the canopy or “dry farming” which would kill the vines).
      Next time you are in LA, drop me a line, I have a wine I made with lots of aeration, no acidulation and no temperature control.

      Also, see this post:


    • SUAMW says:

      By the way Alice

      Maybe you can make some recommendations:
      I want to make a clean and stable white wine that does better with no MLF, no oak, no lees time and some (no more than 1.5%) RS by taste.
      What do I do to get this wine accomplished if the must comes in at 3.5pH and ~24Bx?

  20. To me, wine is not ideology.

    As for this comment that Mark made: “For most winemakers it comes down to the ‘kust in case’ scenario: “Let me add sulfur/yeast to my grapes – ‘just in case’ they weren’t 100% clean and won’t ferment by themselves”

    I’d love to see some substantiation behind such an accusation. As a journalist, I learned a long time ago to maintain suspicion as soon as a statement begins with a phrase like, “For most…” and is not followed with proof.

    In my experience as both a journalist and a professional winemaker, I have never met any commercial winemaker who follows the “just in case” scenario.

    Allowing wine to make itself, the way Mark characterizes it, is fine, if you have a small plot of land and do this stuff as a hobby. It is complete nonsense on a commercial level. Maybe the conversation should be clearly delineated between the two.

  21. To the idea that you should just leave the product to its own devices and not seek to make a wine that you prefer to consume, let me give this example: If I could play piano without having to actually hit the keyboard I couldn’t be blamed for the bad music that comes out of the experience, but then, why would I want to play the piano in the first place?

  22. Mark,

    I use cultivated yeast because I know the pitfalls associated with ambient yeast, and as I’ve alluded to, I make wine to my tastes; I don’t want excessive v.a., incomplete fermentation; or any other unknown to enter the process because I refused to use a cultivated yeast. In fact, I often start fermentations with ambient yeast and then finish them, by adding selected yeast into the process a few days on, so that I get what I want from the wine, which is why we call the process winemaking.

    In any case, you advised Arthur in one of your posts that if he allows the wine to make itself “true to how the grapes were grown.” He could then, “Just add some SO2 at bottling and store in a cool dark place…”

    Wouldn’t adding the SO2 be “Just in case?”

    Like life, dogmatic ideology often suffers from inconsistencies. But that’s ok, too, because I have tasted some commercial wines that were produced as if no one should be in charge–that’s another reason behind my fear of that concept!

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