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Winemakers Getting a Handle on Flash
 

 

On a fittingly hot day in Davis, Calif. in late July — I think the temperature hit 104 degrees that afternoon — I attended a session on using heat in winemaking.

The subject of the day wasn’t just heat, but the more involved process that’s called flash détente in France. We’ve reported on the growth of flash in California and the United States (Here's a good article by Laurie Daniel), but what struck me at the event in Davis is that American winemakers are now beginning to use the process regularly rather than just as a means to fix a problem or remove a specific taint. The process involves heating grapes to 180 to 190 F and transferring them into a vacuum chamber. 

Globetrotting consulting winemaker Rick Jones gave a presentation on flash and later moderated a winemaker panel discussion. He said there are now six flash operators in California, located in Sonoma County, Lodi and Monterey County. One supplier also operates a small mobile unit that can treat one ton per hour. Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas, also operates a small unit. Jones expects the various companies will treat more than 100,000 tons of grapes this harvest. “The technique really is becoming part of the industry,” he said.

Jones said flash is perceived by most as a way to deal with problem grapes, but he said that’s not an entirely accurate or fair characterization. Flashed grapes can be co-fermented with traditionally processed fruit and the technique makes barrel-fermenting reds as easy as making barrel-fermented whites.

The process still appears to be the best way to deal with excessive pyrazines in red wines. Paul Clifton, winemaker for Hahn Family Wines in Monterey County, said he’s had to deal with “Monterey veggies” for years before finding consistent success with flash. Now, however, he said he also uses it to create blending lots.

Others noted the technique can be used to help produce sparkling wines with more color by enabling winemakers to be able to pick early for acidity yet remove any harsh green flavors.

Another use is to pick a portion of an aromatic white like Sauvignon Blanc very early, at around 17-18 Brix, and then flash out the unripe flavors. The flash juice is then fermented and finishes at around 10-12% ABV with a high level of natural acidity. That high-acid lot can be blended in to riper, fruiter Sauvignon Blanc to boost its natural acidity.

Rudy Zuidema, who owns and operates Flash Wine Technologies in the Sonoma Valley, said one of his Napa clients ran some grapes through flash that did not fully ripen and then took that flash juice and poured it over the cap in a tank that had already been drained. The flash juice then fermented on the once used skins. “It definitely brought back the vineyard character and the true terroir for a particular site,” he said.

Winemaker Barry Gnekow developed the Concrete Wine Co. wine brand with Tyson Rippey, vice president and general manager of The Vintners Group, which owns two flash operations in Lodi and the Carneros AVA. Gnekow has long been an advocate of the technology and said during the heavy harvest of 2013 when Lodi growers were dropping significant amounts of fruit at the request of winemakers, those grapes went in to bins and were trucked off to get flashed rather than left on the ground.

Gnekow also had Power Point horror show of photos from 2011 of almost every major grape variety just completely covered in mold and rot that were destined for the flash unit in Lodi. He said all of the grapes produced wines that either were blended in to other wine lots by the winery or sold on the bulk market.

The technique’s value as a remediation tool was exceptionally clear in a comparative tasting at the Davis session of wines with smoke taint.

This wasn’t just regular wildfire smoke taint, however, it came from a fire that blazed through a grove of Eucalyptus trees adjacent to a vineyard. Imagine a red wine with notes of burnt, Eucalyptus-flavored Band-Aids, a disaster of a wine that was completely undrinkable. The same wine after undergoing flash détente was a bit subdued and bland, but definitely something that could still find a buyer.

It was a particularly timely tasting because as I headed back to Napa on I-80 I could see the immense plume of smoke and flames of the Rocky fire in Solano County from the highway. With other recent fires in Lake County, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, the flash guys could be getting a few calls about smoke taint removal this year.

 

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