After the sticky, 16-hour days that characterize the wine harvest, most winemakers are eager for the calm of winter in the cellar. However in spite of regularly losing up to half of their staff as the remaining burden recedes, winter calm doesn’t mean a conclusion to basic tasks.
These sticky harvest days kick-off of the wine procedure: a huge number of pounds of grapes and uproarious machinery kick alcoholic fermentation off, truly transforming grapes into wine. When essential fermentation is finished, the racket of fancy machinery vanishes and the complexities of cellar work and winemaking start.
If great grapes are the first ingredient in great wine, most winemakers would agree that attention to detail is the second, and detail-oriented assignments dominate the slow winter season for winemakers and cellar hands. During this time, tiny synthetic changes are tediously monitored, and more seasoned wines gently kept up to age delightfully instead of withering to vinegar before landing on a table near you.
A critical, oft-overlooked task post-fermentation and pre-bottling are “besting up.” Usually performed by a cellar rat scurrying up barrel stacks with a pitcher of wine, beating ensures that barrels stay totally full starting with one season then onto the next. Because oak is porous, small amounts of wine (referred to warmly as Angel’s Share) evaporate through the barrel staves and are supplanted by minuscule amounts of air. While this oxygen trade is responsible for one of a kind wine flavours like vanilla and tobacco, an excessive amount of air contact–say, because the barrel is left just 3/4 full–dissolves those tasty complexities, rapidly overwhelming fresh fruit tones of wine, and leaving drinkers with slim, astringent swill.
In the midst of the topping mania, which is a near-constant task in the cellar, winemakers utilize the calm of dormant vineyards to consummate the blends of both new and old wines to be bottled in the coming year.
Most wines aren’t 100% varietal specific, notwithstanding grape-touting labels. In the U.S., for instance, a California Cabernet Sauvignon can contain up to 25% non-Cabernet Sauvignon. In spite of the fact that it sounds deceiving, the standard gives winemakers significant flexibility in crafting the most refreshing wines by enabling them to consolidate varieties dependent on vintage varieties. For instance, underripe-tasting Cabernet Sauvignon could be cured by a small addition of ripe Merlot, or bold, fruity Zin. Wines are likewise blended to raise or lower alcohol content, which can valuably affect winery taxes or to make a marginally sweet wine drier, or a dry wine somewhat sweet.
Through hours of mixing, tasting, and calculating, winemakers fabricate a blend, and once it’s set up, bottling prep comes first in the cellar. First wines are “racked” or moved to start with one vessel then onto the next through tremendous hoses. Racking separates the unmistakable, splendid wine from the sediment that falls normally to the bottom of the barrel, like the sediment found in older or unfiltered wines. The racked wines are then blended in bulk and permitted to settle (up to 20,000 litres one after another) for a few weeks or even months.
As the wine settles before its final journey to bottle, and splendid green buds burst from dormant vines, the basement doldrums disappear and it has returned to busy–frequently to the delight of the scurrying basement hands prepared to switch from garnishing old wines to making new ones. Wash, rinse, repeat.