Journey to Harvest…and Beyond!
By Squire Fridell
I was hoping you’d ask, since it’s now been months since our 2021 harvest. We are preparing for bottling our two white wines (and our rosé) in March, so it’s best to chat a bit now about making white wine before we put those wines into bottles.
Since there’s a lot to cover, we’ll divide the topic into two issues: Part one will deal with everything that happens before fermentation; next month’s part two will be everything that happens from fermentation onward.
Making white wine is an entirely different process than making red wine (see Journey to Harvest and Beyond! columns in the Jan. 15 and Feb 1 issues of the Kenwood Press). My endgame may be the same (to make a delicious, fruit-driven wine), but the procedure and equipment used during “crush” (there’s that word again) are quite different.
I ofttimes am baffled when folks declare they “only drink red wine.” It always seems to me that wine consumption is a lot like dining, and when you dine, there’s usually more to your dinner than just an entrée. Salad and/or soup are a nice way to start your dinner, and your entrée might be a light fish that would probably pair better with a white wine than a red. But to each his own.
A clever friend once said to me, “White wine is what I drink while I’m waiting for someone to open a bottle of red.” I think that’s funny … but I digress … Here at Glen Lyon, we only make two white wines from two noble Vitis vinifera varieties: chardonnay and viognier. After those newly picked white grape clusters arrive in the winery in the early morning, we immediately weigh the fruit. As I’ve said before, the net weight is important for three reasons: The tonnage tells us how much we’ll pay the grower; it gives us a rough estimate of the eventual gallons of finished wine; and the number of gallons dictates the amount of nutrients we will add during fermentation.
Because we don’t feel there is much to be gained by skin contact in whites, we choose to not de-stem the fruit or crush the berries, but instead “whole-cluster press.” As those clusters of grapes go directly into the elevator hopper and head for the open door of our bladder press, our trusty crew will pull out any leaves and other MOG (Material Other than Grapes).
When our bladder press is full (up to 2.8 tons of grape clusters), we close the press door and push a magic button to begin the press cycle. After almost two hours and up to four cycles at increasingly stronger pressures, the delicious fresh juice has been pressed off, leaving the skins, stems, and seeds behind. (Folks sometimes ask if that just-pressed grape juice is good to drink … It is incredible! Trust me! C’mon over during crush and I’ll slip you a sip!)
The juice then flows into a large pan and we’ll sprinkle in some dry ice. As the dry ice melts, it turns to CO2 gas, which is very heavy and forms an eerie cloud over the juice to keep it protected from air (oxygen). It looks a lot like a scene from Phantom of the Opera — just don’t ask me to sing, That juice then gets pumped into a clean, covered, and argoned tank (at GlenLyon, we have four 971-gallon jacketed stainless steel tanks). Like CO2, argon is a very heavy gas, but unlike CO2, it is inert and doesn’t interact with the wine. Once the juice is in that tank, we slowly prepare the yeast and add it to the juice to begin fermentation.
The choice of yeasts is determined by the grape variety and what characteristics we may want in the eventual wine. Some winemakers prefer to allow the natural yeast to induce white wine fermentation (as we do with our red grapes). But in making white wine, there are no skins for protection and we believe there is simply too much chance of oxidation.
Shortly after our yeast add, bubbles of CO2 begin to rise and dance through the juice, indicating that fermentation has begun. Then, at least once per day and using our trusty thermometer and hydrometer, we monitor both the temperature and the rate of sugar depletion (Brix). As the sugar is consumed by the yeast, voila! Alcohol is created! It truly is magic!
Do you add anything else to the wine? Wine is a food product and, like all food products, is unstable, so things have been added to wine for centuries to help stabilize it. Other things may be added to the wine for clarification or color; some nutrients to assist in fermentation; and other products to further stabilize the wine or even change the pH (acid) or flavor of the wine. Throughout history, various “things” have been added to improve the taste (and mask oxidation) of early wines — these might have included resin, perfume, herbs, and even seawater! (If you think it might be interesting, go buy a bottle of Greek Retsina! Yikes!) Even “oak essence” may be added, in addition to (or in lieu of) very expensive barrels, for flavor.
Different countries (and even our own states) have different rules about what you may or may not add, however. Sugar may be added in many areas of Europe, but not acid. Acid may be added in America, but some states (like California) will not allow the addition of sugar … so it’s a bit confusing.
Generally speaking, California prohibits a lot of additions. Incidentally, folks sometimes ask (if they detect certain fruit notes in one of our wines) if we purposely add that fruit flavor artificially (as they sometimes do in fruit drinks). The answer is no. We cannot. Those wonderful fruit flavors and aromas come from the grape variety, where the grapes are grown, and how we choose to make that wine. Any organic product we might want to add will be decided on beforehand with tasting trials, and then the amounts carefully calculated in our lab.
How do we know what to add, how much to add, and when to add? We have 35 harvests’ worth of knowledge and experience to draw upon, plus research about the constant flow of new products. Input from other winemakers is always a big help, and in Sonoma Valley, helping each other has always been of paramount importance. I always say “We have no secrets. We want everyone to make outstanding wine.”
Why do you ferment your white wine in stainless tanks and not in barrels?
We did ferment our white wines and rosé in oak barrels for a dozen years, but after tasting a breathtaking chardonnay at a famous winery in Chablis, I asked the winemaker how he could possibly make such an amazing, fruitdriven, and crisp chardonnay. We compared notes and the difference was that I was barrel fermenting and he was fermenting in stainless steel.
When I asked him why, he said that making wine was a lot like cooking, and to cook anything well, you must be able to control the heat. Since fermentation creates heat, and since the thick wooden staves of barrels make them well insulated, those internal temperatures can get into the 90s and there is no way to cool down the fermenting juice. His stainless tanks were jacketed so he could regulate the inside liquid temperature by pumping cold glycol around the outside surface. Since we also had jacketed tanks (ours, luckily, came that way!), we decided to give it a try. As soon as we got back to GlenLyon, we bought a (very expensive) glycol chilling unit and began fermenting our whites (and rosé) in our jacketed tanks at 60 degrees, instead of 90 degrees in barrels.
That was a game-changing conversation (good thing he spoke English!), and we’ve never looked back! I ofttimes say that our chardonnay is closer in style, aroma, and taste to a French Chablis than a California chardonnay. If I see you out and about and I have a bottle with me, I’ll pour you a bit!
So, we have harvested the grapes, pressed the juice to tank, added yeast, and fermentation has begun! What happens next? We’ll address all that in the next issue! (If you want to read any past columns, just Google “Squire Fridell Journey to Harvest and Beyond”).
Time for dinner and a glass of something refreshing. How about a bit of our 2020 Hog Wilde Chardonnay to kick off the evening? Good call — I have 15 bottles left!
As Homer once declared (and I was there when he said it): “No poem was ever written by a drinker of water.”
Squire Fridell is the Winemaker, Vineyard Manager, CEO, CFO, COO, EIEIO, WINO & Janitor at Glen-Lyon Vineyards & Winery and Two Amigos Wines