Leslie Bloudoff
 
October 2, 2021 | Harvest | Leslie Bloudoff

First harvest, now fermentation

For viticulturists [grape growers], the season is winding down, right? Well, sort of, because although, at least for some of us, our grapes are in, or almost harvested, there’s still work to be done in the vineyard once the crop is off, as the vines must be cared for in order to rest during the winter months. Good vineyard practice necessitates that post-harvest recovery is critical to ensure the vines’ health, as well as the continuation of high-yielding grapevines for the upcoming season(s).

But for the winemaker, the season is now underway at a frenzied pace. Once those beautiful grapes make their way to the winery, it’s all hands-on deck, and wineries in ‘n around Lodi become hubs of energy. This time of year is a delight for those of us who are enamored with the sights ‘n sounds of fall. There’s a delicious aroma that wafts on the breeze, whether you’re walking through a harvested vineyard, or have the privilege of strolling through a production facility. 

If you love red wine, then here are a few basics. The juice ferments with the grape skins, taking the red color, tannins, and flavors from it. That beautiful color that you’ll see in a glass of red wine comes from anthocyanins (red pigments) found in those sinfully dark grape skins. The must, which includes the pulp and the grape skins, begin to ferment, whereas small, sugar eating yeasts consume the grape sugars and make alcohol and carbon dioxide (C02). During the fermentation process, the juice gets stirred frequently to submerge the skins. 

Those beautiful skins are forced to the top by the C02, and form a cap, so winemakers use a wine cap punch down tool to break up the mass of skins and solids. They don’t want the cap to dry out, because then the juice wouldn’t have the needed skin to extract the necessary tannins and color. These floating caps are “punched down” to increase the skin-to-juice contact. Cellar workers often climb ladders and literally punch down and break up the purple cap multiple times a day. *It takes a fair amount of effort and can be physically demanding work.

Punch downs are usually reserved for high-end handcrafted red wines as they demand more time, effort and attention. Winemakers utilize this practice as it extracts the flavors more delicately and tend to produce complexity in the red wine. Once the fermentation process begins, it generally takes anywhere from 5 to 21 days to ferment most of the sugar into alcohol. This can be a critical time in the winemaking process, and the team pays close attention to the aromatic red grape skins.

Once this portion of the fermentation process [referred to as primary fermentation] is complete, the winemakers will drain the freely running wine from the tank. The remaining skins are pressed to extract the residual juice and wine. This pressed wine may be blended with the free run wine at the winemaker’s discretion. 

This wine may be settled into barrels, or tanks, in order to continue with a second “fermentation.” Malolactic fermentation is a bacterial process which converts the sharp-tasting malic acid into a creamier, sometimes chocolatey or vanilla lactic acid. Barrel fermentation imparts some of the oak aromas and tannins to the wine. Wooden barrels can affect the wine noticeably, while unlined concrete and clay tanks can have a softening effect on the wine by reducing the acidity.

As red wine rests, chemical reactions occur within the liquid itself. Red wines will often taste smoother and nuttier as they age. The time from harvest to drinking can vary from months to well over 20 years, dependent upon good structure with high levels of acid, tannin or sugar. Winemakers will tell you that this depends upon the quality of the grape and the target of the wine style, and all of this can vary based upon the approach used in production.

A winemaker may blend grape varieties together or even different barrels of the same grape varietal to make a finished wine. Blending takes skill and experience as each winemaker is challenged to use their sense of texture on the palate rather than just the nose. If this all sounds simple, it’s far from elementary. The process is complex and any number of factors in the field can disrupt or change the outcome of the wine. But as anyone can tell you, once you taste, smell and feel the one—that special creaminess, smooth texture on your tongue, and that heavenly aroma in your nose, there’s nothing like the vintage that you saw from vine to wine. It’s unforgettable. Here’s to the 2021 vintage!

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