Since I wrote about the beginning of harvest, some of you have asked if the grapes are picked by hand or machine. The short answer is yes:
Harvest started early and with a bang, on August 1st, and then slowed down dramatically with unseasonably cool weather in the early part of the month. It’s probably a good thing – it will give the grapes more “hangtime,” which translates into richer, riper flavors.
How do you feel about mechanical harvesting?
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Question from Jess: You used the word extractive in a recent post. What do you mean?
Reply: Hi, Jess. Thanks for writing! And shame on me for using wine jargon without taking the time to explain it.
As you know, all of the color and most of the flavor, texture and tannin in red wine comes from the grape skins. The juice of most any dark grape is clear. So, depending upon how long the juice and skins are in contact you can make white, rose or red wine!
TRIVIA! This great versatility served our wine pioneers well. In the early days of California’s wine history there was only one variety, the Mission grape, available. From the 1500s until the 1800s every style of wine – white, red, brandy and a dessert wine known as Angelica – was made from this one, dark variety.
Anyhoo, when a red wine is described as extractive it means that it’s extremely dense, probably nearly black in color and extremely concentrated in flavor. Often these extractive reds are also accompanied by high alcohol (alcohol is a solvent) and, in recent years, some can seem almost syrupy.
Depending upon who you’re talking to, “extractive” as a descriptor may be interpreted as a compliment or a slam.
A little wildness in the cellar, eh? Very apropos as we’re well into the 2012 harvest, by now, and tanks and barrels are busily bubbling away as we speak.
In a recent post I managed to record a one-minute description of how wine is made – whew! In that post I mentioned that wine was probably discovered by accident because yeast is everywhere, just like bacteria. And, all you need to make wine is grape juice and yeast. Wild yeast strains come in with the grapes and often take up residence in the winery.
The vast majority of wine is made by inoculating the juice or must (crushed grapes) with cultured wine yeast. It’s the best way to make sure the job gets done and, these days, also because the winemaker can select a specific yeast that brings out the black currant character in Cabernet or the floral nature of Muscat. They can select heat and cold tolerant strains, low-foam strains, yeast that tolerates high alcohol…
But in fine wine production, some winemakers choose to go native – they let nature take its course rather than adding wine yeast. It’s a calculated risk. Since the winemaker doesn’t know what kind of yeast is at work, or how much of it is present there’s a chance that he’ll have a “stuck fermentation” which means the yeast has petered out before the job is done, leaving him with a tank of sweet Cabernet – yum! Continue reading
The Cliff Notes version of how wine is made:
Have you ever tried to make wine at home?
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Question from Ericka: Someone told me that they make white wine out of red grapes. Is that true?
Reply: Hi, Ericka. Thanks for writing! Yup – it’s true. However, the vast majority of white wine is made from “white” (they look green or yellow-green when they’re ripe, like the grapes you get at the grocery) varieties.
Unfortunately, this is the wrong time of the year for me to show you that the juice of dark wine grapes is clear. All of the grapes are tiny and green right now. They’ll start changing color mid to late July. But, anyway, if you squeeze a dark grape you’ll see that the juice is just as clear as a tear drop almost every time (there’s a handful of dark grapes with red juice – they’re called teinturier
varieties – best known is Alicante Bouschet
The most famous example of white wine made from red grapes is sparkling wine. Of the three traditional grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, two are dark. The grapes are harvested at a low sugar, compared to grapes for table wine, so there’s little chance that the color will begin to bleed from the skins to the juice. Then, the grape clusters are pressed (squeezed) extremely gently, to separate liquid from solid. Et voilà – very pale white juice ready to be converted to wine! Blanc de Blancs is all Chardonnay. Blanc de Noirs and Rosé are Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.
Question from Roy: How is wine made?
Reply: Hi, Roy. Thanks for writing! Your question has a, potentially, very long answer but I assume you want the short story.
For anyone who is intimidated by wine, you should know that making it is so simple it was discovered by accident. Making good wine can be quite another matter but someone, yea long ago, thought he put aside a pot of grape juice. Then, after a few days he noticed it bubbling and foaming. If he was brave enough to taste it, he found that it had a very warm, pleasant relaxing effect. So, wine was born and, as you know, goes back thousands and thousands of years.
All you need to make wine is grape juice and yeast. The yeast is supplied, courtesy of Mother Nature. It’s like bacteria – it’s everywhere.
The yeast feeds on the sugar in the juice setting off a chemical reaction called fermentation. The yeast converts the sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide gas (thus the foaming) and heat. When the yeast runs out of sugar it dies or goes dormant and you have a dry (not sweet) wine. If the yeast peters out or dies early the wine will be sweet because there’s sugar left over. Continue reading