Fall greetings to you from all of us at FLV. In Autumn, we harvest fruit and make wine, and as our winery operation expands, we wanted to share with you some insight into how we make wine.
It’s All About the Sugar, Folks …
Alcohol is made from sugar. Yeast is a small animal, or “microorganism” that eats sugar. The byproducts created when yeast consumes sugar are alcohol and carbon dioxide. So, when we pitch yeast into a sugary sweet liquid (such as grape juice), they will devour the sugar and leave behind alcohol. The CO2 is usually vented off into the atmosphere (in the case of Champagne, for example, the CO2 is kept dissolved in solution and gives you the famous carbonation/bubbles/fizz).
Deciding when to harvest grapes is a BIG deal. We use a device called a “hand refractometer” to determine the amount of sugar present in the liquid grape juice, by pressing a grape berry between a glass viewing plate and reading the scale when held up to the sunlight. In our industry, the amount of sugar in solution is called the “degrees Brix”, and opinions on ripeness vary, but generally, we harvest grapes when the Brix level is between 24-26. The goal for the grower is to pick the crop when the sugars reach these levels, while the acidity stays strong enough (3.4-3.7 pH) to ensure the wine has both structure and backbone. I’ve attached a recent picture I took out at Block 1, showing Mourvédre clusters hanging on the vine (photo-247.JPG). Using a hand refractometer, I measured the Brix to be 24.7 – ready for picking, as the sugar is proper.
One of the great blessings of growing grapes in Arizona is that we have such long, relatively warm & sunny growing season. As a result, Arizona fruit ripens fully, and our wines achieve high levels of alcohol and great structure/flavor. The same is true of California wines, which also enjoy a long growing season and warm days during the growing season. In contrast, consider French wines from the Chablis region, which is France’s northernmost growing region, with a very short growing season and cool summers. Their wines are very light, low alcohol and contain higher acidity typically. While these characteristics are certainly appealing to a lot of people, Chablis wines are not typically known for high alcohol and bold structure, and the basis of that is the actual grapes themselves, which don’t enjoy the long, warm days and extended growing season that we are blessed with here in the American southwest.
Red Wine Making Process
To start the winemaking process, hand-harvested grapes are sorted to remove any rotten/unripe grapes and materials other than grapes (MOG), such as leaves, sticks, etc. from the mass. The grapes are then pitched/transferred manually (usually) into a crusher/destemmer machine, which removes the individual grape berries from the stem. I’ve attached a picture of Marc and Kent pitching sorted grapes (Graciano, in this case) into the crusher/destemmer out at Kent’s winery in Elgin, Arizona (see photo-248.JPG). Here, you can see Kent hefting a large fork, and Marc is pitching fruit using a bucket.
The crusher/destemmer removes the berries from the stem, and – depending on the settings of the machine, gently breaks the berry to release the juice. I’ve attached a picture of what fresh, unfermented Graciano grape juice looks like – see photo-254.JPG.This sweet liquid is extremely sugary. The berry/free flowing juice mixture is dumped into food-grade fermentation bins, and a mixture of yeast and water is pitched in to get the fermentation process going. We have just pitched yeast for our 2012 Graciano, and I’ve attached a picture of what fermentation looks like. See photo-253.JPG. As the yeast begins to devour the sugary liquid, the whole mass will bubble violently. During this process, we punch down the “cap”, which is the mass of grape skins that float to the top, as the wine sinks to the bottom. By punching down the cap, we ensure maximum contact of the grape skins with the wine, which ensures as much deep, rich red color is transferred from the skins to the wine.
As the wine ferments, the amount of sugar decreases (because the yeast is eating it, converting it to alcohol and carbon dioxide). When a wine is left to ferment until there is no sugar left (or very little), it is referred to as a “dry wine”. If more ‘residual sugar’ is left in solution, the wine tastes sweeter and can be labeled in a number of ways, such as “semi-dry”, “semi-sweet” or even “sweet”. So, the winemaker can monitor the progress of the fermentation by measuring how much sugar (%) is in the wine.
Following fermentation, the skins are discarded and the wine is transferred usually to either stainless steel vats or oak barrels, where is undergoes a slower secondary fermentation (called “malolactic” fermentation) and character aging. Our wines generally age for about 10-12 months in oak, where the wine mellows, achieves a deeper complexity and takes on the desired degree of oak aromas and flavor. Once aging is complete, we rack the wine and pump it off several times. At this point, we very carefully filter and clarify (a process called “fining”) the wine, then bottle it and deliver it to you. Throughout the entire process the must/juice/wines are very carefully monitored and controlled for temperature, oxygen exposure (e.g. oxygen mitigation and micro-oxygenation), spoilage organisms and treatments such as the additions of sulfur dioxide, tannins etc. Aging wines is routinely tested by a laboratory to assess its alcohol, acidity and tartaric acid levels. Red wine is generally sold 12-18 months after the grapes are harvested.
Vineyard Operations – What’s Up?
As winemaking continues at the winery, we continue to press forward with many different tasks out at our farms in the Kansas Settlement. Our biggest project right now is installing a vast network of foliage wires on our trellis. We’ve finished installing over 16,000 steel cross arms onto our grapestakes, and we have now set to work string wire. I’ve attached a picture, photo-246.JPG, which shows bundles of wire placed at the foot of the end posts in preparation for stringing up the foliage wires. Each row, for this year will run 4 strands of wires. These are an important component to the grape trellis, which will give the vertically-extending vine spurs some fixed structure to grab onto next season. By doing this, the bulk of the grapevine’s vigor is better supported in a vertical position, which gives us the flexibility we need to manage the sunlight exposure on the clusters. By doing this, we are able to better control the color & ripeness (consistency, that is) of the grapes. Additionally, by capturing the spurs vertically in foliage wires, we keep the vines out of the rows so we can get down them as necessary.
That’s a rap …
As always, I want to personally thank you for your continued interest in our vineyards and wines. Our goal is to bring our customers unique, ultra-premium handcrafted wines from Arizona fruit. To do this, we work tirelessly to develop our grapevines and hone our winemaking, always seeking to improve, and we want to bring the market a unique, personal experience with the wine. This blog is part of that, and we hope you enjoy the photographs, narratives and information.
Happy Halloween everyone 🙂