The next time you pop the cork on a bottle of your favorite wine and pour some in a glass, pause for a moment of reflection before taking your first sniff and sip. What did it take to get that wine from the vineyards to your lips?
What is Viticulture
Identifying the Right Soil
Vineyard soil must retain heat and moisture. Darker soil is preferred since it tends to be warmer. Dirt infiltrated with stones and rocks is usually favored over clay or sandy soil because the stones have an inherent ability to retain heat as well.
Maintaining the Soil and Pests
Chemicals such as nitrogen and potassium play a major role in maintaining healthy soil. Where the vineyard is situated determines its grape yield and the natural diseases and pests common to the region, which must be eliminated and controlled.
Grape Life Cycle
Though each of these is essential, the most critical element in viticulture is the life cycle of the grapes, a key component in the production. Here's a summary of the fundamentals of grape cultivation and enology (the science of making wine):
After the vineyard is planted and harvested, pruning is required over the winter months, also known as the dormant season. The purpose of pruning is to position and prepare the vines for the upcoming growing season.
The Grapes' Color
Compact clustersof little flowers start popping up a month or so after bud break. Each has the potential to become a single grape berry. However, frost and wind are concerns during this period, particularly frost that can kill the tender young shoots. Some vintners install large fans to circulate the air and sprinkle the vines with a blanket of water that freezes and forms a veil of protective ice.
As the freshly pollinated flowers drop their petals, a tiny green globule emerges from the tip. As these grapes grow, they form their familiar cluster. Frost now becomes an antagonist, requiring a watchful eye on the weather. Once the frost departs, the fruit starts to ripen, with help from adequate sunshine, rainfall and dew.
At the approximate time, the shoot growth must be monitored to assure maximum ripening. Leaf removal, thinning and positioning are initiated to balance the sunlight, shade and air circulation.
Often referred to as "green harvesting," this involves the removal of unripe vines that have no value. Weeding can result in a smaller crop and less wine, but it is necessary to enforce a reputation for top quality.
Called veraison, this depends on grape variety and vineyard site. Regardless of color, heat promotes ripeness, while coolness helps sustain a grape's acidity.
Harvest and Vinification
Now it's showtime when all the work, hours and capital invested hopefully pay off with a bountiful yield. The grapes are tested and tasted for sugar, maturity and other elements that convert to the texture and flavor of the wine. Depending on location, harvesting usually gets underway in early August and continues through September, October, November and, for dessert wine, into December.
Picking grapes by hand is tedious, labor-intensive and time-consuming. The use of machinery is faster, but it can get costly. Mechanized equipment is not compatible if the rows of vines are too narrow or the hillside terrain is too steep. Hand picking also provides a more detailed process for selecting and plucking only the best grapes of the yield.
The process of crushing has been modernized with computerized technology. Stainless steel machines await the arrival of the freshly picked grapes to remove the stems and allow only quality ones to get through.
They are then gently crushed and transferred to a vessel to ferment them with the skins intact. Next, they are pressed to release the juice and put in fermentation containers minus the stems.
Fermentation is the age-old procedure of yeast converting the sugary rich juice into wine. Among whites, Chardonnay is fermented in barrels to create creamy notes. Sauvignon Blanc and other light whites are fermented in cool temperatures to preserve the fruity aroma and crisp acidity. Pinot Noir keeps the skin on a few days longer in a cold soak to add more red color. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petite Verdot spend more time in their skins to soften the tannins and deepen the color.
Agingimplies varied techniques to allow flavors to get stronger over months or years. Stainless steel, French or American oak, concrete and used wooden containers are selected to affect the flavor. For reds, oak aging for 18-20 months is common.
Deciding when to bottle the finished wine, winemakers rely on vintageand character. A light white like Riesling is allowed to stabilize for a few months. In contrast, barrel-fermented Chardonnay is bottled after a year of fermentation. Bottles are most often black or dark green glass that filters the spoilage tendency of bright light.
While savoring your wine, why not propose a toast to the men and women who made this vine-to-wine experience possible. They deserve a hearty "Cheers!"