For most people September means summer is over and it’s time to get back into the swing of “real” life. The fall months are upon us, most students are back to school and the weather is changing. At Saddlerock Ranch, in Malibu, it means grape harvest is in full swing and its showtime!
It’s truly the culmination of all the tedious and labor-intensive work over the last year. The Sauvignon Blanc grapes are the first varietal to come in and shortly after, the Syrah grapes for sparkling. Deciding when to pick your grapes (harvest) is a lengthy process that can take up to two months to complete. One might think you just taste the grapes and if they’re to your liking, you pick. If only it were that easy!
First, you need to establish your winemaking profile. Do you want sweet wine? Red or white? A heavy oak influence? More mineral flavors? It is all up to the winemaker and what product they are trying to produce. The Semler Estate wines for example have a sandy loam soil that makes their vines vigorous and therefore their wines aromatic with crisp tannins, going for bold structure with an easy complexity. How will this translate into their vineyard picks? Easy peasy.
For whites, measure the brix (sugar content) and acid of the grapes starting in late July, early August. The sugar directly relates to alcohol. When a wine ferments, it converts that sugar into alcohol. You don’t want your sugar to be too high or low because it will in turn have an undesirable alcohol potential. Usual levels of sugar for white grape varietals is between 19 and 24, with the sugar increasing by 1 degree every week with ideal weather conditions. The common formula for alcohol potential is taking your brix level and multiplying that number by a range of 0.55-0.65. Depending on nutrient additions and the length of your fermentation, your alcohol will between 11%-14ish%. The acid is what’s going to give your wine a strong backbone and tannin. Wine needs this to support your sugar and alcohol.
Red fruit needs more time to ripen which is why it hangs longer on the vine. You want your sugar to be between 23-26 brix. But once again, that is determined by your winemaking profile.
For sparkling wines, which can be made from both white and red grapes, has a slightly different course. Grapes used to make sparkling are commonly harvested first. These grapes, in this case, the Semler Syrah, are going to be picked at a lower sugar level with a much higher acidity. The reasoning behind this has to do with the fermentation processes. In sparkling winemaking, the wine goes through several fermentations. The primary fermentation is when your yeasts convert that sugar I mentioned earlier into alcohol. After your base wine is made, sugar is then added to the wine (procedure called dosage) to balance out all the acid. Since there are so many stages of making a sparkling, it’s easy for your higher initial acid to get depleted, which is why you want a lot of it at the first harvest. Your brix level for sparkling grapes can start at 16 and range to 20 degrees.
So what the heck to do with all these grapes now that they’re off the vine? Well it’s time to crush them! I know you’re picturing sweet Lucille Ball awkwardly stomping grapes with her toes, unsure if that’s what she should be doing. Essentially, yes. Hygienically, no. In modern times and in North America, winemakers use a press. This press comes in all shapes and sizes, catering to your winemaking profile and your crush capacity (how many tons your permit allows you to crush).
A quick rundown on the crushing differences between reds and whites-
Whites will get raked into a bladder press; juice is collected and brought to tank. A wine gets its color from skins so white fruit and juice do not have a long contact time as it could result in a darker, brownish colored white wine. Over the course of time, the wine will sit in tank, start fermentation, get clarified, sit in barrel or stainless steel, get filtered and then bottled, lasting anywhere from 5 to 10 months.
Reds are more intricate. These grapes will be sorted, run through a de-stemmer, sit in tank for color extraction that could last for days to weeks, sometimes with a fermentation, and eventually pressed. This juice is brought to tank, gets racked (taking the yeast fermentation skeletons out), ages in barrel, gets filtered, ages in bottle, taking up to 2 years to come to fruition.
If you’re thinking winemakers must be crazy, you are 100% correct. Making wine is an intense and grueling industry that you have to be patient with. I know I’m personally in the industry because of how gratifying the end result is. It has made me appreciate my wines much more and reconsider buying the cheaper bottles. Now that you’ve been briefly educated, next time you’re in the grocery store and you see that jackpot $4/bottle price tag, maybe rethink your purchase. Head out to Malibu Wines and get your hands on a pricier bottle where you can literally taste the fruit of all our labors.
By: Lillie Manescala, Vineyard Production Coordinator