You can think of vintage/ harvest as the AFL Finals Series of the wine world; with teams at every winery around the world labouring with the utmost care to ensure the greatest expression of the year’s haul. Or, if you're like Team Schmooze, you could think of it as anything other than a sports analogy. The RuPaul's All Stars of the wine world.
Anyway, back to it.
In the Northern Hemisphere vintage normally takes place between August and October, while here in the Southern Hemisphere it's generally between February to April – this year’s (2021 vintage) is winding down as we write this. Timing is everything during these months. Winemakers and viticulturists carefully follow the weather and taste grapes daily throughout their plots, paying attention to acid, sugar, flavour concentration, and tannin. They then send grapes to the lab for further analysis. All this information is assembled to determine the most opportune moment to pick.
The grapes are harvested when the time is right, either by hand or machine. Depending on the intended end result, pickers select bunches or even individual grapes, provided the picker is experienced enough to determine ripeness and discard undesirables. Again, timing is everything! This is a quick yet careful process.
Upon arrival at the winery white grapes are pressed and the juice is then fermented (as they are not usually left on skins). Red grapes are either crushed, destemmed or left whole bunch (or a combination of these), and fermented on skins prior to pressing. Red grapes are left on skins for for colour and tannins or to undergo carbonic maceration; grapes are tightly sealed under a thick layer of carbon dioxide to prevent oxidation, then fermentation takes place from within each grape. The result is more fruit flavour and softer tannin. Carbonic maceration most commonly takes place when producing light to medium bodied red wines.
From here it's into the fermentation tank where either yeast is pitched or the naturally occurring yeasts are left to do their job of primary fermentation, then onto secondary fermentation where malolactic conversion generally takes place. Malolactic conversion is where bacteria converts the harsher malic acid to softer lactic acid. This step is undergone for most red wines, but it is probably identifiable for most as the buttery characteristic within some Chardonnays.
Once fermentation is complete a winemaker may clarify their wine in oak or steel (this is less common in Natural winemaking), Then, if appropriate, the wine is racked into barrels for ageing until it's time to blend and/or bottle.
This process doesn’t just happen once, but on a rolling basis as different grape varietals, vineyards and plots are ready to be picked on different days, all within just a few months. It follows that wineries, both small or large, need a few extra hands to get through all the meticulous work that vintage brings. In fact, it's a natural progression for individuals working in wine retail and hospitality to further their knowledge and understanding by going to work a vintage at a winery. They work from the crack of dawn and arrive home just in time to get some food in before it's time for bed, only to wake before the sun rises and return to the vines and tanks.
This is a moment of high energy in the wine world! Drinkers anxiously wait to see what the year’s vintage could bring, while vineyards and wineries vibrate with the vitality of individuals who make their wine the best it can be. Yes, wine is an expression of the year and the climate, but it is also an expression of all the hands that care for the vines and carry those grapes through to the bottle. ♦
Trusted resources for those who want to delve deeper:
- Viticole Podcast (US)
- Viticole Blog
- Wine Folly
- WINEANORAK (Wine Journal)
- WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust)