Vine to Wine
If during your travels you find yourself in a vineyard on the eve of harvest, pick a grape and pop it into your mouth. Like plucking a still-warm-from-the sun apple off a tree and biting into it, a fresh-from-the-vine grape will kick the crap out anything you'll find in a grocery store.
When they say wines are made in the vineyard, they're not kidding. There's no way man could replicate something this dazzling in a lab.
The fate of a wine is all but decided the moment the fruit is plucked from the vine. If the quality is there and the grapes are handled with care, winemakers can produce an exceptional vintage.
Few people fully understand the amount of blood, sweat and tears that goes into each bottle. So we've put together this breakdown of the process from vine to wine:
Cycle of Life
The process starts with the planting of the vine, of course. There is typically a two-to-four year waiting period before growers will begin to harvest fruit from the vine.
The annual growth cycle begins in the spring in B.C. with bud break when temperatures consistently surpass 10C daily. Bud break is followed by flowering in 40-80 days, when the clusters that will eventually become grapes begin to take shape. Fruit set occurs quickly after this and the berries start to form. As the fruit develops, vineyard managers will tend to the "canopy" or leaf formation on the vine. It is important to keep this in check to allow for sun exposure for the fruit and so that the vine doesn't use up all it's energy on making leaves. It is also during this period that growers will thin out the fruit to achieve maximum ripeness.
The next important stage is veraison, which signals the beginning of ripening. Until this time, the berries are green and virtually rock hard to the touch. Veraison is when the grapes begin to change colour and develop sugar. It usually occurs 40-50 days after fruit set and is one of the most dramatically noticeable periods in the vineyard. Final thinning is typically done during or just prior to veraison.
Harvest of dry table wines begins in B.C. in early to mid-September and typically continues through to late October. The average ripeness for red grapes is between 23-25 Brix and for whites 21-23 Brix.
Grapes are harvested either by hand or machine cultivated. Whites are typically pressed immediately and separated from their skins using a bladder press before fermentation. In the case of reds, winemakers need to extract tannins and colour from the skins, thus this fruit typically goes through a crusher/destemmer which crushes the grapes just enough to release the juice. The juice and skin - called must - is fermented together.
Yeast is added to grapes to start the fermentation process. During this time, the skins will rise to the top forming what is called the cap, which has to be pushed or "punched down" to interact with the juice. The yeast will consume all or most of the sugar in table wines. The juice is gently squeezed and pressed and separated from the skins.
Red wines and some whites such as Chardonnay often go through a secondary fermentation where a special bacteria is added to encourage malolactic fermentation. This converts sharp malic acid into smooth lactic acid and softens the wine.
Winemakers use either French or American oak with varying degrees of toast (the char inside the barrel). Depending on the characteristics they seek, they leave the wines in barrel for a few months to up to three years. Age of the barrel is also a consideration, as newer barrels will impart more complexity and structure.
Whites are generally filtered to produce clean, clear looking wines free of any sediment. Many wineries tend not to filter their higher-end reds to preserve character and thus sediment can often be found in these wines. Decanting is recommended.
Whites are typically released soon after bottling, but reds will often be held back several months to a few years for further development inside the bottle.