Have you ever thought about what goes into the humble glass of wine? If so, then join us on this journey of the 2018 vintage. Over the next year and a half we, the “Weekend Winemakers” will take you through the process required to produce that glass of wine.
The “Weekend Winemakers” participate in a winemaking course run by Peter Mitchell in Red Hill. The course which goes by the name of “The Heartbreak Grape” is named after the book written by Marq de Villiers and is about his search for the origin of the perfect pinot noir. That is what this course is all about, producing the best pinot noir we can. Not being a commercial winery operation we don’t have the constraints of having to produce a wine to make money. Therefore we have the benefit of producing wine for our own enjoyment.
We have been participating in this wine course since 2004 having begun the course at Tucks Ridge. The 2011 vintage was our last at Tucks Ridge due to a change of ownership. Since then we have been located at the picturesque Winbirra vineyard. This vineyard is on a north facing slope and houses four different clones of pinot noir grapes. Having access to all four clones allows us to be experimental in the winery by blending combinations of these clones to produce a better wine.
July 2017 – Pruning
It’s the middle of winter and the vines are dormant. The vines shut down during this colder period and the sap stops flowing. This is the time to prune the vines in readiness for the coming vintage. The vines are trellised in VSP (vertical shoot positioning) which allows for the best method of canopy management and fruit production. This is the preferred trellising system used on the Mornington Peninsula with a small number of vineyards using the lyre trellising system which has twin fruiting wires for each vine.
Pruning day is cold but the sun is out which you can feel the warmth on your back whilst you are working on the vines. We cane prune the vines which involves cutting back the vine so that you are left with two canes from the previous year which are then wrapped along the fruiting wire. From the nodes running along the cane new shoots will grow in an upright position which will be trellised between the wires. It is far more labour intensive than spur pruning which is commonly used however it helps to produce the best fruit.
The challenge on this occasion is that the vines had uneven growth the previous year and some vines have smaller than desirable canes to wrap down. This unevenness is believed to a legacy of a bad spray combination on the vines a couple of years ago. Despite this challenge we manage to complete pruning in record time. Thanks to some intensive lopping a couple of years ago, the crowns of the vines are below the fruiting wire allowing for an easier pruning session.
Now we must wait until spring when the vines come back to life with new shoots of green growth.
September 2017 – Bud Thinning & Blending Trials
Spring has arrived and so have the green buds on the vines, signalling the start of a new vintage. This session in the vineyard is a short one and involves the removal of excess buds from the vines. We are seeking an even growth of shoots along the vine. The removal of excess buds controls the amount of fruit produced by the vine. It also helps with airflow through the vine during fruit ripening season where over congestion can lead to mildew and disease occurring.
We take the opportunity to conduct some blending trials of the 2017 vintage which is currently fermenting in barrels. Generally a winemaker will ferment their fruit in smaller batches, whether that be due to different clones of the grape variety, a variation in picking days, or even fruit from different vineyards. The art of blending it to take two or more components of wine and blend them to produce a wine that is better than any one single component. If a single component is better than a combination, then why tamper with perfection! We are quite satisfied with how the 2017 vintage is coming along and look forward to bottling it in the new calendar year.
October 2017 – Shoot Removal & Wire Adjustment
As you would know from your own garden, plant growth is vigorous in spring and so too in the vineyard. This session follows on from our previously where we were looking to control the level of new growth on the vines. Those buds have developed into shoots and in places there are too many of them. Again we remove the excess shoots as well as any growth appearing on the trunk of the vine. Budburst has occurred and there are small bunches of fruit developing on the vines.
The vines are trellised in VSP (vertical shoot positioning) which is achieved by having the shoots grow in an upwards direction between several rows of wires. These wires need to be adjusted during the growing season to ensure this upright growth. If the shoots start to grow outside of these wires, the vines will develop a sloppy canopy which can be damaged by strong winds and tractors moving up and down the rows.
There is sufficient growth to allow us to tuck in the shoots into the lowest of the wires. To provide additional control we are using clips to control the space between the two wires located on either side of the posts. This should give us a more upright growth pattern in the early stages and will help later on when the upper wires come into play.
December 2017 – Shoot Maintenance and Final Wire Lift
The combination of consecutive warm days and late spring rains has resulted in vigorous vine growth. This has necessitated an additional session in the vineyard during November to raise wires and tuck in shoots. Leaving this until our next scheduled session in early December would see the vines with long untrained shoots creating a floppy canopy. If left unaddressed it would have created a more demanding session lifting the canopy then raising the wires into position.
Our final session of the calendar year happens to fall on a weekend when the weather bureau is forecasting torrential rains. Fortunately the rain band avoids Red Hill and wet weather holds off for our day in the vineyard. Whilst overcast the temperature is in the high teens and ideal for working amongst the vines.
Due to our previous session in the vineyard, work today is a lot easier and quicker to complete. Mainly requiring the tops of the shoots to be tucked into the top wires. There is also the need to remove some shoots, particularly around the crown where it has become congested on some vines. This allows airflow through the vines which helps to avoid fungal diseases developing on the fruit.
After our session in the vineyard, it is time for our annual Christmas BBQ. Everyone brings a bottle or two of wine, some with interesting background stories. One by one we sample each of the wines, sharing comments on the style and quality of each wine. Despite the terrible weather forecast, it ends up being a pleasant afternoon, sharing stories, enjoying each other’s company, and sampling a diverse range of wines.
January 2018 – Leaf plucking and bunch removal
Bunches of grapes are now fully formed and have started veraison (the onset of ripening where the grapes change in colour from green to red). To help with the ripening of bunches and to help eliminate disease on the fruit, we open up the canopy to allow sun and airflow to get into the vines along the fruiting wire. This requires the right amount of leaf removal as too little will prevent ripening and risk disease whereas too much removal may cause the fruit to be over exposed to the sun and burn it. Our vines are situated in a north-south direction which allows us to open up the canopy on the eastern side of the vines. This allows the gentle morning sun from the east to reach the fruit but blocks the harsh afternoon sun on the western side.
During this session we also remove excess bunches. No more than two bunches per shoot and with some of the smaller shoots this may be reduced to one bunch. We remove any green bunches that are growing further up the shoot as these are unlikely to ripen and we would prefer the vines to put their energy into the fruit we are going to use in our wine.
February 2018 – Sugar reading and bunch counting
Today our task is to remove any green bunches from the vines as they are unlikely to fully ripen in time for picking. We want the vines to put their energy into just the ripening fruit.
It is also time for our first sugar reading for the season and to undertake a bunch count. This will give us an indication as to the likely timeframe for picking and the estimated size of our crop. We select three vines at random from each row of vine and count the number of bunches on these vines. Then we select bunches at random from different parts of the row and weight them. We then use these figures to calculate an average bunch count and weight for each row of vines. This can be roughly translated into the volume of juice we can expect to produce from each row.
We are working with four different clones of pinot noir, all of which have slightly different growing habits and ripening characteristics. Therefore we need to undertake sugar readings on each clone individually. We are surprised to find the sugar readings sitting at between 9.5 and 10.8 baume which is well ahead of the same time last year. The ideal range is between the high 12’s and mid 13’s but the best way to know is to taste the grapes for flavour. At their current level they are showing promising signs but still have a green apple taste due to the malic acid level in the grapes. This acid will soften and the grapes will become sweeter as they ripen. It is estimated that depending upon weather conditions we could be picking in as little as three weeks.
March 2018 – Picking
Our adventure started in July last year and today is the day that the past 9 months work in the vineyard pays its reward. The fruit is at its optimum with the right sugar and acid levels. How do we know that its right to pick you may ask? Well we complete a final sugar reading and perform a PH test for acid levels, but ultimately it comes down to taste. The fruit should be sweet on the palate with that green apple flavour having dissipated.
We pick the fruit clone by clone, making sure that we keep the fruit separate. This allows us to make decisions on the blending of the clones once we are at the winery. We have also encountered issues with VA (volatile acidity) in recent years which we believe could be due to wasp damage to the fruit growing at the lower part of the vineyard. By isolating this fruit we can ferment this separately and make a decision whether to use this wine in our final blend.
With the fruit picked we transport it from the vineyard in Red Hill to the winery at Arthurs Seat. At the winery bunches of grapes are feed through the destemmer to remove the grapes from their stems. We remove the stems prior to fermentation as they add an unpleasant unripe character to the wine if left in. The grapes are fed into large fermentation bins where they will go through their initial fermentation, converting the sugar in the fruit into alcohol. We use a natural ferment whereby we allow the natural yeast on the grapes to cause this reaction. The alternative is to add cultured yeast however this can influence the flavour of the wine. We use a minimal influence approach to our winemaking which allows the fruit to be the dominate feature of the wine.
Over the next few weeks these bins must be plunged twice daily which involves the pushing down of the cap (grape skins which have floated to the top) into the liquid below. The cap must be kept moist to avoid bacteria developing in the wine. The bins are covered to keep contaminants out of the “must” (the name given to the combination of juice, skin, seeds and pulp) and to reduce the level of oxygen contact.
It is decided that the bin containing the MV6 and 114 grape clones should be foot stomped as the acid reading is a little low and crushing the fruit may allow for a more accurate acid reading. It will also help with colour development as the MV6 clone can be lighter in colour than other clones.
It usually takes two to three weeks for this initial fermentation process to complete, all depending upon how quickly the fermentation kicks in.
March 2018 (3 weeks later) – Pressing
Our must has been fermenting for the past 3 weeks and it is time to press off the juice from the skins. We have kept the fruit in three separate bins, one containing the MV6 and 114, another containing G5V15 and the last being the D5V12 from the lower section of the vineyard. We conduct a blending trial and decide to blend the MV6/114 and G5V15 bins. The D5V12 contains volatile acidity and we will keep this separate to the rest of the wine.
We pump off the free run juice from the bins and fill our first barrel with blend of the two bins. This is a new barrel and the free run juice will contain less fruit tannins which should hold up better to the new oak. Our second barrel is a one year old barrel and it contains a mix of the remaining free run juice and pressed juice from our basket press. The pressed juice will contain more fruit tannins which will benefit from the reduced oak tannins of the one year old barrel.
Using the basket press is one of the more satisfying and therapeutic tasks. The must is bucketed into the top of the basket with the juice running down to a tray that surrounds the bottom of the basket. Another bucket collects the juice as it is pressed off. Once the basket is full of must, the cap is placed over the top and using the ratchet device at the top, the handle is cranked back and forward pushing the cap down into the basket. The juice runs outs from between the timber slats, into the tray then into the bucket below which needs to be repeatedly replaced as it fills.
We fill two 220 litre barrels and have a further 170 odd litres which are stored in various sized demijohns. Some of this will be used to top up the barrels which loose wine through evaporation. Over the coming months the wine will now go through malolactic fermentation which we allow to occur naturally. A compound can be added to kick start this process however we opt for the minimalist intervention approach.
Our work is done for now with very little work required until we start pruning in winter for next year’s crop. It is a good opportunity to open a few bottles of earlier vintages to see how they have developed over time and enjoy the company of our fellow winemakers.
February 2019 – Bottling
Today our wine journey that began 18 months ago comes to its conclusion. After 10 months fermenting in barrel it’s time to bottle our wine.
At several points during its fermentation we have performed blending trials to establish the best option for the wine. All along the 50/50 blend of the two barrels has come out on top. The new barrel containing the free run juice has wonderful fruit and strong oak tannins whereas the one year old barrel containing the pressed fruit is a more savoury wine with distinctive fruit tannins. The combination of both produces a wonderful wine with lively fruit flavours and a balance of oak and fruit tannins which gives it length on the pallet. This will be a fabulous wine.
The remaining wine fermented in demijohns will be bottled separately as it contains a hint of VA (volatile acidity) which would have a detrimental impact to the barrelled wine.
The production line begins with the assembly of boxes, they unpacking of bottles from the pallets to create dozen bottle cases. These are carried to the bottling area where the wine is pumped into a stainless steel tank which has been placed on a raised platform. This allows us to gravity feed the wine by syphon tubes into the bottles. There are three teams running simultaneously, each with one person filling the bottles who is assisted by others passing empty bottles and collecting the full bottles. The filled bottles are then sealed one by one with a corking press and stacked back into the cases. It is a primitive but effective method and with all the people helping out it is completed in a timely manner.
Once the wine has all been bottled, it is then time to clean up. All the equipment and the empty barrels need to be thoroughly washed to avoid contamination occurring before it is next used. The barrels will be used again in the coming couple of months when the 2019 vintage if picked.
With the wine bottled and the equipment cleaned it is time to taste the fruits of our labour and try the wine we have just completed making. It is a warm summer’s afternoon and we sit under the shade of a cluster of gumtrees to share the wine and experiences of the vintage just completed.