I’ve often said that winemaking is 40% organization, 40% cleanliness, 40% farming, 5% skill and the rest per cent just dumb luck. Wait, how many percent is that? Well, you understand what I’m saying: organization and cleanliness are really important. As is the farming, especially the part of farming that tells you exactly when it’s the perfect moment to pick the grapes. For which you need to be organized and cleaned up in advance to take immediate advantage of that exact moment. Which leads up to me telling you that we really had our eyes off the ball — or the grape — this season. We’ve had the coldest, wettest spring and summer. Around Napa and Sonoma, they are saying the harvest will be two, three, maybe even four weeks late. Now a cool season can be completely overcome with a week of typical 100 degree plus weather which can cause a season to “catch up” faster than you can say Cabernet. But we haven’t exactly had that kind of summer heat. More like a few days here and there of temps in the 80s, after a foggy morning of rain.
So imagine our surprise when Versaison, that magical point when red wine grapes start to turn from green to red, happened suddenly while we weren’t looking. Versaison just signals the start of ripening and the harvest is still weeks, maybe months, away. But Veraison is the exact moment when you harvest some green-turning-red grapes for Verjus. If you’ve been coming to this blog for awhile, you’ll remember that Verjus from this post and this post. It’s the unfermented product of green wine grapes that serves as a more wine-friendly alternative to vinegar. Use it in salad dressing, poach fish in it, drizzle it on a roast just before carving to cut the fat with a hint of acidity. But whatever you do, you must use it liberally and quickly. Verjus, traditionally made from the grapes trimmed in vineyards to encourage ripening for the bulk of the crop, has a very short shelf-life, being unfermented and all.
That is, it’s unfermented unless it’s been made by Cousin John. You’ll remember Cousin John as our uber natural friend who is a champion of traditional food processing methods. Like the methods found in 15th Century Burgundian tapestries. Which is why it surprises me that Cousin John lets his Verjus ferment, as that is the antithesis of what this food product is supposed to be. However, Cousin John can’t really stop that fermentation, being morally opposed to the addition of sulfites — which I might add are very naturally derived and are allowed in organic products in small amounts. Sulfites simply arrest the action of yeasts that would cause fermentation — which you don’t want in Verjus. So whatever Cousin John is making, it may not qualify as Verjus.
But that’s okay. Besides our philosophical differences on the subject of sulfites, it’s always great to have Cousin John around. He’s a hard worker and keeps us even more on the straight and narrow organic, sustainable, traditional path than we might even walk on our own.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t there to help us on the planning stages, and, as I mentioned, the sudden turning of the grapes took us by surprise. So instead of a scrubbed, prepped, organized crush pad work area, we had sort of a White Trash backyard work area. All we needed were some old tires, half upholdered couches, plastic lawn chairs and a couple of hound dogs to complete the picture. But terriers were banned from our work area since hoses, water, pressure sprayers and other implements that drive terriers mad were to be used.
Well, there are two good things about the Verjus making, which usually serves as a dry run for our normal harvest system. Under pressure, we’ve had to get out all the equipment, check it and see where the weak links in the workflow are. And, since we missed the point when we should have picked, when a variety of our grapes would have been just turning, we had to pick only the one varietal that still had some green grapes. That would be the Cinsault, which has been a problematic grape for us. In the Rhone, it’s just a small additive in a total blend. A little goes a long way because it is very sweet. Our nickname for it is Chateau Bazooka. But as we started crushing and tasting the juice, we found that a sweeter grape, captured at its sharpest state of just barely starting to ripen, is actually pretty good. We may be on to something — single varietal Cinsault Verjus.
And it will stay that way for its short shelf life. The processing is done. All we’re doing now is resting the carboys of pressed Verjus in ice baths to cause the solids and sediment to drop down to the bottom. Then we’ll bottle it and start to enjoy it.
Wait, did I say it would continue to taste the same? Well, after a small sprinkling of sulfite, ours will. Cousin John’s will start to ferment and go through all sorts of strange processes until one will hardly recognize it as Verjus.
Oh, I kid Cousin John, but with love, as Bill Maher would say. And Cousin John pretends to be annoyed that I, in his words, “continue to present [him] on this blog as if he’s a character in a Sixties rural sit-com.” How do I know Cousin John isn’t really mad at that portrayal? Because while we crushed, he was working on a theme song for The Cousin John Show, which John says, if he had a time travel machine, he would slot right between Green Acres and Petticoat Junction.
[Cue sprightly upbeat sit-com music]
It’s Cousin John
Hold on, hold tight.
He makes Verjus without sulfite.
He doesn’t like technology
He makes wine like it’s 12 BC
[Cue the golden, dulcet, pear-shaped tones of a classic TV announcer]
It’s the Cousin John Show!
With Robert Downey Jr. as Cousin John
Diane Lane as Lisa Paul
Rufus Sewell as Andy.
And the terriers as themselves!
Hey, I’ve got it right in my “about” information at the top right of this blog: You know Green Acres? It’s like that.