This guest blog post is written by Eliesha Rae, a returning Rent a Vine participant, wine lover and writer extraordinaire.
New year, new winemaker, new wine, new crew.
There are not many things that could tempt me away from my brand-new puppy’s first day at Puppy School…Harvest day at Rent a Vine? Is one of them.
New year, new winemaker, new wine, new crew. I’m one of a select few that have returned for the second year of Rent a Vine to make myself some chardonnay. After a few last-minute date changes (courtesy of Mother Nature), the morning of our first Rent a Vine workshop for 2021 dawned bright and fresh! The BOM app said a top of 20ºC, perfect grape picking weather! And no lockdowns to speak of. Looks like my prayers to Bacchus have been working.
How do you decide on harvest date?
There are a number of factors to consider when deciding on a harvest date – the most important of which are sugar, acid and flavour. As the grapes ripen, the levels of sugar increase and acid decreases. Flavours change from sharp, citrus and green fruit flavours, through to denser, tropical fruit flavours. Austin’s typically pick twice when picking chardonnay: once to pick the sharp, zesty, citrus-fruit like flavours and another pick (typically one week later), to pick riper, more concentrated flavours to provide density and weight to the wine. By blending the two we aim to produce a fuller bodied, balanced blend.
In the days leading up to harvest, Dwayne (our esteemed leader/Austin’s new Head Winemaker) tests the grapes, taking a broad sample of around 20 bunches to test the juice. For winemakers, the big moment of truth, the event the whole year’s efforts have led up to – is harvest. It is absolutely KEY that we nail this.
The hand-pick begins & grape stomping happens
And we are not wasting any time this year. After a quick meet and great, our first workshop moves directly into the vineyard to start picking, to the dulcet sounds of gas guns firing in the distance (the gas guns are to scare the birds away btw, and not to frighten us into picking faster).
Despite the fact that green grapes are A LOT harder to pick than red (have you ever tried picking cherries from a red leafed tree? Then you know what I’m talking about – those suckers BLEND!), my relative experience (yeah, I’m a veteran of one whole harvest, what of it?) wins out and I am the first to fill my bucket. No biggie.
*Almost* three buckets emptied into the back of the trailer later and we are on our way back to the winery to get these grapes straight into the press. With white wine it’s super important to press as quickly as possible, as the longer the juice remains in contact with the skin, the more likely it is to pick up harsh flavours or tannin.
But… before our grapes get forklifted into the press – something happens. Something I have (literally) dreamed about for years. The opportunity to tick something off the very top of the bucket list. Dwayne asks if anyone wants to STOMP SOME GRAPES!
A hand has never gone up as fast as my hand went up in this moment.
Post grape stomping the grapes are transferred directly into the press. Everyone gets to taste some DELICIOUS “foot juice” (don’t give me that look, we fully sterilised our tootsies before diving in) and the first free run juice starts trickling out the bottom of the press.
The way the press works involves a giant balloon being slowly inflated and gently squeezing the juice from the grapes. At first, the juice is really clean and pure, but the more the balloon inflates, the more gets wrung out from the grapes and the darker the juice. Dwayne has to keep a close eye on the whole process to be ready to make a “press cut”, which is when the first clear, clean juice gets separated from the… less “virgin” juice. This is even more important with whites than it is with reds, as the style is generally lighter and fresher.
Once the juice is pressed, it is pumped into a tank and put in the cold room to “settle”, an enzyme is added to help all the gunk sink to the bottom, so the pure juice doesn’t take on any harsh flavours from the solids (bits of skin or pips). After settling, the juice will be transferred to an oak barrel and inoculated yeast is added to kick off the first fermentation process.
I say first, because (along with all red wines) chardonnay often goes through a secondary fermentation – called Malolactic conversion. This is when the harsh malic acids (the kind found in green apples) are converted to softer lactic acids (the kind found in butter) – it’s what gives your Chardy those beautiful, smooth buttery characteristics we all know and love!
Winemaking; science or art?
One of the most important take aways from our first workshop of 2021 is that winemaking walks the very fine line between science and art. Dwayne is pretty passionate on this subject – you need a solid understanding of the science, that’s a given, but “you can’t make truly great wine out of a textbook”. There’s no “recipe”. Every year and every harvest is different, you have to be able to adapt, experiment and think on your feet.
And I, for one, can’t wait to see how this year’s artistic endeavour pans out!
Eli is back for her SECOND year of Rent a Vine and is seriously considering naming this year’s final product “Cha-Toe La-Feet” (for context – her 2020 Pinot was called “Chateau D’Isolation”).