Editor’s Note; this is part one of a two-part series on winemaking at Cougar Vineyards & Winery, a boutique winery on the DePortola Trail in Temecula Valley Wine Country.
On a cool September morning, while most people were at home snuggled in bed, Cougar Vineyard &Winery’s Winemaker Rick Buffington and his crew were wide-awake. The group stood drinking hot coffee as a team of workers efficiently made their way through the vineyard, harvesting the grapes that would soon become one of the winery’s signature wines, Falanghina.
This grape heralds from the Campania region north of Naples, Italy – above the toe of Italy’s boot and produces a well-balanced dry white, with crisp acidity and hints of melon on the palate, Buffington, who owns the winery with his wife Jennifer, said.
As the crew wordlessly made their way through the vines quickly harvesting the grapes with just a flick of their wrists, Buffington, along with his Assistant Winemaker Erick Erno discussed the harvest in sometimes hushed tones. They hoped for at least five bins of the Falanghina grapes that are currently only grown at Cougar, but feared it might be less due to the extremely hot temperatures that invaded the Inland Empire in July and August.
They got lucky though, and ended up far surpassing the hoped for five bins, nearly doubling the hoped-for harvest with eight.
“We were worried about those 118 degree days we had back in July,” said Buffington, who explained that intense heat can burn the leaves and dry the fruit out into raisins. Since fermentation involves the conversion of sugar to alcohol, grapes that are overly ripe and high in sugar can become wines that have an alcoholic burn or taste unbalanced and one-dimensionally sweet.
Once the grapes were harvested the real work began for the pair as they weighed and then began to press the grapes into juice that would eventually make the popular white wine.
While some wineries prefer to crush the grapes for juice, at Cougar Vineyards &Winery, pressing the grapes just makes sense to them.
“We got a really good yield out of doing the whole cluster pressing,” Buffington said. “That’s why I decided to do all the whites that way this year.”
Once the juice is completely recovered from the grapes using the press, it is then moved to a storage tank where it is cooled down and undesirable materials are allowed to settle for a few days. Once the pressed juice has settled it is moved from the original tank to another, taking the cleaner juice into the new tank and leaving the settlement in the bottom of the first tank before the next step in the wine making process, fermentation.
Adding the yeast doesn’t consist of just dumping it in to the tank, though. It’s a long, and quite frankly boring, process as the yeast is first activated, then wine is slowly added to the mix eventually bringing the temperature of the yeast mix down to within 20 degrees of the juice in the tank.
“The process here is about the same as anywhere else,” Buffington said. “We put the yeast in the filtered hot water to activate it then add juice and the yeast starts to get happy. What you try to do is cool the temperature of it down at least within 20 degrees of the wine so you don’t shock the yeast and kill it.”
Once the yeast is added, the wine sits in the tank for as many days necessary to make the clean and crisp tasting 2016 Estate Falanghina wine. The wine will sit in the tank about three weeks during the fermentation process.
“You have to chill it down, but you don’t want it to chill too fast,” Buffington said, adding that he checks the wine daily. “Once it gets going, it’s pretty steady.”
So now comes the hard part, the waiting. Once the Falanghina is ready, Cougar Vineyards & Winery will begin the bottling process and eventually sell the wine to their eager customers. But for now, there is still a small amount of Falanghina left at the winery, just a few cases, for those who are eager to give this white a taste.
But for the crew at Cougar, it’s not sit around and wait for the wine to finish, according to Buffington, all the grapes are now ready to harvest so the pace will remain steady at the winery as they continue to harvest grapes and make their wines.
“We are about to be really busy,” Buffington said.
Cougar Vineyard & Winery is located at 39870 DePortola Road in the Temecula Valley Wine Country. The tasting room is open Mondays through Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. or by appointment. To learn more about the Italian varietals produced at Cougar, call (951) 491-0825 or visit www.cougarvineyards.com.