Now that the grapes have been picked, our tanned and exhausted vigneron may remove his boots and put his feet up until it is time to start the winter pruning. In a climate as cool as the one we are “blessed” with in Devon, this period of relative indolence lasts for about five weeks. Further south, where harvest is earlier, it might go on for as much as two and a half months – or longer if they have chosen to start pruning later, as tends to happen in vineyards that are blessed with staff. Given that your correspondent spends the entire month of November wandering around like a lost child, trying to work out what normal people do during the weekend, it’s probably as well that this is kept to a minimum so that he may keep himself out of too much trouble.
It is much the same story in the winery. Most of the really hard work happens concurrently with the harvest. The grapes appear from the fields and then the fun starts. Given that we have given up on still white and red wine production for the moment (more on this later), the crusher/de-stemmer – to the uninitiated, this is a large, and frankly terrifying, machine that smashes bunches of grapes into stemless, grapey porridge – is now, for the most part, surplus to requirements. The grapes are therefore loaded directly into the press – a rather less terrifying machine that squishes grapes gently, removing the juice only – in whole bunches.
While smashing grapes to bits sounds like an appalling indignity for something that you have spent the previous six months nurturing, it is absolutely essential if you wish to extract some colour (and certain flavour compounds) from your grapes. If one wishes to make soft, rosé wine, this porridge will sit around for a period of up to 2 days, where the juice will pick up some of the colour from the red skins. For reds, we will start the fermentation in the porridge, allowing the juice to pick up even more colour, but also tannin (body and pleasing bitterness) from the skins.
If one is attempting to produce quality sparkling white wine, using the crusher/de-stemmer is generally considered a bit of a wine making sin, as the rather industrial machine can also help to extract unwanted flavour, harshness and colour (in the case of red grapes used to make white fizz), so our top quality wine maker is obliged to shun it. This causes a bit of a space problem.
Remember when we discussed that looking after vines with almost no crop on is about as much effort as looking after vines with lots of crop (hurricanes smashing the trellising to bits excepted)? Well, it’s a bit like that with the harvest. If there are lots of grapes on all of the vines, you clip away with your snippers and the boxes are full just as quick as you say “Do we have enough of those boxes?”. In disappointing years – I’m looking at you, 2012 – there is a lot of walking around with a half empty box.
Given that last year was a really decent one, the grapes turned up, piled on the back of the knackered and complaining pickup, from the fields as our pickers removed record amounts of them in a relatively short time.
This isn’t a huge problem when the grapes are going straight into the – admittedly massively oversized for our purposes – crusher/de-stemmer, as it gobbles through them, merrily turning them into grape porridge by the tonne. If one is fortunate enough to be making red wine, that grape porridge is then pumped into a red wine tank and does fermenting and becomes wine. If one is unfortunate enough to be making white wine, that grape porridge has to be pressed immediately and that usually means a bottleneck. Well, it does in our winery anyway, as we can only manage to ram about a tonne of it into our press.
In practice, this means that everything grinds to a halt and everyone stands around looking for something to do, until some bright spark goes mining in the fridge for beer and the conversation improves as the work output goes off a cliff.
“But we are ignoring the preposterously enormous crusher/de-stemmer this year” I hear you cry, “what are the beer consuming ramifications when one doesn’t use it?”.
I’m afraid that the beer consuming ramifications are even worse. When one is obliged to shun the grape smasher, the grapes must go into the press looking very much like they did when they were removed from the vine, and that means that they take up quite a lot more space than grape porridge. Even with the most enthusiastic encouragement, our wine maker is hard pressed to ram half as many whole bunches or grapes into his press, so he is obliged to discuss buying a larger one with his increasingly inebriated volunteers. That said, the juice is appreciably more delicate and very much cleaner (although you do get a little less of it) so the effort is absolutely worth it.
Once this juice of tip top quality has been squished out of the grapes, it spends 24 hours sat in a cold tank, where any dirt and gunge that has made it through the tiny slits in the press collects at the bottom of the tank, before the clean juice is pumped off it and into another tank. It’s then time for a fermentation, where juice that is destined to become a bottle of sparkling wine is treated in pretty much the same way as wine that is destined to become still wine. Everything changes at bottling, and we are doing that soon, so you will no doubt know all about that presently.
I promised to discuss our decision to switch to an entirely fizz based model (for the moment at least), but I have probably already overstayed my welcome. Suffice to say that it’s pleasingly explosive and what the market appears to want. Oh, and one can only bear being asked “So, where is your fizz?” so many times.