I’ve ruined another person. Forgive me.

We are constantly receiving requests from young graduates in oenology who would like to apprentice or intern here in the winery with us. I have always refused, with the excuse of my lack of time

In reality, however, there has always been a second reason as well.

I have nothing to teach, nothing to give in return for free labour. That is the honest truth.

A month in the cellar did not teach me not to use any fermentation starter or inoculate with yeasts, nor to use any other adjuvants, including SO2,nor to change any other chemical makeup of the must or wine.

Nor can one learn much about discarding inferior grapes, since the growing conditions in Romangia and in particular in Badde Nigolosu rarely produce defective clusters.  

It is hard to learn in just a month in the cellar not to use any amount of anything unless you have spent at least a year in the vineyard–if even a year is enough time, since the complex composition, and therefore the delicate biochemical balance of sugars, alcohols, acids, tannins, just to mention a few components, are not “born in the cellar,” but in the vineyard, thanks to the hand of man, to the vine, and to everything else that the Genius Loci deigns to give us.  

Actually, a standard internship could be misleading and counterproductive, since every winery is different—different even from itself—in every growing year.

But I wasn’t able to say No to Edoardo. The light in his eyes won me over, plus his “old-fashioned,” fine manners.

Reading over part of his internship report, I realized that I had never written down anywhere—except in a very concise way on the bottle label—how we in fact worked.

Thanks to Edoardo’s kind permission, I am sharing that report with you.

Alessandro  

Report by Edoardo Lemme

Edoardo

In autumn 2018, I started weighing the merit of wineries where I might gain some beginner experience. I chose this area of study solely because of my passion, not for money or to advance a family winery. In my opinion, to make wines, with passion and commitment, one must avoid compromises, and make them as they themselves want to be made. That led to selecting one producer: Tenute Dettori.

This small-but-great winery makes wines that are unique, exciting, and indescribably complex. They put into practice biodynamics, do their operations almost entirely by hand, use zero additives in the vineyard and in winemaking, and never make marketing-related compromises, with the result that their wines fully and solely express the terroir that yields them.

Learning to make wine through use of cultured yeasts, enzymes, SO2, and all the other additives—all of unfortunately wide use in the world of wine production—is a bit like learning to walk with crutches: if you find yourself suddenly without them, you can no longer stand on your feet. Conventional wisdom tells us that without starter yeasts and sulphiting, fermentations are difficult to start, and when they do start, there’s the risk of slowing down or stopping altogether.   

The truth is that fear of having to interpret and adapt oneself to each individual growing season, and having to therefore renounce stylistic consistency over various vintage years, increasingly forces producers towards standardisation and uniformity of this magical beverage. The result is depriving wine of what distinguishes it from all other alcoholic products: the expression of its terroir.   

My first impression when I saw the vineyards of Tenute Dettori—which I had earlier glimpsed only superficially—was one of excitement; I was amazed at the sheer beauty of those hillslopes embraced by alberelli– and cordon-trained vines that seem to stretch right to the Gulf of Asinara on the horizon.   

Badde Nigolosu – nord west.

But if the vineyard was breath-taking, no less so was the winecellar. Impeccable cleanliness everywhere, and just concrete vats of a gorgeous turquoise hue (true, there are some steel tanks, used mostly for assembling lots of the same wine), plus only two semi-automated machines, the de-stemmer and a membrane press. Since the cellar is built beneath the patio of the agriturism, over the fermentation and maceration vats are three chutes through which the de-stemmed grapes fall, by gravity, directly into the vats.  

The cellar.

My first real encounter with the vineyard was when we went down the vine-rows to sample grapes that would go into the various kinds of wine. The objective was to determine the Brix levels, which will give an approximation of the wine’s final alcohol content. We picked berries from different vines located in different areas of the vineyard; we then pressed them individually, and by examining the juice through a refractometer, we determined the degrees Brix. We found that ripening was at an advanced stage, a sign that harvest was close.   

One week after the sampling, we officially began the harvest, starting with the Monica and Pascale varieties.

Pascale grape.

The picking is done exclusively by hand, using shears, and the clusters are placed in small, 20kg crates, taking care not to over-load them and crush any of the berries.  

Retagliadu Nieddu (cannonau dettori).

The morning was spent picking the gorgeous, finally-ready clusters, while in the afternoon we sorted the crop, on a steel table on the agriturism patio, discarding leaves and any berries that showed mould. Alessandro and his father Paolo have always been the only ones to quality-sort the grapes, so to share that job, and the honour, was simply marvellous.     

Selection table.

The clusters are then de-stemmed and go directly into the 50-hl concrete vats for maceration. We then performed careful punch-downs in the must to encourage extraction and aeration, which helps to start the fermentation. This involves pressing down delicately with a long-handled steel plate to push aside the pomace cap, a procedure that is very tiring but certainly less disruptive than doing it mechanically. After completing the punch-downs, we simply waited for the magic to commence: the fermentation begins all of its own accord, without the use of cultured yeasts, enzymes, sulphur, or any other agent.      

“Su Laccu” (traditional vinification vat, in Sardinia). Retagliadu Nieddu grape (cannonau dettori).

This spontaneous fermentation lasts longer than one started with cultured yeasts. It also produces lower daily must temperatures and then almost total heat dissipation, so that this type of fermentation needs no temperature control. The lengthier duration is due to two factors. The first is the reduced yeast population (at least initially), since inoculation introduces a large amount of such microorganisms, and secondly the characteristic and heterogeneous nature of the species of native yeasts.     

The first fermentations begin to start just two day after the must goes into the vats! The first indications are the slightly alcoholic odours that the CO2 wafts upwards; the solid appearance of the surface of the must, the pomace cap that floats on the rising CO2; and the foam that form whenever the fermenting mass moves, which is composed of the yeasts themselves and CO2.       

I have to say that I didn’t think that the start of the fermentation process was so “simple” and rapid. But one quickly realises that behind this magic are two years of very hard, passion-driven work in the vineyard, as well as an almost symbiotic understanding between man and the vine.   

“Su Laccu”. Vermentino grape.

As the fermentation continued and quickened, we performed five-minute-long punchdowns instead of pumpovers This procedure serves to ensure a consistent character for the must and to keep it aerated, which in turn accelerates production of biomass by the yeasts and keeps the cap moist, thus preventing excessive formation of acids.     

Each day, we could easily see the fermentation progress. The production of CO2 increased markedly, as did the foam and the fragrances.  I was surprised, though, to see that the heat, after just a couple of days, stabilised to a constant level.

The hours we worked were from 7.00am to 4-4.30pm, and we usually went down into the cellar about 3-4 times a day and stayed there for varying periods of time, normally between 20 minutes and an hour.  

The pumpovers now lengthened from 5 to 10 minutes, except for the new grapes, which needed a few days of just light punchdowns. 

We finally arrived at the moment of tasting the various lots of the wines-in-progress. They seemed clean, with no off-odours, still very sweet, and … delicious! The ethanol was still not very perceptible, since the high sugar content masked it. Still, after just a couple of days, the chemical and sensory makeup changed significantly: the sugar dropped markedly, the alcohol was now clearly present, and the aromas continued to evolve. They now seemed to be complete, and very good wines.

After a period of maceration lasting 3 to 12 days, we started to draw off the new wines. The first was the Moscato, followed by Vermentino, Monica, Pascale, and finally the various Cannonaus. The process simultaneously involves pressing of the pomace. We first pumped up the wine from the bottom of the vat, which went to a concrete vat to complete its fermentation. That completed, we opened the maceration vat, whose bottom was covered by the pomace cap. Using steel shovels and hoes, we transferred the pomace to the membrane press to extract all the wine, which then was added to the vat containing the drawn-off wine. Finally, Alessandro personally went into the drained vat to remove the rest of the remaining pomace.      

When pressing the pomace, it is very important to taste the wine coming out, in order to understand how far to proceed with the pressing, since heavier pressing risks extracting coarser components and green, hard, rough tannins. The drawn-off wines will continue fermenting for 1-2 months, after which the gross lees, the residue of fermentation, must be racked off; the lees racking is also useful for aerating the wine. Spring will see the beginning—obviously spontaneous—of the malolactic fermentation.       

The final tastings displayed wines that were obviously almost completely finished and ready, with notable aromatic complexity and sensory balance. 

To sum up, this experience gave me a significantly enriching experience. I absorbed a wonderful production philosophy, along with a way of looking with a critical impartiality at the wine world and its markets, one that does not accept compromise. Rather, armed with a profound understanding of the dynamics of winemaking, one can make the wine one wants in the way one wants. To do this, one must have a deep understandng of this field, in all of its multiple aspects, and be able to regard criticism “from above,” listening to it, re-fashioning it, but NEVER retreating backwards.   

Edoardo Lemme. October 9,2019

Graduate student in “Food and Wine Technologies”, with a specialisation in “Viticulture and Oenology”

One thought on “I’ve ruined another person. Forgive me.”

  1. Fantastic, well done Edoardo a wonderful well written article on the process of making great wine, and What a blessing that you learned from one of the best Alessandro Dettori and his father Paolo, I love these wines.!! Vincent Mosso (Wine Director) Gemma Restaurant Bowery Hotel New York City

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *