Merche’s Diary – Day 6
After checking the laboratory results in the database, I went to check the temperature and humidity of Bodegas Montecillo’s huge manual bottle cellar. It was then that I realised that I should remind you of something very important: that my work as an oenologist doesn’t end when the wine reaches the bottling line.
Once our red wine has been fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in oak barrels, it should be aged and refined in bottle as the last stage of its journey to achieve maximum quality. Here in Montecillo we go above and beyond the demands of the D.O.Ca. Rioja’s current legislation, as our Crianza wines spend 18 months in barrel and 6 months in bottle before sale; the Reservas, 24 months in barrel and 16 months in bottle; and the Gran Reserva wines, 26 months in barrel and at least 40 months in bottle.
Why should a wine spend so long in bottle before being consumed? When the wine enters the bottle, its potential for oxidation-reduction is high (it contains the dissolved oxygen from the ageing in barrel and the bottling processes.) Bit by bit, this is reduced as it reacts with the components in the wine, and when it reaches a low level a series of chemical phenomena (reductive ageing) take place that are very different to those experienced earlier in the process, the aromas are harmonised and the tannins are refined as they combine even more with each other and with anthocyanins and polysaccharides (molecules that give a certain sweetness to the wine.) In some cases, these molecules get so large and heavy that they precipitate as they exceed the capacity for solubility and we can see the colour and tartrate sediments that accumulate in the bottles of our Gran Reserva wines that are laid down for so many years.
The bottle is not really a completely anaerobic environment, as the closure of the mouth of the bottle with the cork is not 100% hermetic (as it would be in screwcaps for example), and this means that it gives the benefits of a reductive medium without the possible unpleasant side effects in terms of aromas that a complete absence of oxygen can cause. The quality of the cork is very important! In Montecillo we use natural corks in our wines and make stringent checks before their use, as they are in contact with our wine and will form part of the final result of this bottle ageing.
But it is not enough to simply bottle and wait. I must make sure that a number of essential requirements are met. The bottles must remain in an almost horizontal position, so that the liquid remains in contact with the cork and is slightly damp. Contact with direct light should be avoided, as it can provoke undesired reactions and aromatic abnormalities. The bottle should be in the dark for as much time as possible, with the lights only switched on for checks to take place. The temperature should be stable and low, no higher than 18ºC, as chemical reactions occur more quickly above this temperature. To also avoid any impairment, sound is kept to a minimum to avoid vibrations that would interrupt the calm rest that gently harmonizes the alcohol, the tannin and the acid in every bottle.
To carry this out, Bodegas Montecillo has what is surely one of the largest manual bottle cellars in Rioja (and maybe even the world.) We place the bottles of Gran Reserva into it in order that they start their journey to maturity in the perfect conditions. The are positioned in such a way that each vintage is removed at the right moment, and its place is taken by the next vintage, which could rest there for at least three and a half years. Of course, we carry out extensive controls of the temperature, humidity and light that reach the bottles.
The Gran Reserva Selección Especial wines deserve a special mention as they can spend decades ageing in the bottle. For our Selección Especial we select the vintages that gave us exceptionally high quality grapes. These long aged wines have borne witness to incredible events, and I’m sure that the select few that get to enjoy them always have a very special story linked to the year of their harvest. As special as it is for me to be the guardian of their slumber.