Harvest is “go time” for winemakers. Once a pick decision is made, it’s off to the races as vintners harvest the grapes, then get them pressed, fermented, and safely tucked up into barrels or tanks.
Harvest gets all the attention, but the rest of the year—that’s when a winemaker can kick back and put up her boots, right?
Wrong. There’s plenty of drama and hard work to fill up the rest of the season. Exact timing depends on climate, hemisphere, and personal preferences, but here’s how a typical winemaker’s year unfolds.
Left to their own devices, grapevines produce lots of long, spindly shoots that suck up energy and dissipate vine vigor. So once vines go dormant, they’re carefully pruned to produce optimal growth for the next year. Smart pruning is critical for a good harvest; you want to ensure the vine produces enough shoots to yield a good crop, but not so many that it becomes overwhelmed and produces too many, which dilutes the fruit. Pruning also lets the grower modulate shoot spacing, balancing sunlight exposure and air circulation.
Two common types of pruning include spur or cordon pruning—in which all dormant canes are cut down to spurs with two or three dormant buds—and cane pruning—in which two healthy existing canes are preserved and carefully tied to the trellis wire to ensure growing shoots will be evenly spaced.
Meanwhile in the winter cellar, the wine thief is in action. The thief is a large glass or plastic pipette used to extract small amounts of wine from barrels. This lets the winemaker evaluate what’s happening to the wine during its aging process, identify promising barrels, check the status of reserve wines, and note any barrels that need intervention.
Blending may also happen now, a process by which the winemaker selects finished wine and determines which barrels are to be mixed together to make varietal wines and blends, plus which lots will get to go into the house’s top cuvée.
Barrels may also be racked, a process in which the aging wine is temporarily removed while sediment is cleaned from the bottom of the barrel. Barrels may also be topped up, so that any wine lost to evaporation—called the angel’s share—is replaced.
When the ground warms up, the vines spring back to life. The first sign of the renewal is a sappy weeping or bleeding, when vine roots push water and nutrients into the canes and the sap begins to ooze from the tips of the fresh wood.
Budbreak isn’t far behind, as tiny dormant buds begin to swell and break through the layers of scales that have protected them through the cold months. Soon after that, shoots will begin to grow. Winemakers take special notice of the date on which budbreak occurs because this is an indicator of the timing of the growing season—although that can readily change in warm or cool vintages.
The next marker in seasonal growth is flowering, when the new growth develop clusters of tiny flowers, each with the potential to become a single grape (also known as a berry). Once the flowers are pollinated, their tiny petals drop, signaling fruit set as the grapes start to develop.
But danger lurks…
Spring can be a beautiful time in wine country, especially in vineyards planted with cover crops that wave cheerfully between the vines.
But spring is treacherous, too—a season when winemakers and viticulturists go to bed every night with one eye open. In colder growing regions, frost, cold rain, and even ice that strikes after budbreak will threaten tender new growth. If these events occur after flowering, the cluster might experience shatter—a mix of healthy berries and some that will never to turn into delicious plump grapes. Mitigation measures include wind machines that mix the colder air near the ground with warmer air higher up, and irrigation, in which vines are sprayed with water.
High-tech tools that download information straight into a winemaker or viticulturist’s smartphone have largely replaced the old sirens that would go off when temperatures drop, but spring is always a nail-biter in any wine growing region.
Summertime and the living is easy? Not quite. Warm weather brings veraison, a phase when grapes soften and take on color. This is a key signal of ripening and a harbinger that harvest is just weeks away. Canopy management is critical now, as vineyard workers carefully pull off leaves and make other adjustments to ensure the clusters experience the right amount of sunlight and air circulation. Proper trimming varies greatly according to the type of grape, the vineyard exposure and aspect, the micro- and meso-climate, and a host of other factors that make canopy management truly skilled labor. Some vintners may also choose now to thin their crop (known as dropping clusters) so that the remaining clusters will get more of the vine’s energy and produce berries with more concentrated flavor.
… and time for a little housekeeping
In the cellar, it’s also time to bottle wine from previous vintages. A light white wine may be bottled just a few months after fermentation, while a red may be aged in barrel for a year and a half or longer.
Just as individualized is the question of closure, whether that’s synthetic or natural corks or screw caps. Nomacorc’s closures have flexible outer skins and interiors engineered to specific permeability rates. Winemakers can choose less oxygen transmission for delicate whites that don’t want a lot of air, or more transmission for robust reds that need oxygen to develop complexity. Winemakers committed to sustainability in their vineyard and cellar can choose Nomacorc Select Bio, which combines high-tech engineering with a zero carbon footprint.
Of course, there’s also plenty of low-tech work in running a winery, too. After bottling, some lucky person—usually an intern—gets to wash the empty barrels.
A year of planning, coddling, nurturing, and worrying comes down to a few crazy weeks. Winegrowers monitor grape sugar levels, acid levels, and other indicators of ripeness to decide the optimum time to pick. In the Northern Hemisphere, that might be as early as August for sparkling wine grapes (which are harvested at lower sugar levels), or late October for reds that need longer hang time.
After the grapes are harvested, vinification begins. Red grapes are usually separated from their stems and sorted by hand or optical scanner to select the best berries. The grapes are then either gently crushed or pumped whole directly into a tank. Either way, the goal is to rupture the skins, release the juices, and start the process of fermentation.
White grapes are handled differently, generally going directly into a press that will gently squeeze the bunches and separate the juice from the skins right away. This helps to keep the wine clear and light-colored during fermentation.
Once fermentation begins, winemakers turn into nurses, keeping a 24/7 watch on the tanks. Inside, yeasts are turning the sugars in the juice into alcohol; sugar goes down, alcohol goes up, until there’s no more sugar left and the wine is considered dry. If that process ends prematurely, you’re stuck with a, well, stuck fermentation, which often needs intervention. Here, temperature plays a key role, and modern tanks are coated in a jacket that can be made colder or warmer to slow or speed the process.
Once fermentation is complete, the wine is moved into aging vessels, and some wine may be allowed to spend some time in contact with the dead yeast cells, known as lees. These can add texture and complexity to the wine.
A winemaker might also choose to let the wine enter a secondary malolactic fermentation, in which tart malic acid is converted to the mellower lactic acid, softening the wine. Most red wines go through this process, and some white wines do, too.
Once more, with feeling!
By mid-winter, the recently harvested grapes are on their way to becoming the new vintage. And that can mean only one thing: Time to start pruning for next year.