Saturday 21 April 2018

Q&A – Wine analysis with Custom Crush

Wine analyst and Sussex native Emma Rice (pictured) has gathered a vast collection of viniculture skills – including graduation from Plumpton College with a BSc in Viticulture & Oenology and an 18-month stint as an oenologist in the Napa Valley – which she is now offering winemakers as an analyst and custom crush winemaker.
She has also combined cellar work in Tasmania and a stint at Nyetimber and a role as editor of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book for three editions, helping with the mammoth task of updating the 5th edition of the World Atlas of Wine and editing various other books on wine and food whilst in the role of managing editor at Mitchell Beazley’s wine department.
She says: “I came back to the UK to set up Custom Crush because, from abroad, I could see the UK as one of the last frontiers in winemaking and a place where I could make a difference and be useful to a growing industry. It feels right that I have come home to Sussex where I grew up and began my training at Plumpton College.” put some questions to her on the importance of wine analysis and what she can offer the winemaker.

Q, What is involved in a “straightforward” juice analysis and how does the result help the grower to decide when to pick the grapes?

A. A basic juice panel consists of pH, brix and titratable acidity (TA) and can help a grower monitor the rise in sugar and the fall in acidity in the weeks running up to harvest. If, for example, a juice is destined for sparkling base wine, the grower will want to ensure the TA does not drop below the desired level and that the sugar will not rise beyond a viable potential alcohol. It is rare in the UK to have over-ripeness, but if you are making sparkling wine from early ripening varieties you might wish to pick earlier than normal. Obviously this analysis must be considered alongside the vintage conditions, weather forecast and availability of pickers.
The pH of a juice is also key as it does not always rise in direct correlation with the fall in acidity and can have serious implications for the viability of certain winemaking operations such as malolactic fermentation (MLF) and the use of SO2.
By monitoring these basic parameters the grower can see when ripening is slowing and/or levelling out. He or she can take a more informed decision when choosing the harvest date.

Q, What are the more complicated analyses that can aid a winemaker in making winemaking decisions? What sort of levels of service do you provide?

A. At juice stage, I would recommend checking the Yeast Available Nitrogen (YAN). This enables you to fine-tune your nutrient additions before and during ferment, saving you unnecessary work and money if additions are not required, and, conversely, preventing stuck and stinky ferments if they are.
In addition a quantitative malic acid/tartaric acid analysis can assist with MLF planning and also ensure you get any de-acidification done correctly. I’ve seen wines come in for pre-bottling analysis where all the tartaric acid has been stripped out leaving nothing but malic acid in the wine. This can have all sorts of negative implications for the final wine.
SO2 analysis, free and total, and taken in conjunction with pH, is another essential for any serious quality winemaker. Over-sulphuring is just as bad for a wine as is under-sulphuring and can have implications for the legality of the wine.
Residual sugar, volatile acidity, alcohol, turbidity, cold and heat stability are all more complicated tests than most wineries can undertake themselves, but should be considered essential parameters for monitoring and measuring. Dissolved oxygen at bottling for still wines is a simple test, yet with an expensive machine, that can make all the difference to the life of the wine once bottled. Likewise, dissolved carbon dioxide in a bottled wine is something I’ve come across in English wines – easily tested for and easy to rectify, but often ignored.

Q. Developments in technology have now allowed most basic equipment to be portable while retaining accuracy. This means many tests can be done on site for the fastest results. Why would anyone want to pay for a costlier or slower lab analysis?

A. It is certainly true that there are many tests a winery can do themselves and fairly easily. The biggest issue is maintenance of the equipment and the skill of the operator. A badly maintained or cheap and inaccurate pH meter, for example, will often lead you to make worse winemaking decisions than if you didn’t have one at all.
Also, some of the all-singing, all-dancing portable equipment promises far more than it can actually deliver. When setting up Custom Crush I did extensive research on all the available equipment and found some to be worse than useless, particularly when taking into account the wide range of varieties and blends we use in the UK. I would recommend any winery using their own lab equipment to send off samples periodically to a lab to check their own accuracy.

Q. More complicated analysis may require samples to be taken or sent to your laboratory. These would be turned around in the fastest time possible. What is a typical duration of a test? What would be a ballpark cost for a test?

A. At Custom Crush we aim to turn around samples the same day they are received where possible, usually within 48 hours. It depends on how many samples are sent (20 x SO2 tests will take longer than 1). A cold stability test at -4 C will take 72 hours minimum, and an alcohol test by distillation can take as little as 30 mins or as much as 2 hours – depending on the sample. Some tests can be run simultaneously; others have to be run consecutively.
Costs for tests vary from £10 to £50 per sample, per test. There are often discounts for multiple samples being tested for the same parameters. Again, this depends on what test is requested.

Q. How many staff do you have at Custom Crush UK?

A. Full-time, just me. I also now employ a part-time oenologist as the business has picked up in the last year – Andrew Gaman, who is an experienced winemaker from Western Australia. At harvest I will also take on an additional full-time laboratory assistant.

Q. Where is the company based? What facilities do you have?

A. The laboratory is at Chilgrove Farm, nr Chichester in West Sussex. It consists of an office, laboratory and storage for yeasts and other winemaking supplies from the Institut Oenologique de Champagne (IOC) with whom I work in partnership.

Q. Would you visit vineyards anywhere in the UK or limited to particular regions?

A. I mainly work with vineyards and wineries in Sussex, Kent, Hampshire and Dorset. I do have clients in the West Country and East Anglia, though in the regions where wineries are spread thin the cost of visiting is much greater. It is often more cost-effective to send samples direct to the lab.

Q. I take a ‘custom crush’ to be winery services for growers. Is there any confusion that you are called Custom Crush UK yet are an analysis company?

A. The name Custom Crush comes from the California industry where I gained much of my experience, and does indeed mean contract winemaking. The analysis side of the business would not pay the bills as a stand alone operation – the industry is still too small to sustain that, though the excellent workshops and masterclasses of the WineSkills programme have seen an increase in enquiries for my analysis service. I also offer winemaking consultancy (with contract winemaking at Hattingley Valley Winery, winery equipment sourcing and the contract services of the IOC such as bottling, in addition to the sale of bottles and the IOC’s other products.
There may well be some confusion as to exactly what I offer because of the name, but when I set up I wasn’t sure which side of the business would be the stronger. It is in fact quite evenly spread between the different elements. Anyone working for themselves in this industry needs to have a few strings to their bow.