It's that time of year again: warm, sunny afternoons followed by crisp, cool nights and the smell of fermenting grapes in the air. Whether you're in Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley or Mendocino County, you're bound to see trucks hauling bins full of ripe grapes to a winery nearby.
The process begins in the wee hours of the morning, working by the light of the moon ... well, harvest crews actually work with the aid of powerful overhead lights as they hurriedly pick the perfectly ripe bunches of grapes. Why at night? One of the reasons is that the grapes are plump and hydrated in the evening. As temperatures rise during the day, the harvested grapes begin to warm and may start to spontaneously ferment with any "wild yeast" that may be on the grape skins. White varieties are especially vulnerable, as warmer temperatures can also destroy some of their more delicate aromatics. As daylight breaks, the hope is to have all of the grapes picked, loaded into bins and stacked onto trucks, well on their way to the winery — which is, some say, where the magic begins.
Once the grapes arrive at the winery, the bins are methodically removed from the truck, one at a time. This is where the litany of decisions begins in the cellar for the winemaker. Whole cluster? Whole berry? Pressed, but with skin contact? Pressed, no skin contact? All of these decisions will impact the final product, so the winemaker must address each of the issues carefully.
Harvest this year is special for us at Tasting Room, as we are making a barrel-fermented Chardonnay that will be ready to release next fall. The fruit was sourced from a vineyard on the border of Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley, with some fairly famous neighbors close by. I'll give you a hint: One of their names rhymes with "towers." The fruit was harvested on Sept. 23, then de-stemmed and pressed, the juice placed in used Burgundian oak barrels where it will undergo fermentation. The oak barrels, neutral at this point, will impart very minimal oak nuances, but the introduction of oxygen and closer contact with the lees (dead yeast cells) will help to develop flavors and textures that a stainless-steel fermentation would not otherwise do.
Further decisions will be made after the wine has gone through primary fermentation, including whether the wine will then go through partial or full malolactic fermentation. The easiest way to describe the secondary fermentation process that all red wines and most white wines experience is to explain how the acidity changes from being tart — like the acidity of an apple — to the lactic acid you would taste in milk. When a wine has gone through 100% malolactic fermentation it means that all of the malic acid has been converted into lactic acid. Many well known California Chardonnays are made in this style, resulting in an extremely round, buttery and creamy wine. We would like the fruit expression in our Chardonnay to remain fresh and vibrant, so partial malolactic fermentation may be allowed, rather than full.
After resting for nine to ten months in barrel, the wine will have transitioned from grape juice to wine, and it will then be ready to be bottled. Once in bottle, it will rest for a few more months before becoming available for sale. Keep an eye out for our 2016 Dry Creek Valley Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay, to be released next fall. We hope you're just as excited as we are to taste what the 2016 harvest has to offer!