We keep a close eye at Grand Cata on the concept of extraction. Though most of this process happens during fermentation, we felt it needed its own Grape to Glass installment.
Why is extraction so important? Put simply, balance. We love wines with the proper balance between all of its core components. A wine that’s over-extracted, or one that’s under-extracted, will have holes and lumps that distract from the overall enjoyment of a wine. Basically, improperly extracted wines are distorted.
But what is extraction? If you’ve ever made stock before, you’ve already got your head wrapped most of the way around the concept. Just sub out the vegetables, herbs, bones and aromatics, and replace them with grape must, comprised mostly of the grape skins.
Skins have a ton of flavor and textural compounds in them. Pull too much of these compounds into the wine, and just like stock, the result is too intense and devoid of finesse. Too little, and what’s the point? And also like stock, the appropriateness of the result depends on the ingredients and the goal at the end.
For example, the prized pork stock that’s used in Ramen takes almost two days to make. There’s a lot of extraction going on. Yet, it’s still subtle in the right ways, extremely flavorful, and completely inappropriate for making another Japanese classic, Miso soup. The context matters.
In the wine world, compare Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. One has thin skins and delicate flavors, the other thick skins, and rich, complex flavors. If you over extract Pinot Noir, you end up with something that tastes like cough syrup. If you under extract Cab, the wine feels weak and uneasy, and you’ll miss out on key characteristics that fill out the experience. However, with both grapes, you can easily go too far the other way. Over-extracted Cabernet will take decades to calm down in the bottle enough to drink, and even then it may never even out. And Pinot Noir that’s not extracted enough has little character.
So what are some of the ways that a winemaker controls extraction? They start in the vineyard, by assessing things like sun exposure, timing of harvest (recall the first Grape to Glass piece on the importance of grape-picking), soil type, and the age of the vines. In the winery, some classic techniques include punching down the must using a pole to make sure more of the skins come into contact with the juice, rack and return, and pumping over.
Rack and return means you let the must settle, then “rack” from below the must, and then pour the juice over the must. Pumping over is similar, except instead of transferring the bottom layer of juice into another vessel first (racking), a pump is used to take the juice from the bottom of the tank and spraying it over the top. In all three cases, the goal is to get more of the juice in contact with the must.
If you want less extraction, removing some of the must is one option. You can also remove it all together once you get the extraction you want. Finally, shortening up or elongating the fermentation will either lead to more extraction (longer), or less (shorter). You can do this though temperature control, choice of yeast, or both.
So next time your looking at a crystal clear Sauv Blanc (super low extraction), or a young Cabernet (high extraction), marvel at the dance between nature and humans that wine represents, and think about how different that wine could have been had the winemaker made different choices as it relates to extraction.