Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Moldovan Winemaking: Part III

So Part III is the last, I decided to make them all slightly longer instead of posting four parts... Click here for Part I, and here for Part II if you missed them!
For more photos and videos of winemaking (and other moments in Moldova), visit!
Step 3: Making must – fermentation (fierbând: literally, boiling)
Since Mihai lives in Chişinău during the week, Elena asked me to come by twice a day to check on the grapes, now fermenting in the barrels amidst their own juice. She said (or rather, this is what I managed to pick out of what she said) that the fermentation ‘boiling’ of the grapes would make their volume expand and therefore I’d need to come by and push it back down with a pronged stick. I wasn’t completely sure what needed to happen and that confusion was compounded when I went by on Monday (day 2 of fermenting) and it appeared as if nothing had happened except for seemingly thousands of fruit flies and bees trying to make the sweetness of the grapes their home. But I persisted and the next day was rewarded when I removed the plastic sacs covering the grapes and juice to find they had indeed risen two or three inches.

Elena was home and she showed me exactly how to push down the mass of grapes, mixing them back down into the juice, producing red foam which she said people use as a yeast substitute. (How crazy is that? Don’t have yeast? Just use fermenting grape juice foam!) It turned out I had to put my entire weight into the pushing and for the next few days my upper abs hurt from the unusual work-out they got each time I visited the fermenting barrels. On days three (Tuesday), and five (Thursday), I was able to taste the must. Day three it was simply very sweet, thick, grape juice, but by Thursday it had a bit of bitterness to it which apparently signifies its ready for Step 4: pressing.
Step 4: Pressing the grapes (să apăse strugurile)
Thursday afternoon approached, bringing the whole reason we experienced any of this full circle back to Romanian tutoring. Ash and I showed up behind Elena’s house around 3pm to find Mihai had already come back from Chişinău with Elena’s brother, Constantin. They were about to partake in a snack of salami, tomatoes, brânză (homemade cheese), washed down with homemade ‘viskey’ as Mihai called it. ‘Viskey’ turned out to be a clear, homemade liquor which smelled like gasoline. Thankfully Elena rescued us from having to try some right away (though her resistance was strangely absent later…) because we had to have a ‘lesson.’  We sat down at the same table we’d been at the week before, forced into upright postures by the hard wooden bench sandwiched in between the table and the left over roofing material which served as a barrier between the patio area and the garden. Elena pulled out a Romanian textbook for grade five and we started in on the tutoring session, following wild tangents more than a few times but overall feeling as though we probably learned something.
After two hours, I noticed Mihai and Constantin moving around, clearly starting to work on the wine, so I jumped up and started seeing where I could be of use. They had already started siphoning the must from out of the bottom of the barrels down the stairs into the basement and into an empty barrel using a long garden hose. One of the three fermenting barrels had already had all the easy to get juice sucked downstairs, so Mihai started scooping armfuls of the crushed grape remains (stems, skins, and seeds) into a large bowl, which he then deposited into the cylindrical metal colander positioned on the press. I’m not sure how they had managed to move the press at all, as it was sturdily built out of thick I-beams welded to a thick metal plate at the base and supported by three stocky legs. Since the colander by itself probably weighed 50 to 60 pounds, I imagined the whole press was easily over 200.

 Ash and I helped Mihai to stuff the grape remains by hand into the colander and as he added bowlful after bowlful, juice slowly started to trickle out from under the colander into the rounded base and dripped out of the spout, falling into another large bowl. With the colander full and the first barrel empty, Constantin washed off the thick wooden pieces which were cut to just the right size to form a circle and fit inside the colander. Then, on top of that circular base, more layers of thick wood were place until finally we were just able to squeeze in a hydraulic car jack between the wood and the horizontal I-beam. The first few pumps of the jack and subsequent pressing of the grape remains inside the colander were immediately rewarded with a plethora of juice oozing out the thousands of holes, forming little rivulets of wine, each joining to others and quickly becoming streams becoming rivers of dark red currents which dammed up behind the spout, as if they were frustrated by the hold up on their way to the bowl below. Now Mihai sat in front of the spout, scooping out the wine with a large, liter-sized stainless steel cup and into an awaiting bucket. Whenever the flow from the spout slowed, Ash or I would pump the jack a few times, thereby smashing the remains a bit more, forcing the juice to leave the constraints of grape and come gushing out. When the bucket filled, I took it to the basement, where Constantin was supervising the siphoning, and would carefully dump it into the a funnel resting in the opening of the barrel.
And so we continued, each taking turns at every job in the process from pumping the jack to adding wood pieces to scooping wine to carrying buckets. Each batch of grape remains (three: one for each fermenting barrel) took between an hour and a half and two hours to be pressed completely. The last half an hour of each batch was a battle of patience for me as it seemed that the little juice left in the grapes was clinging to the remains for dear life and refused to let go except one drop at a time. When the last drops had finally fallen, Constantin and I would heave the colander (which was now packed down to half full but still weighing probably 150 to 200 pounds) to the back of the property and Mihai would use a 2x4 to pound out the packed grape remains onto the ground, where they would give back the nutrients still left in them to the soil.

During each batch, we talked, ate, and were only marginally successful (read: were able to talk them into only pouring a third as much for us as they did for themselves) in moderating our consumption of the viskey. It was so strong and burned so much going down we had to immediately chase it with a tomato slice or bite of bread and brânză. After the second batch (about 9 o’clock), Ash excused herself and returned to our house to prepare for the four classes plus health club which she had to teach the next day (in Romanian of course…). I decided to try and make it through to the end, mainly because I was concerned about Mihai trying to lift the pressed colander with Constantin. And indeed we drank our celebratory last mouthful of viskey after the final bucket had been dumped into the second barrel in the basement around 11pm. 
All told, we had pressed and siphoned about 380 liters of wine. (Given that the average bottle size in the US is .75 liters, that’s about 500 bottles of wine!!!).  What’s more, we experienced a taste of a human tradition which has remain largely unchanged (granted, hydraulic jacks and metal presses are relatively new, but you get the idea) for centuries, for millennia. I imagine the taste of homemade Moldovan wine tastes a lot like the stuff Jesus had at the last supper, I wonder if he made wine with his family every fall. The depth of the experience with them is uncaptureable (new word!) with words. We glimpsed the past, thoroughly enjoyed the process, and hopefully will be imbibing the results with them in the coming months.

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