BECAUSE GRAPES DON’T JUST TURN INTO WINE BY THEMSELVES. OR DO THEY?
Vineyard ownership is a double-edged sword. It can be a great way to ensure consistent supply and you can really get to know your fruit. However, there can be problems when you have too many grapes, fruit which is not the right variety, or the grapes you produce don’t deliver the style of wine you want to make. What do you do then? My solution is to select the right vineyards to suit Rusty Mutt. The Rusty Mutt style is about aromatics, elegance and drinkability. Therefore, fruit from cooler areas and certain geology better deliver the style I’m after.
Crushing the grapes and removing the stalks (from handpicked fruit) is the next stage. Grapes are harvested either by machine, which shake the grapes from the vine, or picked by hand, before being transported to the winery in 1-2 tonne bins. The next stage is to tip the grapes into the crusher which first de-stems the bunches (if they have been handpicked), then passes them through two soft-lobed counter-rotating rollers. This gently breaks the berries, but does not pulverise the skins or damage the seeds, creating a sloppy mix of juice, skins, pulp and seeds called ‘must’. The must is pumped into a fermenter; in our case this is a 2-5 tonne open topped plastic or stainless steel vessel. This ‘open’ style of fermenter is important to the Rusty Mutt style due to the availability of oxygen and ability to regulate heat and reduce alcohol.
Once in the fermenter, some small adjustments are made to the acidity of the must to bring the levels back into balance. To do this we use natural grape acid – more commonly known as Tartaric Acid. Next we add yeast, which is a single celled fungus (related to baker’s and brewer’s yeast, as well as mushrooms!) Yeast occurs naturally and will be found clinging to the grapes in the vineyard. However, we use a selected yeast strain which ensures the fermentation process will complete to dryness and won’t produce any rancid flavours or aromas. Essentially yeast eats sugar and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol as waste. Yeast also produce heat which needs to be managed during the process. During fermentation, bubbles of carbon dioxide stick to the grape skins and make them float, creating a ‘cap’. If we don’t keep the skins wet by pushing them back down (plunging the cap) they will go off, causing undesirable characters in the wine. There are many methods of ‘cap management’, but plunging the cap is gentle and an integral part of the Rusty Mutt style.
At the end of fermentation (when the yeast has eaten all the sugar) we press the must which separates the wine from the pulp and skins. The timing of pressing can affect the amount of colour and tannin extracted from the skins. Once the decision is made to press, as much wine as possible is pumped out through a screen, into a tank. The residual skins are shovelled into the press basket, which is basically an open cylinder with a slotted screen wall. Hydraulics are used to squash the skins down, allowing the remaining trapped wine to run through the slotted screen into a catchment tray. This wine is called ‘the pressings’ and is usually darker in colour and higher in tannin. The pressings are then combined with the wine pumped out earlier. Because of the exposed nature of the basket press, oxygen is picked up in the pressing process. This oxygen reacts with the extra tannin in the pressings causing the tannin chains to grow bigger. In turn, this makes the tannins softer, which is what improves the drinkability of younger Rusty Mutt wines.
As soon as we’ve finished pressing, the wine is transferred into oak barrels. Oak has a huge influence on the style of wine produced. It may add strong flavours such as smoke, spice, herbs, vanilla and mocha, or simply add texture and tannin depending on the type, age, size and treatment of the barrel. We generally use second-hand barrels which provide the desired maturation effect (through very slow oxygenation) without adding strong oak characters that can hide the fruit. For our Grenache we use larger barrels to further reduce the oak impact, whereas our best Shiraz gets smaller, younger barrels which can provide more depth and structure. Once the wine has been in barrel for a year, its flavour really begins to develop as the characteristics of each barrel makes its mark on the wine inside. This is where the fun begins! At this point we sample each barrel of wine and line them up in a clean, well-lit environment for evaluation. Individual barrels are chosen to go into a particular blend. I choose the Shiraz that best works with the Grenache and Mataro for the GSM. Sometimes a barrel of Grenache or Mataro may go into the Shiraz if it adds a desirable dimension to the blend.
Too many underestimate the importance of this step. It is critical to get it right. Once in the bottle, the wine has been captured, so I spend a good deal of time ensuring the wine looks its best. It must be groomed, tweaked and polished, as it will then be put under glass and on display – literally. I use the professional services of the most respected packaging company in McLaren Vale to ensure the bottling process itself is of the highest quality. There is an amazing array of quality parameters to be met, ranging from dissolved oxygen content to capsule torque. The process takes time to organise and get right, but in the end, it’s worth it. I can show my wine locally in McLaren Vale, or confidently send it around the world to the UK. There’s certainly no skimping on quality at any stage of production, and this is an important part of the Rusty Mutt style.
Enjoy! That’s what wine is all about. A wine can win all the gold medals and trophies in the world, but if you don’t enjoy drinking it, then its true purpose has not been fulfilled. One aspect of the Rusty Mutt style is drinkability. Quite simply this means lots of flavour with no sharp acidity or rough bitter tannins. Just smooth, tasty, gratifying wine that serves its purpose. Wine is best enjoyed with food where it can enhance both the flavour and texture of the food, as well as the atmosphere and conversation.