When we think of vineyards, we generally envision flourishing canopies of green, leafy vines placed one after another in parallel lines, plump grapes in various colors dotting every row. During the spring, we know exactly what the winemakers are doing; they are nourishing those vines and getting ready for good old harvest, of course, which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere anytime between August and October. But once the grapes are plucked and prepared, what exactly do the winemakers do during those cold, desolate winter months? It’s easy to think that once their hard work is done, they just sit back, relax, and drink a glass of their blood, sweat, and tears by the fire. But in fact, winemakers remain quite busy during the winter, sometimes even more so than in the spring. So what’s going on at wineries when the temperatures are subzero and the snow starts to fall?
In the vineyard, the first step taken during winter is pruning the vines. This involves separating dead and damaged wood from healthy wood by cutting it off. Some wineries choose to use these dead branches for compost, allowing the natural materials to be put back into the earth. Winemakers must also remove lateral shoots, leaving the strongest shoot on the vine for all the nutrients to channel their energy into. It’s important also to not leave stubs when pruning, as bugs and disease can enter the plant and cause serious damage. Some winemakers begin their pruning right after Thanksgiving, while others wait until mid-December. Pruning generally lasts all the way through March and is essential to keeping the vines healthy.
Moving down to the cellar where the wine is hanging out, more is going on than you’d think. “In the cellar, we are busy racking, filtering, and bottling whites and rosé,” says Kareem Massoud, winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards. Racking (soutirage) is the process of moving wines from barrel to barrel, permitting the wines to stabilize while also allowing tannins to soften. The wines are then fined and filtered, which is the process of removing substances and sediments from the finished product. Fining involves adding a fining agent to create molecular bonds in the wine, which will ultimately clarify haziness and undesirable qualities. Filtering will remove solid particles, such as dead yeast cells or lactic acid bacteria. The wines are then bottled for further aging or shipment.
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For other wines, however, fermentations, both alcoholic and malolactic, are just beginning. Malolactic will generally finish within a month, allowing the winemakers to know that the wine has become stable. Light sulfur is added at this time as well to further stabilize the wines, followed by blending (assemblage) to create specific cuvées. Red wines, which generally require more aging time than whites and rosés, take their time aging in tanks and barrels.
As if all of that isn’t enough, winemakers certainly still need to sell their products. Throughout the winter, preparation of orders, ticketing of bottles, and selling cases all take place as well. And just when you think they’ve done it all, it’s already March — the ideal time for planting new vines.
The life of a winemaker is one of hard work and long, laborious days, indeed, though the payoff is delightful.