Tests, Trials and Tabulations

Lab work amid harvest is often tedious, thankless and behind the scenes. Yet, the tests and results that reveal the chemistry and microbiology of growing wines are quite important. It’s the seemingly invisible stuff of microscopes and vials from the onset, but a steady scientific approach almost always leads to problem-free wines down the line.

Gina Hennen knows this too well. Adelsheim Vineyard’s Associate Winemaker spends a good portion of every fall analyzing the inner-workings of fruit as it progresses from cluster to wine. And while the numbers indicate a lot, there’s a hands-on, sensory side to it all as well.

“Winemaking manages to scratch both sides of my brain — the logical and emotional,” Hennen says, a decade on working at one of the Willamette Valley’s most established labels. “Getting into this industry was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Hennen helped fabricate semiconductors before switching gears to enology. Her previous work provided plenty of fascination but Hennen longed for the spark of excitement that comes from rolling up your sleeves, grabbing a must plunger and getting your hands on some wine.

Testing is important, Hennen admits, but observations and experience are crucial too. “Two grape samples may give you nearly identical juice panel numbers,” she warns. “But if one comes from a vineyard that is defoliating or has significant damage then those numbers aren’t providing you with the most useful pieces of data.”

There is no single magic test, but instead more of a loose portrait of a wine’s chemistry. She offers glucose/fructose, VA, SO2 and pH as some of the baseline indicators. “I’m personally interested in learning more about some of the more esoteric tests certain labs have on offer, like berry water content as an indicator of when to saignee, so long as the numbers provide a tangible and actionable result.”

Hennen runs an increasing number of trials every harvest as well, which offer stepping stones for future vintages. Adelsheim tends to experiment with whole cluster versus destemmed fruit, wild versus native fermentations, rates of dry ice inclusion at destem and varying cold soak lengths. It’s the slow and steady hands of science at work, which unveil the best method after tried and true research.

Lately, Hennen says a particular focus has been on cap management, the layer of grape solids that forms at the top of a ferment over time. Two of the most common approaches include pump-overs — pumping the naturally pressed wine at the base of the ferment over the top of the cap, thereby circulating things — and punchdowns, the highly Instagram-able act of manually pushing the solids down into the must (and gaining a fair bit of muscle mass en route). The different styles can offer dramatic shifts in the resulting tannins, the byproduct of all those skins, stems and seeds.

Where there are trials, there are sometimes errors. Hennen says reduction had a stranglehold on one particular wine years back but reverse osmosis allowed the wine to achieve a state that was at least blend-able. It’s not perfect, but winemaking rarely is. “I’d still call it a win though,” she adds.

As for 2017, there’s deserved excitement. Hennen says the wines are fresh and naturally balanced, with a cooler fruit profile. “More raspberry, less plum,” she clarifies.

by Mark A. Stock | markastock.com
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon who spent a healthy stretch in the Dundee Hills making, selling and drinking wine. He’s written for Willamette Week, Oregon Wine Press, Travel Oregon, Sip Northwest, SevenFifty and more. Fly-fishing, Icelandic soccer and The Simpsons are among his favorite distractions.