Exposure

At the end of May, I could finally go back to my friend’s winery, where I am keeping the tanks and barrels of the 2019 wines I made. For almost three months, I had been confined to my home, leaving only for groceries every few days. Once, in April, I had risked a contravention and driven to the winery to check for major problems—a leaky tank seal or barrel, say. Now I was going back to taste each lot, worried about finding them reduced, or, on the contrary, oxidised.

After the first twenty or thirty minutes of moving around the cellar, something felt strangely familiar. I had walked in and changed into rubber boots and an apron, to keep my feet dry and jeans clean from spattered must—acidic stains that are virtually impossible to remove. I had unsealed the tank covers and lifted them off the wine, being careful not to let the dust that had accumulated on top fall into the tank. I had rinsed a bucket, pitcher and glass and opened a valve on the first tank, catching some wine, tasting it and spitting it outside on the gravel. I had noted my impressions in my booklet. Then I had rinsed the valve and moved to the next tank. I had tasted the wine in each barrel, too, removing the rubber plug, dipping the wine thief in (a long, glass pipette) and sluicing the wine into my glass. Before closing the barrel, I had wiped its mouth and rinsed and replaced the plug, sometimes after topping up with some tank wine so that the surface area of wine fully exposed to oxygen within the barrel remained at a minimum.

While doing all of this, I was acutely aware of the air—of how much of the wine was exposed to the air for how long. Barrels give wine oxygen—slowly and gently. Sealed tanks, on the other hand, shouldn’t permit any oxygen to reach the wine. When tasting, I was looking for even a slight note of oxidation—a hint of a sherry or madeira smell or taste that would suggest the young wines had evolved too fast, drunk—as it were—to much oxygen. At the same time, I was testing for reduction, looking for the odors associated with too little access to oxygen, or more precisely, too much exposure to the wine’s own dead or dying yeasts.

I was aware, also, of bacteria, with which the cellar and the wines are of course full, especially right after the harvest, when the musts are torrid and rich. By now, the wines had clarified significantly and the lab results had come back “clean” of bacteria, which simply meant their amounts were below the perception threshold. But they are there, living and breeding, and it was to be my job for the next few months to nurture the wines toward a stable equilibrium, one that would keep the bacteria levels low forever, keep the wine from turning to vinegar and yet still let its tannins slowly polymerize, its texture grow smoother, its complexity multiply.

Consciousness of the air as necessary but possibly dangerous, of bacteria on things or in liquids, is a version of heightened sensitivity that I usually feel only in the cellar. The other day, though, I realised that since the Coronavirus crisis, we have all begun to think about what we can’t see—in the air, on surfaces, in liquids. We question what before we had implicitly trusted.

I was full of trepidation going back to the cellar after so many weeks away. The wines tasted unfamiliar to me; they had continued their evolution, developing aromas and flavors and textures of nine-month old wines—no longer newborns. It took a few cellar visits and tastings to get to know them in their new state, to trust them again, to remind myself of their qualities and limits.

There was much talk during lockdown of the post-COVID world, of how different it would be, and of how it would be different. We would not go out to eat, people said, and kissed greetings were over. But now that Italy has mostly re-opened, things have gone pretty much back to the way they were. For the first few days, no one shook hands, restaurants were empty, meetings continued online. Now, more than a month into re-opening, we’ve gone back to hugging our friends, and the local pizza place is full. We trust one another again, or better or worse.

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Jem Macy

I am a winemaker and writer.

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