To the joy of Californians, spring is here on the West Coast! After months of intense rains, it’s getting green across the vineyards that blanket California, and worker bees are outside and humming. (To everyone still battling the arctic winds of the Midwest and Northeast, I’m sorry. Move West.)
In the wineries that neighbor those vineyards, a different type of worker bee is humming along excitedly. While the outdoors (and daylight that lasts through Happy Hour) get all the attention this season, work doesn’t stop in the cellar as the focus shifts outside. Instead, winemakers and cellar rats get ready for even longer days and the overtime hours of harvest, by finishing up last year’s harvest.
While fermentation and the loud, exciting parts of winemaking ended in the fall, most 2016s aren’t finished yet. As the vines outside hibernated, the 2016 vintage was indoors developing, going through quiet changes like malolactic fermentation and oak aging, which give wines their complex flavors and creamy mouthfeel. Basically, those wines spent the winter becoming delicious.
With the start of spring, most rosé and white wines are ready for their debuts, which means it’s time for winemakers to blend, filter, and bottle. These three tasks not only get great vino closer to us, but they open up space in the winery for this year’s juice.
Blending is the first challenge for winemakers putting together rosé and white wines in the new year. Sometimes, a blend of grapes is fermented together, but often the final blend of a wine is determined after all the wines have finished fermenting separately, and spent a few months mellowing out in tank or barrel. Depending on the winery’s goals — to produce a patio pounder or an austere if thought-provoking wine — winemakers assemble a team of tasters and several prospective blends. After many rounds of tasting, the wines are combined in their final percentages in a huge tank.
Because blending involves transferring wines from one container — a barrel, or tank — to another, which shakes up the wine, the blends need time to settle. Settling time lets any sediment fall to the bottom of the tank, and after about a week they’re ready for the next spring activity: filtering.
Filtering is exactly what it sounds like, but a winery’s filtration system is a lot more complicated than your coffee maker. Usually, wineries use a sterile filter, which looks like a giant accordion and is filled with removable cardboard filter boxes. Winemakers pump the wine through this filter to remove the tiniest bits of sediment floating in the wine, down to bacteria-sized pieces that can eventually cause strange aromas or flavors in the wine. Filtering isn’t done in every winery, but it helps allow large-production wines to taste similar year in and year out, and it helps prevent spoilage, which is crucial for wineries at any size.
Once wines are filtered, they’re ready to be bottled and shipped away, either to distributors or directly to thirsty consumers. At large wineries, bottling is done in-house, but smaller wineries often bring in a bottling service or ship their wines in tanker trucks to be bottled off-site.
While blending and bottling aren’t particularly exciting, they serve a crucial purpose in the winery — making room for new wines! All of these processes clear up space in barrels and small tanks so they can be cleaned, prepped, and made ready for the upcoming harvest. The processes start six months in advance in case barrels or tanks need to be replaced or moved, which takes a lot of coordination and time when you’re dealing with 10,000-gallon tanks and/or hundreds of barrels.
Inside or outside, spring is a busy season in the wine business and the best part is spring activities bring lots of wines directly to you. Let’s drink to that.