Saturday, April 28, 2007

Battling Bloody-minded Bureaucrats

Dealing with bureaucrats at any time is difficult. Dealing with public service bureaucrats is a nightmare.
Here is a typical example.
The highway that runs past our property is Route 1 that basically links the entire coastal region of Australia, a distance of over 14,500km.
Our section runs between Sydney with Melbourne, a trip of around a 1000km and is the second busiest route for that sector.
The road's condition however is abysmal.
It is in most cases a narrow winding two lane highway with sections of passing lanes of varying length at varying distances. It has also numerous old and narrow bridges.
Improvements are slow with the major Sydney to Melbourne route, the inland Hume Highway (Route 31) attracting the most funding with most of its length now a four lane freeway.
As a result many people are killed or injured on the Princes Highway and its northern continuation to Brisbane, the Pacific Highway.
The state government is slowly trying to improve the highway as funding becomes available.
One project set down is the replacement of the old bridge across the creek that runs through our property and the elimination of dangerous bends directly to its north.
A neighbour of ours and his young son were lucky not to be killed there when a truck shunted them at 100km/hr while they were waiting to cross oncoming traffic into their property on New Years Eve 2005.
The highway is bounded by private property on the western side and a National Park on the eastern.
The National Park was, up unto a few years ago, State Forest but was "gifted" to the people under certain conditions. One of those conditions was that a 20m corridor for future road improvements be maintained.
There is another 20m right of way on the private land.
Despite the fact that the route through the National Park will produce a straighter road, the government instrumentality concerned, the RTA, had decided to resume 2ha. of my neighbour's land (10% of his property) and build the new bridge and road there because it is a few meters shorter and therefore cheaper. But it will still have a bend.
They are using the old environmental impact excuse not to use the eastern option.
This is plainly a joke.
The National Park is home to the endangered swamp oak flood plain and a remnant is situated near the bridge. But there are 15000ha of swamp oak flood plain left in NSW. The area lost to the road would be at the most a few hundred square metres. Not only that, the land involved is currently home to a rest stop and picnic area and is severely degraded.
The community is up in arms about this and letters of protest have been flying, meetings have been held and the media is giving it great coverage.
The RTA and National Parks initially ran for cover and hoped the whole situation would go away.
But it didn't.
They then tried bullying tactics saying the law was on their side and they would do what they considered best. No discussion would be entered into.
This only made the protest louder and more aggressive.
The three levels of government came on board in support with members of the local council, the state seat member and the federal seat member demanding a sensible resolution to this situation.
The RTA and National Parks were finally flushed out of hiding and forced to hold a public meeting to explain their decision.
The local hall was overflowing with people from the community interested to hear their reasoning.
And what a group of stereotypical government workers these public servants were!
To think out tax money could go in wages to such incompetents!
They spoke a language of legalise, legislationise and environementalise and really were not of this world. They had no concept of how their decision impacted on the community. Theirs was a world of black and white, no grey and doing things "by the book".
This attitude only increased the resolve of those present at the meeting which at times became extremely heated.
The RTA and National Parks were left in no doubt that there was a need to revisit this decision and revise it.
They agreed to the former.
Whether we will have decision in our favour is still up in the air.
This fight is not over.....not by a long shot.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Better Safe than Sorry

One of the hazards associated with being in the wine industry is the potential for drink driving.
Apart from wine dinners and tastings there are always the impromptu tank and barrel samplings in the various wineries visited.
Normally we run a designated driver system for social events with the DD limited to 1-2 glasses and a ‘swirling and spitting’ system for the tastings to be able to keep under the legal 0.05g/100mL BAC limit.
In our part of the world it is very difficult miss the random breath testing (RBT) stations that the police set up as there is only one major road running through our area. This crosses a number of bridges which are the perfect places for RBT.
They are there on a regular basis at any time of the day or night and one would have to be pretty stupid to think they will be lucky enough to avoid them all the time.
A great number of people get caught in the morning after particular heavy nights despite the fact it has been many hours after the last drink. It is this situation that concerns us the most.
One solution to the problem would be to have your own breathalyser testing unit. In the past these have been quite expensive and unreliable.
Recently however, our state driving association, the NRMA, got together with a producer of breathalysers who also supply the police department and have released a hand held unit suitable for general use at a reasonable price and which complies with Australian standards.
We bought one.

It is simple to use and only needs to be sent back to the manufacturer every 6 months (or after 300 tests) for recalibration at a reasonable cost.
We have been running some tests at home after drinking our dinner wine and results have been (excuse the pun) a little sobering. It is obvious that reaching the legal limit of 0.05 without feeling at all impaired is quite easy. Half a bottle of 13.5% alcohol wine drunk over an hour will do it for me even with food. Obviously it would be less for a female.
It is also interesting to note that a test sooner than 10 minutes after the last drink can produce a false reading, BAC can rise for up to 2 hours after the last drink and it can take 10 hours or more for a high BAC reading to return to zero ie. the morning after problem!
It was also mentioned that the unit will not respond to a BAC greater than 0.30!!!!!!
As if!
While not relying on the results 100% it will be an added level of security to have this unit in the glove box of the car.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Vintage 2007

Refractometer readings of a vineyard sampling showed the Cabernet sauvignon to be at a sugar level of around 12° Baume. The older vine leaves were starting to turn red which is suspected to be a result of a phosphorus deficiency in the soil (low pH) rather than the onset of autumn. Also a few bunches were beginning to shrivel which was more evidence that the vines had run out of "puff". So it was time to pick.

Easter Monday seemed a good time to start so under sunny blue skies, after the morning dew had dried off, we started hand harvesting. It is always fun battling the spiders, bees and ants as well as other creepy crawlies that have taken up residence in the vineyard over the last six months. And all the time you are concentrating on not cutting one of your fingers off.

Buckets were soon filled without incident and transferred to the "winery" otherwise known at other times of the year as the garage.
Hence our unofficial wine appellation classification of Vin de Garage.

Crusher / Destemmer and Fermenter
Here we have all the necessary basic equipment to make wine. But there is none of the high technology and sophistication of a modern winery. Therefore we rely on quick processing, good equipment hygiene and a detailed technical knowledge of winemaking techniques to protect the product from possible spoilage during the vinification phase.

The bunches were tipped into the crusher/destemmer where they are run through rollers to gently break the berry skins. The berries are then "beaten" off the stalks by rotating paddles and the crushed destemmed grapes fall through a stainless steel screen into the open fermenter.
Must in Open Fermenter
The stalks are ejected through the end of the machine and are eventually returned to the vineyard as mulch. Too many stalks in the ferment produce off flavours in the finished wine.

Tests on the resultant juice by refractometer and hydrometer confirmed a Baume reading of 12.0° . This means the wine will have an alcohol content of around 12%.
pH or acidity activity was 3.7. Acid levels are important as this determines the taste balance of the wine as well as how well certain additives eg. sulphur do their job. Acid levels can be increased (and pH reduced) by the addition of tartaric acid which is one of the naturally occurring acids in grape juice. The other main one is malic acid. Warm climate grapes are usually low in acidity and we keep the pH of our red wine between 3.5 and 3.6 by acid addition. Red wines usually have lower acidity than whites.
Another important measurement of acidity is titratable acid (TA) measured in g/L tartaric acid and sometimes called, wrongly, total acid.

Essential Winemaking Tools:
pH meter, hydrometer, refractometer
In Europe, sugar can be added at specified levels to grape juice to increase the final level of alcohol of wine. This is necessary as climatic conditions do not always allow grapes to ripen enough and wines of low alcohol are thin and insipid.
In the New World eg. Australia and the USA, the addition of sugar is prohibited. However in Australia the addition of grape juice concentrate (made by freezing the juice and removing the water as ice) is allowed but our warm climate most years guarantees grapes ripening to the required level. It should be pointed out that not all varieties are allowed to ripen to the maximum possible sugar level. New thinking has developed the flavour ripe theory where some grapes are picked at a lower sugar content according to the wine style being made eg. Semillon in the Hunter Valley of NSW is picked at between 10.0° and 11.0° Baume to produce a typical Hunter style. The same grape in Western Australia is allowed to ripen to 13.0° + Baume producing a bigger fruitier wine with less varietal characteristics. Some viticulturists even look at seed ripeness to determine when grapes should be picked.

Yeast and LAB Cultures
Back in the winery, sulphur was added to protect the must (grape skins, seeds and juice) from oxidation and wild yeasts before a controlled fermentation begins. This is done by adding a calculated amount of potassium metabisulphite at very low ppm rates.
A calculated amount of a commercial dried wine yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is then rehydrated in warm water. There are many wine style specific strains of that species available and this year I am trying a Bordeaux strain. Wild yeasts are present in all vineyards and they too can ferment the wine. But wild yeast fermentation is fraught with danger eg. slow or stuck fermentation and off flavours. Some say wild fermentation gives a wine special character. Maybe one day I will be brave enough to try it.
A lactic acid bacteria (LAB) culture was also rehydrated. This is added to the wine to initiate malolactic fermentation (MLF) where the bacteria convert the rather harsh malic acid in the grapes to the softer lactic acid. This also stabilizes the finished product. MLF can occur at any time but usually after the wine is made and is in storage.
It is essential that MLF occurs before bottling as a by-product of the reaction is carbon dioxide. This can make the bottled wine ‘fizzy’ and a bit musty tasting and can even blow the corks out of the bottle.

Disassembled Crusher Destemmer
The yeast and the LAB were then added to the must. The yeast metabolises the sugar in the grape juice turning it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This takes some time to begin especially since the added sulphur initially inhibits the yeast.
But after a while the sulphur is "bound" to the red pigments in the grape skins and fermentation starts in earnest with increased temperature and obvious foaming. The crushed grapes release their juice as the alcohol level rises and the skins start to float to the surface. This layer is called the cap.
The carbon dioxide produced is now what protects the wine from oxidation. Another result of increased alcohol is the extraction of the red colour and tannins from the skins. Almost all grape juice whether from white or red grapes is clear with only the skins giving it colour. It is therefore necessary to keep pushing the cap down into the fermenting juice to extract as much colour and tannin as possible. This is done 4-6 times a day. Purple hands and arms result.
But there is nothing like the smell of fermenting wine up close.
Red wine is usually stored in oak barrels which, during controlled ageing, impart an oaky flavour to the wine. Wine barrels are very expensive, around $1000 for a hogshead (300L), so a cheaper way to get oak character is to add mini staves to the ferment. The two main types of oak are American and French. Like the barrels the staves are available in varying degrees of charring or toasting. This time I used medium toasted French oak in keeping with the Bordeaux style.

Oak Staves
After 7 days enough colour and tannins have been extracted from skins and it was time to drain the still fermenting wine off them.
Basket Press
We use the winepress for this, bucketing the must into the press basket and transferring the free running wine into a variable capacity stainless steel tank. The lids of these tanks float on the wine surface and seal by an inflatable tube.

Then the skins remaining in the basket are pressed slowly and thoroughly extracting more wine which has increasing levels of tannins and colour as the pressure increases. These pressings are also added to the tank along with the oak staves already removed from the ferment.
The skins that are left in the press (the marc) are almost dry and form a solid "cake" which is dumped back onto the vine rows as a fertiliser/mulch.

The wine is now left to finish fermentation and begin the settling process where solids begin to "fall out" and wine starts to clarify. We know when fermentation has finished when the Baume reading is below zero ie. no sugar is left.
The wine will then go through a number of racking processes where the clarifying liquid is separated from the settled solid residue. There are a number of settling aids eg. bentonite, but I prefer to let things happen naturally, albeit much slower, as any additions tend to strip the flavour. During this time oxidation can be a real problem so we will keep the wine under a blanket of carbon dioxide in the sealed tank. Any addition of sulphur, the normal antioxidant, at this stage would inhibit MLF.
VC Stainless Steel Storage Tank
So that’s the story so far. More on the progress of our 2007 vintage later.
White wines are made a little differently but that will be a blog topic for next year’s vintage.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

A Busy Few Weeks

This month has been a month of interior decorating and property maintenance while waiting for the Cabernet sauvignon to ripen.
The former has involved a lot of painting, not with conventional paints, but a lime wash. This type of coating has a life of its own and the finish is very dependent on climatic conditions, particularly temperature and humidity, and the "brush load" during application. We weren’t happy with the result the first time which then meant resealing the walls and starting again!
But it was worth it in the end. The rooms look great.
We are reliant solely on rain on the farm for domestic water use. We used to have four 10,000L galvanised steel tanks that stored water from roof runoff. The water is then supplied to the house via a pressure pump from the main tank which is replenished, when levels become low, from the other three. However one had succumbed to old age and rusted out, another was completely destroyed in a hailstorm some years ago and the main tank was showing major corrosion problems. Under normal rain event conditions we could survive on 20,000L but the drought has caused us to self impose pretty severe water restrictions. It doesn’t appear that an improvement in rainfall which for the last five years has been running at 50% annual average will be forthcoming.
So we bit the bullet and decided to revamp the entire water supply infrastructure. This meant new guttering on all the buildings and three new tanks.
We decided to use high density polyethylene tanks this time to overcome any potential corrosion problems. These PE tanks are a one-piece design, made with a rotational moulding system to produce a strong, hygienic and long lasting rainwater tank. They are made with a centre pole for further strength and safety. Apart from being corrosion proof they have excellent impact resistance and come in an extensive range of colours.

We selected heritage green to fit in with the surrounds. Our 10,000L tanks were the smallest that Bushman produce in their rural range but it still took three of us to get them off the 20m long semi with trailer that delivered them and roll them into position. One of our neighbours is a plumber and he and a roofer mate took only a day and a half to replace all the guttering and downpipes and connect up the tanks. We put up with being completely "waterless" for that time reverting to a bucket delivery system and cold outdoor bucket showers. Lucky it is still relatively warm.

The poor condition of the main tank became evident after we pumped any useable water into one of the spare tanks and took an axe to it. Rusty fine mud, just like lava, covered the bottom in a thick layer. It made the tank so heavy we had to cut the wall and top off to move it. Unfortunately I had the job of getting rid of the ‘lava’.
Now all we need are some heavy downpours to fill the empty tanks. We could always get a tanker in but who wants chlorinated town water "contaminating" pure rainwater.
In the years I have been here I have slowly repaired or replaced all the fencing on the property by hand. Apart from one boundary fence with which I have an ongoing dispute with a neighbour about the type of replacement, I am nearly finished. I won’t go into details other than to say he has horses and I have cattle and he wants a much fancier fence than I am willing or legally bound to share payment for. A temporary electric fence is doing a great job so far. None of the animals. horses or cows, like a 5000V zap through the nose.

So it was great to get the last falling down paddock divider ripped out and replaced with a new four-strand barbed wire, wooden post and star picket fence.
It looks like we will be picking the grapes and making wine within a week and that will obviously be the topic of my next entry.