Have you ever wondered how winemakers turn freshly picked grapes into wine?
“They say that once the grape is in the winery, wine making is 90 percent cleaning and 10 percent science and it’s absolutely right,” said Loren Gardner, owner of Abingdon Vineyards in Abingdon, Virginia. “It’s easy to convert sugars into alcohol, there’s natural wild yeast on everything, so you just leave a grape out, it’s going to get the yeast on it, it’s going to rot, the yeast will produce alcohol.”
Gardner went on to explain that the tricky part of it all is making sure the grape does not turn into the wrong kind of alcohol or vinegar. He explained that a grape will always be edible to a human being, whether it’s unripe, ripe on the vine, alcohol, or vinegar, which makes the wine making process easier.
That being said, it is still incredibly easy for grapes to produce vinegar instead of wine if it isn’t kept in a controlled environment.
The wine making process begins in the vineyards where the element of science is more present and various kinds of grapes are carefully grown to produce distinct flavors that separate one kind of grape from another.
“We start harvesting in August and we’re done at the end of October, sometimes the first week of November,” said Gardner. “During the winter they (the grapevines) go dormant, so we don’t really have to worry about them, all we have to do is prune them. That gives us time to put them back on the wires and start training them to do what we want them to do in the future.”
While the harvesting season only lasts for about three months, tending to the vineyard and specifically the grapevines is a year-round process. For example, it is important to trim the canes off of the grapevines for the development and flavor of the grapes.
“The cane is the opposite of what we want. We need seven to 11 leaves on a cane to produce enough sugar,” said Gardner. “If the vine had its way, it would just continue to produce the cane and not concentrate the sugar and produce the fruit, so we trim the canes five to seven times every season to force it to put the sugars in the grape.”
Keeping the grapevines safe is another year-round task for Gardner at his vineyard, given that the grapes and their vines have many threats. These threats can range from deer, birds, insects, and even the weather.
“Since grapevines are so vulnerable to pests and the weather, millennia worth of education has been accumulated on the right spray techniques, the right chemicals to spray on the vines to keep off the mildew, rot, and mold,” said Gardner. “Wasps and yellow jackets are really bad for grapevines because what they will do is either sting the berry and expose a hole or they’ll chew a hole through the skin of the berry so that they can suck the juice, because wasps and yellow jackets transition from eating meat during the summer, to sugar in the fall in preparation for winter.”
It is especially important for Gardner to tend to and keep his grapevines safe because it takes three to five years before newly planted grapevines can produce a reliable crop of grapes.
Once the grapes are harvested from the vineyard, Gardner takes them to his winery where they are first put into a cold room and an ozone machine is used.
“An ozone machine takes the atmosphere from around it and converts it to O³ (three oxygen molecules),” said Gardner. “It will not allow any biotic creature to exist in that environment, so we harvest the grapes, bring them into this room (cold room), drop the temperature down to 22-26 degrees and introduce it to ozone for three days.”
This process kills all organic lifeforms on the grapes whether it’s bugs, mold, mildew, rot, or bacteria. This ensures that the grapes are a clean product before it is turned into wine.
Once the grapes have been cleaned in the cold room, Gardner has the grapes put into a crusher and destemmer where they then go to a sorting table.
“The sorting table gives us another opportunity to sort through the grapes,” said Gardner, “It’s to eliminate the green berries, the leaves, the stems, all of that stuff that will give it a harsher more bitter flavor profile.”
The grapes are then put into a tank where the fermentation process begins and takes place for 2-5 weeks. Abingdon Vineyards uses 15 different kinds of yeast for the fermentation process. The yeast used for a particular batch of grapes depends on what kind of flavor profile Gardner wants for that batch.
Once the grapes are finished fermenting, they are then pressed. Gardner specifically uses an airbladder press for his grapes.
“The bladder will fill up with air and push the fruit against the screen which will extract the juice and leave the skins and the seeds and all the stuff we don’t want,” said Gardner, “Then, depending on whether it’s a red wine or a white wine we’ll do other things with it.”
This is where the process changes depending on the kind of wine you are making.
If Gardner is making a white wine, he’ll have the wine racked next. This is a process that separates the clean wine from the dead yeast. The white wine is then cold stabilized at 28 degrees with glycol for one and a half to two weeks. After the wine is cold stabilized, it is then bottled.
For red wine, Gardner ages the wine in French Oak barrels for various periods of
time before they are bottled.
“White Oak, which is grown all over the world has different varietals: French Oak, American Oak, Argentinian, Hungarian, it all has a different flavor profile,” said Gardner. “I use these barrels (French Oak) specifically because I enjoy that profile best and I think it works best for Virginia wines.”
Now that you have your white wine and red wine bottled, all that’s left is to enjoy it.