As the annual grape harvest begins to wind down here in the Finger Lakes (except for those grapes still hanging for late-harvest or ice wines/dessert wines) and many other Northern Hemisphere wine regions, it is a great time to talk about the different aspects of viticulture and winemaking. Oh! the magic of transforming grape juice to wine! I certainly don’t tout myself as being an expert in these areas and not a winemaker or viticulturist, but I’ve been around for different harvests at different wineries and each vintage is unique and different and has its own set of challenges. I have studied it, asked questions, and observed the process up close with the annoyance fruit flies at times and the occasional dizzy feeling from CO2. I have never stomped grapes with my feet the traditional way, but I have tasted the berries right off the vine, from the press, and some murky free run juice. Some taste very acidic, others quite sweet, pruny flavors, bitter, and neutral. It was neat to taste from late harvest Riesling grapes as well.
Grapes coming in from Lamoreaux Landing single Estate Vineyards
If you’ve had the opportunity to be at winery during the harvest season, it is quite a spectacle. The warmer and unseasonable days this Fall allowed some wineries to do tastings outside bringing guests closer to the action (if the production facility is onsite). The excited and intrigued guests snapping pictures of the grapes being harvested, brought in, dumped into the press, and pressed off. It gave us wine professionals a chance to share what was going on in front of them and behind the scenes. In some cases, I was able to give some berries to taste right off the press while they were sipping the current vintage. As Halloween approaches and the end of October looms, most grapes have been picked, except for late harvest and ice wines, which we hope will turn out well with the devastating rains we experienced late in the growing season. Thank goodness for fungicides and effective canopy management and vineyard practices. The growing season ended up being a little longer despite the delay of budbreak in the spring (lack of rain and cold temps) and the warmer summer months helped. Hopefully it is a successful vintage for all involved.
Muscat Ottonel grapes from Lamoreaux Landing Estate Vineyards
Did you know that the grape berries come in different sizes and pigmentation depending on the varietal, clone, or the climate in which they are grown? They are much smaller than table grapes we buy in the stores.
Did you know that grape berries are not all the same hue/color even though we call them red grapes and white grapes? There are many skin colors as with people, like yellow, green, pinkish/orangish, black, red, purple, etc… Have you noticed the different shades of red and white wines from vintage to vintage or the different shades of roses, which greatly depends on what grape varietal is used and the maceration time (time on skins)? What about skin fermentation for whites?
Were the berries harvested by hand or by machine? What are BRIX (sugar content in grapes at time of harvest needed for alcoholic fermentation? Then there’s skin fermentation, open vats, carbonic maceration, semi carbonic maceration, pumping over/punching down/rack and return. Is the fermenting vessel in oak, steel, cement, whole cluster fermentation, ambient or indigenous yeast for alcoholic fermentation, etc…?
What is the size of the oak barrel, how much toast in the barrel, age of barrel, French, Hungarian, or American oak, length of aging? What is the temperature of the vessel? Do you use a colorless and syrupy liquid (RCGM) for enrichment if the sugar levels of the grape are low to increase alcohol levels or acidification process if acid levels fall off. And what about the process of malolactic fermentation, lees stirring/aging, maturation, blending, CO2, clarification/stabilization. So much to consider…
Here is some terminology you may here on the wine trail or during your wine tasting, especially if the wine server is equipped with the info –
Brix – relative density scale for sucrose dissolved in grape juice used for determining the potential alcohol level of a wine. ABV is about 55-64% of the Brix number. For example, 23 BX will result in a dry wine with 12.6 – 14.7 ABV.
Carbonic Maceration – a winemaking method where uncrushed grapes are placed in a sealed vat and topped with CO2. Wines created without oxygen have low tannin and color with juicy fruit flavors and bold yeast aromas. Common for light reds.
Chaptalization – the addition of sugar to wine must before or during fermentation in order to increase the amount of sugar and raise alcohol level. It is legal and widely practiced in cooler, northern European regions, where cool vintages can lead to unripe grapes and cause thin wine lacking body. It is illegal in the USA, but legal in NY state. Used to increase body as well.
Clone – wine grapes are cloned for their beneficial traits much like other agricultural products. There are over 1,000 registered clones for Pinot Noir.
Lees – sediment from dead yeast cells left in wine after fermentation.
Malolactic Fermentation – MLF is technically a bacteria that converts one type of acid (malic acid) to another (lactic acid). It makes wine taste smoother, creamier, and more texture. Nearly all red wines and some whites, like Chard, go through malo. It also creates compound called diacetyl, which gives off buttery traits and can come from oak aging.
Minerality – a non-scientific term used to describe flavors that smell or taste like rocks, gravel, or organic matter (soil, earth). Minerality was thought to be presence of trace minerals in wine. Recent research suggests the majority of mineral-like aromas in wine are due to sulfur compounds from fermentation.
Phenols – a group of several hundred chemical compounds found in wine that affect the taste, color, and mouthfeel of wine. Tannin is an example and these compounds interact and change traits of wine over time in the bottle.
Pumping Over – juice is pumped from the bottom of container (vat) to the top and then sprayed over the cap (crusty layer) of skins to break it up and keep it wet. By this, juice picks up more color, flavor, and tannin. It also helps prevent growth of undesirable bacteria that creates off-flavor.
Punching Down – the opposite of pumping over. The top layer is pushed down with a paddle into the fermenting grape juice. Despite name, it’s a gentle process.
Racking – a method of clarifying a wine that has settled by pumping off solids, such as yeast cells, and grape skins, and pouring it into a different clean barrel. It also helps aerate the wine.
Residual Sugar (RS) – the sugar from grapes left over in a wine after fermentation stops. Some wines are fermented completely dry, and some are stopped before all the sugar is converted to alcohol to create a sweet wine. Scale is from 0 (bone dry)– 40 g/L ((sweetest).
Sulfites – or sulfur dioxide or SO2 is a preservative that is either added to wine or present on grapes before fermentation. Wines must label they contain more than 10 parts per million (ppm). They can range up to 350 ppm.
Sulfur Compounds – affect the aroma and taste of wine. In low levels they offer positive aroma traits, including mineral-like flavors, grapefruit, or tropical fruit. In higher levels, they are considered a wine fault when they smell of cooked eggs or cabbage.
Terroir – pronounced “tear-wah”. French word used to describe how a particular region’s climate, soils, aspect/terrain, weather, topography, and traditional winemaking practices affect the taste of wine.
FLX Estate Vineyards rows at Lamoreaux Landing
For more terms or if you have questions about viticultural methods and winemaking practices, please let me know.
WSET Level 3 Advanced Certification