You’ve navigated the state – now try the vineyard, the winery and the cellar! Making your way around the California wine world is much easier when you know the basics.
Spring in California wine country is full of the promise of pleasures to come. Grapevines have begun to wake from their long winter slumber. In early March, new buds burst open and push tiny green shoots into the mild spring sunlight, signaling budbreak. This is the exciting start of the annual grape growing season. During the day, vineyard crews perform skillful hand work, tying and training vines to the wire trellis systems stretched above the grapevine rows. They’ll tend these vines and shoots throughout the season to ensure that they receive sufficient sunlight and air.
Summer here is pleasantly warm and clear, with morning fog giving way to cloudless blue skies and boundless sunshine. By June, grape clusters have appeared on the vines, and the foliage of the leafy canopy reaches toward the sky, sprawling out in all directions. Abundant sunlight gives the grapes the warmth they need to ripen, while cool evening temperatures maintain the grapes’ natural acidity, for wines of ideal balance. "Veraison", when grapes begin to soften and take on color, usually occurs around the first of August. Wineries recognize veraison as the signal to begin preparing for the coming harvest season, about one month to six weeks away.
It’s harvest time! Grape clusters hang heavy on the vines, bursting with flavor. Winemakers check and re-check sugar levels in the juice, anticipating just the right balance that will signal the start of picking. Grapes are often harvested during the early morning hours, before the day heats up and causes sugar levels to rise in the fruit. Vineyard crews expertly remove the ripest clusters with one swift cut –often clearing an acre in under an hour. Back at the winery, grapes immediately go into the crusher-destemmer machine. As their skins break, the grapes release a rich aroma–the heady mixture of ripe fruit and fragrant wild yeast.
Winter means rest in wine country: the wines rest in tanks and barrels, and winemakers take a deep breath. Rains return to refresh and replenish the long, dry summer season, and the vines’ leaves display the fall colors of gold, orange and crimson. The air has turned chilly and cooler temperatures are the norm, with wet weather punctuated by blue skies and winter sun. From late November through much of February, the vines have lost their leaves and gone into dormancy. Winery cellars are quiet, and cellar crews focus on maintenance duties and bottling previous vintages. In the vineyards, workers prune last year’s growth from grapevines.
Harvest in California usually begins in late August to early September and may last through November, depending on the weather and the grapes.
After harvest, grapes are placed in a destemmer/crusher, which separates the stems from the fruit and breaks up the berries. The stems are then discarded leaving the “must,” a combination of juice, seeds, pulp and skins. Grape skins are what give red wine its color, flavor and “tannins” – the polyphenols that enable red wines to take on more complexity as they age. During white winemaking, skins and seeds spend only a few hours with the juice, known as “free-run.” The skins are then pressed to extract all the remaining juice, called “press juice.” The free-run and press juice are then filtered in preparation for fermentation.
Yeast is added to the juice to begin fermentation, the process by which the natural sugars convert to alcohol. Wines may be fermented or aged in oak or stainless steel barrels, or both. Sometimes a second fermentation, called “malolactic,” is initiated to convert the tart malic acid found in fruit to softer lactic acid. Fermentation lasts anywhere from three days to three weeks, depending on the wine.
Wines can be aged in stainless steel or oak barrels. It is common for red wines to be aged in oak barrels for one to two years. White wine is aged anywhere from one week to a year. Sparkling wines made in the method champenoise may be bottled and cellared for two years or more. After aging, the wine may be blended with other wines to add different characteristics or create the desired style.
Finally the wine undergoes finishing, a process by which the wine is stabilized and filtered before bottling. Egg whites or gelatin are added to remove astringent substances or proteins which can cloud the wine and give it off flavors. Sulfites may also be added to prevent oxidation and bacterial spoilage.
6. TIRAGE (ONLY FOR SPARKLING)
Sparkling wines are made from white and red still wines. After choosing a base varietal or blend, the winemaker mixes up a “tirage,” which includes some of the base wine plus yeast and sugar. The tirage is then added to the rest of the base wine, causing the entire mixture to ferment again – this time in a sealed container. As the sugars convert to alcohol, carbon dioxide is trapped inside, producing the finished wine’s effervescence.