Thursday, September 13, 2012

Week 5: Tales from the 100hr work week

One thing is for sure, my professors were not joking when they insisted that harvest was tough work! I feel kind of like a doctor: always working and always on call. One may refer to me as a wine-doctor, if you will. Collecting grapes as patients- setting them up into tanks rather than medical beds, using a winery instead of a hospital, giving them nutrients, diagnosing them with analysis, keeping track of their sugar level, even writing prescriptions for what they need to make them better...

Last week we began harvest by picking certain blocks of Chardonnay. This week, we continued to pick Chardonnay, but also introduced Pinot Noir to the party. I felt a bit differently picking Pinot Noir, perhaps it is because of my distinct affection for red wine. I felt a certain obligation to inspect each cluster that passed over the sorting table, keeping a close eye for botrytis (rot), raisining grapes, and debris.

Cluster in later stages of botrytis
The process for Pinot Noir production differs from that of Chardonnay. In the case for a red wine grape such as Pinot, rather than crushing the grape, one must separate the grapes and their stems in what is referred to as a destemmer. The grapes fall into a 1-ton tank, and are guarded with dry ice (carbon dioxide) which helps prevent the juice from oxidizing and also keeps it cool. The grapes then remain in their tanks for six months to one year until the winemaker deems they should be transferred to barrel. For fermentation, we inoculate the juice with yeast nutrient and the selected yeasts. Right now we have 24 tanks of Pinot Noir (16 of which hold 1 ton and 8 which hold 2.5 tons). This is the most Pinot Noir Hanzell Vineyards has ever received, totalling at 35 tons.

There are five vineyards at Hanzell, and within those five vineyards, the rows are separated into blocks, or sections. They are separated because there are distinguishable differences in ripening tendencies, flavor profile, rootstock, or year they were planted. They differ drastically even from one row to the next. Each row is also picked separately and tanked separately. This is where the winemaker really shines, as he is able to show his personality when he creates the final blending of all of the blocks and vineyards.

In my last post I discussed the production of Chardonnay. To recap, Chardonnay is crushed, and then pressed with a bladder filled with air which pushes the grapes onto the sides of the machine, releasing it's juices and discarding the pumace (stems and skins). For red wine, we leave the grapes intact because they must go through maceration, or the period of time which grape juice spends in contact with its skins. The Pinot Noir goes through its fermentation in the tanks with its skins, and the Chardonnay is inoculated and moved to barrel, although some of the blocks stay in stainless steel. This depends on whether the grapes are going to Hanzell's main estate label (has longevity and meant for aging) or "Sebella," their second label, which features a wine that is more fruit forward and meant for younger drinking.

At this point, we have inoculated the Chardonnay that we have in tanks with yeasts and the process of fermentation has begun for them. During this period, I must take the Brix (level of sugar) several times a day on each tank. I also need to run tests on their pH levels and TA (titratable acidity). It is very common that the grapes release their natural tartaric acid during the crushing process, thus we need to run these analysis to determine the quantity of acid that needs to be added back into the juice. During fermentation, the level of sugars drop drastically and quickly. This is because throughout this process, the yeasts are consuming the sugars and creating ethanol, or alcohol, and carbon dioxide.

I have really had my work cut out for me with these Pinot Noir grapes. They require "punch downs," which refers to the use of a long, stainless steel paddle that pushes through the grapes to get them all equally mixed. Thus all of the juice is in equal contact with the skins and also the liquid has an equal climate since the stainless steel jackets surrounding each tank are what controls the temperature. This is not officially considered a punch down until the juice is inoculated with yeast. Depending on which point of fermentation we are at, this will need to be done numerous times a day. Simultaneously, it is a great work out for my arms.

We have just completed our second week of harvest, but we aren't done yet. We still have a few more blocks of Chardonnay that need to be picked, which will be completed within the next few days. But just because the grapes are in, does not mean the hard work stops... It has just begun! I have been working seven days a week, 15 hours a day. Being a wine-doctor is no joke (although it is tons of fun!). Everyday I learn something (many things, actually). As this experience progresses, so do the steps in winemaking. Wine is a living, breathing, talking thing (literally, you should hear the sounds it makes while fermenting).


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