A WORD TO THE WINE: A HARVEST GLOSSARY
Wine is known for having its own colorful lexicon, and harvest is no exception. The following terms are useful to know when reading harvest updates, but they’ll also come in handy if you ever get recruited onto a sorting line.
Barrel: A wooden vessel, typically oak, that holds wine for months or years during its aging process (and occasionally during its fermentation). Most barrels used in the Willamette Valley are French oak, but winemakers can use American, Hungarian, Slovenian, and other types of oak if they wish. Winemakers have many options when deciding whether and how to barrel their wines. Barrels impart spicy and sweet flavors to a wine and allow a tiny, even amount of oxygen transfer, which contributes to a wine’s development over time—so a winemaker must decide how long to age the wine. Barrels are also toasted to various levels to bring out varying amounts of smoky, toasty flavor that will affect the finished wine—so a winemaker must decide what kind of barrel to use. A new barrel will impart the most flavor and texture to a wine (a character we call “new oak”); after that, the impact becomes gradually less noticeable. Barrels are considered neutral after three or four uses, but some winemakers choose to continue using them for years and years.
Botrytis: Also known as “noble rot,” botrytis is a fungus that can appear in wet, humid conditions and can lend sweet, honeyed, marmalade-y notes to some wines (most famously the dessert wine known as Sauternes). Some winemakers use a portion of botrytis-affected fruit to take advantage of this effect, notably with Riesling, but botrytis can also show up unwanted in vineyards (especially after rain or hail) and is generally inappropriate for red wines. In these cases, botrytized grapes are either avoided in the vineyard or removed on the sorting line.
Brix: The unit used to measure sugar in a grape. As grapes ripen, sugar increases—the grapes taste sweeter! Because fermentation is the process of converting sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide (in the presence of yeast), Brix is essentially a potential alcohol measurement. Winemakers watch this number, among several other factors including pH and titratable acidity, when deciding when to pick grapes and make other winemaking decisions.
Block: A designated portion of a vineyard, usually dedicated to a specific grape variety or clone. Blocks are typically numbered, but may also have fanciful names that describe their location or history. Winemakers may take advantage of each block’s unique character by blending several blocks or bottling a single-block wine. Because of factors like position, slope and altitude, no two blocks of a vineyard are the same.
Bung: A rubber barrel stopper. It’s ok to giggle at it. Everyone does.
Carbonic maceration – This technique, often associated with Beaujolais wines, begins with sealing a tank full of whole-cluster grapes to limit their oxygen exposure and ensure a primarily carbon dioxide-rich fermentation environment. Fermentation begins within each individual berry and produces spicy, juicy, fruity flavors and minimal tannin.
Clone: A vine variety selected for certain characteristics as a result of genetic mutation. While all winegrowers work with specific clones of vines, there tends to be quite a bit of discussion of clonal selection and character when it comes to Pinot noir, which mutates easily and therefore has many diverse clonal representations. Clones you’ll hear about frequently in the Willamette Valley include Pommard, Wädenswil and Dijon clones including 115, 667 and 777.
Crushpad: The outdoor area of the winery where just-picked grapes arrive to be processed and prepared for fermentation. A typical crushpad is laid out for easy forklift maneuverability and includes a bin dumper (to dump the grapes out of their vineyard bins), a vibrating table or sorting table for the sorting line, a conveyor belt that carries the clusters to a destemmer or crusher (unless the wine is being fermented whole cluster), and perhaps another sorting table before the fruit goes into the tank where fermentation will begin. Cleaning the crushpad after a long day of processing fruit is an infamously time-consuming harvest task.
Fermentation: The process of turning grapes into that beverage we all know and love. Essentially, it works like this: yeast consumes sugar (from the grapes) and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Fermentation speed depends on temperature, yeast type and a few other factors, and winemakers monitor every fermentation’s progress to ensure it stays on pace. Fermentation can last anywhere from around five days for some red wines to several weeks for some aromatic white wines. Fermentation completes when the yeast has no more sugar to eat, although the winemaker can deliberately stop the fermentation early if desired through the use of filtration or an addition of sulfur.
After fermentation, red wines and some white wines go through a secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation. For this reason, the fermentation described above is sometimes referred to as “primary.”
FYBs – Freakin’ Yellow Bins. The small yellow bins used in hand harvesting. The F doesn’t stand for Freakin’.
Malolactic Fermentation: A second fermentation that occurs for all red wines but is optional for white wines. After primary fermentation, this secondary fermentation occurs when lactobacillus (either added by the winemaker or naturally occurring) converts malic acid into smoother lactic acid (think lactose). This process takes longer than primary fermentation and often completes the spring after harvest. In white wines, especially Chardonnay, malolactic fermentation is responsible for a buttery, creamy texture. A winemaker may choose to blend a white wine that has undergone malolactic with one that has not for a more mild effect.
Must – Grape juice (and skins and seeds, for reds) that has not yet completed fermentation.
pH – The measure of relative acidity to relative alkalinity of a liquid. Winemakers consider pH along with Brix, titratable acidity, and other factors to determine when to pick grapes and make other winemaking decisions. The lower the pH, the higher the acid.
Phenolic ripeness: Slightly less tangible than Brix, but no less important, this is the ripeness of of a grape’s skins, stems and seeds. Winemakers look for phenolic ripeness as well as sugar ripeness to determine picking date. Stem ripeness is especially important when using whole-cluster fermentation.
Punchdowns: During red wine fermentation, the must contains grape skins and seeds that can form a layer on top of a wine tank called a cap. To prevent this cap from drying out and becoming a host for bacterial growth, and to increase contact between skins and juice to extract color and tannin, cellar crews must essentially stir the must regularly. This stirring is typically done standing above the tank with a long tool that has a flat bottom. It’s hard work and may need to be done several times a day. During the peak of harvest when a winery is chock-full of tanks full of must, this is a big part of the harvest crew’s workload. An alternative to punchdowns is a technique called a pumpover, where juice is pumped from the bottom of a tank to the top and poured over the cap.
Sorting line: Not unlike a restaurant kitchen line, this is an assembly-line-style arrangement whereby harvest crews can sort grapes as they come through on the crushpad. Typically grapes are dumped from their bins through a reservoir onto a vibrating table, which is the first chance to grab rocks, sticks, and other objects that could damage equipment later. The grapes are also sorted for rot, underripeness, and other undesirable elements, and anything unworthy is discarded. Another sorting table with a conveyor belt, usually the next stop after the clusters are destemmed, gives a second chance to look for any abnormalities before the fruit drops into the tank where it will ferment. An eagle-eye sorting team is essential, especially in difficult vintages, for ensuring that only clean, healthy fruit (free of ladybugs, rocks and other objects) reaches the tank.
Sulfite: A catchall term for sulfur dioxide, a widely used preservative that can also be found naturally at low levels in all fermented products. Typically added periodically to must and finished wine in the form of potassium metabisulfite powder dissolved in water, sulfite is used for its antioxidant and antiseptic properties to kill bacteria and maintain freshness. Sulfites are also used in many packaged foods, notably dried fruit.
Titratable acidity: The measure of perceptible acidity in grapes or juice. Winemakers use this in conjunction with Brix, pH, and other factors to determine when to pick grapes and make other winemaking decisions. Acid contributes a feeling of liveliness and “backbone” to a wine and is essential for ageability. The two main types of acid in grapes are tartaric (the majority of a wine’s acidity) and malic (the kind that converts into lactic during malolactic fermentation).
Topping: The addition of wine to a barrel to keep it full. During a wine’s time in barrel, a small amount of wine consistently evaporates into the air (distillers call this “the angels’ share”). Barrels need to be filled up to the top to avoid exposing the wine to too much oxygen, so a winemaker will “top up” the barrel with a small amount of another wine in the cellar. The effect on the taste of the finished wine is negligible if even detectable, so a winemaker’s biggest concern when choosing a topping wine is that it is free of any concerning aromas.
Whole cluster: Fermentation of grapes in unbroken clusters, with the berries whole rather than crushed and the stems intact rather than removed. Widely discussed in Pinot noir and Syrah production, whole cluster, for those who chose to use it, is a spectrum; winemakers may use only 5% to 10% whole cluster or go as high as 100%. Stems impart their own flavor and tannin to a wine and can add structure and sometimes a minty, green or herbal note. They may also lighten the wine’s color by absorbing pigmentation.
Yeast: It doesn’t get enough respect. This critter is responsible for every wine, beer, glass of whisky, or other alcoholic beverage you’ve ever enjoyed (as well as your pizza dough, kimchi and kombucha). Yeast is a living organism that consumes sugar and converts it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. It is present on our skin, in our home environments and in vineyards (particularly on grape skins). Winemakers have a choice of using either selecting a commercial yeast, designed for the flavors and style of wine they want, or allowing the native yeast that lives in their environment to start working on its own.