The cap (chapeau in French) is the layer of grape solids that forms on the surface during red wine fermentation.
Fermenting Mourvedre at A Donkey and Goat winery in CA.
I got to sample a grape and it was like eating pop rocks, because of the CO2 forming as a by-product of fermentation. The cap limits the oxygen available to the yeast, encouraging them to eat away at the grape sugar to form alcohol.
The cap must be broken up and mixed back in with the liquid below, however, in order to extract the phenolics, which add color, flavor and longevity to the wine. Phenolics can be found throughout the grape, but are particularly rich in the skins, seeds and stems (the solids!). On a smaller production scale, the winemaker will “punch down” the cap several times per day.
Jared showing off his stainless punch down tool.
The punch down tool breaking through the cap. Notice the bubbles. Jared told me the cap would support his weight and he's not a little guy (he volunteered that information, too).
On a larger production scale, the winery will “pump over” the cap.
A pump doing its thing at Miner Family in CA.
We recently had an illustration created to use in our classes to explain how pumping over works. Thanks, Laurel.
Flushing the liquid back over the cap to break it up, using a pump. My favorite part of this illustration is the female winemaker.
Most of the wine we drink is made from grapes from the Vitis Vinifera species. Vitis is the genus for many vine plants and vinifera comes from the Latin “to bear or carry wine”. This species started out in what is now Iran and made its way out of the Middle East and into the Mediterranean. From there, the Greeks spread the vines to North Africa and southern Italy. The Romans then brought them along as they began occupying the western part of Europe, as early as the 1st century B.C.
Simultaneously, North America had land under vine, but the vines were all non-vinifera species, with fun names like Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia and Vitis aestivalis (there are 15+ total). When phylloxera (insect/epidemic that kills grapevines) struck Europe, they didn’t want to plant our vines, but they were interested in our phylloxera-resistant rootstock. The solution was grafting the more desirable vinifera vines onto the hardier American species.
Grafted Riesling vine. Grafting is done by cutting a cane (stem of a mature grapevine) of the desired variety in a way that it will fit into a matching cut made in the selected rootstock (think of a puzzle piece).
Grafting took many years to perfect, but it was just the beginning of experiments done by botanists. By the late 1800s scientists were cross-pollinating different vine varieties and families. French-American hybrids were born of these experiments. The idea was to combine the winter-hardiness and phylloxera resistance of the American vines with the fruit and flavor of the French vines. We’re still developing these varietals, particularly at the Cornell Viticultural Research Station in Geneva, New York.
At one time hybrids accounted for several million acres of vineyards in France. This is no longer the case, though hybrids can still be found in the eastern U.S. and Canada, and South America. Interestingly, one hybrid has survived in France; Baco 22A. Sometimes called Baco Blanc, it is a crossing of Folle Blance (acidic, French white, ravaged by phylloxera) and Noah (hardy American hybrid developed in the 1860s in Illinois), and was created by François Baco in 1898. Until the late 1970s, Baco 22A was the primary ingredient in Armagnac.
Ugni Blanc now plays a bigger role than Baco22A, as French authorities try to rid their vineyards of hybrids.
White Burgundy is almost always associated with Chardonnay, and with good reason – those wines are some of the most sought-after and expensive in the world. Aligoté happens to be another white grape used to make dry white wines in Burgundy. One of its synonyms, Alligotay, should clue you in on how to pronounce it.
The first record of Aligoté was in the 18th century and it’s played second fiddle to Chardonnay ever since. DNA profiling has shown it to be part of the Pinot family. The wines tend to have notes of apple and lemon, like many Chardonnays, but will be higher in acid and often show some herbal qualities. Aligoté is meant to be consumed young.
Historically, the vines of Aligoté and Chardonnay were inter-planted and producers would often create field blends of the two, relying on the higher acid of the Aligoté to give the wine a little lift. Sadly, Aligoté is not as profitable and now the vines tend to be relegated to the highest and lowest vineyard sites (as opposed to the sweet spot in the middle of the slope), where the locals serve it with simple meals or mix it with blackcurrant liqueur to make a kir.
While found throughout Burgundy(even in Chablis), only the village of Bouzeron in the Côte Chalonnaise has its own appellation for Aligoté, called Bourgogne Aligoté-Bouzeron (you’ll see this on the label). Bouzeron has lower yield requirements for its Aligoté (45 hl/ha, which translates to 2.5 tons per acre vs. 60 hl/ha elsewhere) and many think the best examples come from here. Another label option is Bourgogne Aligoté (up to 15% Chardonnay can be blended in), indicating it came from outside Bouzeron, but somewhere within Burgundy. Outside of Alsace, this is one of the few instances where you’ll see the varietal indicated on the label.
Pierre Morey and Michel Lafarge are two outstanding producers to look for.
Burgundy’s sparkling wine, Crémant de Bourgogne, may also be comprised of Aligoté.
Eastern Europe shows more love to Aligoté. It can be found in Bulgaria, Romania and many of the ex-Soviet republics: Ukraine, Moldva, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. I will resist the urge to make any Borat jokes.