When considering winemaking, the best place to start is making white wine or Rosé. It’s forgiving, it’s easier…so they say. In my experience, this is true.
Chardonnay is one of the most well-known white wine grape varieties. It’s the first to bloom and the earliest harvested. It produces Burgundy style wines such as Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé and Montrachet. In Oregon, Chardonnay is characterized by a clean finish and soft tannins. In Washington State, it’s known for a more buttery style. There are many excellent NW Chardonnay labels.
The first step can be the most daunting because people are sometimes mystified by the process of acquiring grapes. You’d be surprised. After I left my job in the wine industry, I turned to craigslist and I was surprised by how quickly I got a response from wine growers. There are also other resources, such as Grape Matching Services in the Pacific Northwest. Be prepared to pay at least one dollar per pound and keep in mind that 100 pounds of grapes with fill a 5 gallon carboy with juice for primary fermentation. This will make about 2 cases of wine, which is 24 bottles.
Picking and Transport
After calling wine growers, I’m usually able to visit the vineyard and pick the grapes myself. When making wine, plan in advance for the site visit. As mentioned above 100 lbs grapes will fill a 5 gallon carboy. Arrive at the vineyard with enough carboys.
I enjoy visiting vineyards because the quality of the fruit in the vineyard determines the bottle. Quality fruit is disease free with clusters that have plump grapes. It’s best to invest in good clippers and start in the middle of the vine and harvest clusters that are not too high in the canopy. There is usually a spirited discussion between the grower and the picker about the challenges of the season.
After picking, there is usually a crusher destemmer and wine press onsite. Because the grower has invested in their equipment, they will often help with the process. The crusher destemmer removes the berries from the clusters and the press turns the berries to juice. The juice should be free of debris from the vineyard and bugs, which is called MOG or material other than grapes.
It’s important to know the amount of sugar in solution, i.e. the Brix. A refractometer can be purchased or the juice can be taken to a lab for accurate fruit maturity values. The best range for white wine is 22-23 Brix and a pH of around 3.5. If the juice doesn’t have a high enough Brix, adjustments need to be made. It’s important to start fermentation with the correct amount of sugar to produce good wines.
Cold Settling Juice
Theoretically, white wine benefits from settling the cellular debris to the bottom of the fermentation container. Using cold temperatures speeds settling. In cooler climates, we take advantage of night temperatures and simply set the container outside to settle. In other environments, refrigeration may be required. After cold settling, you can see the juice at the top of the containers and the debris at the bottom.
After cold settling, move the juice to another container. This process is called racking. Racking is using a siphon to move juice from the juice filled carboy to a clean carboy. After racking, there should be mostly juice, ready to inoculate with yeast. There are many resources of the web to help aid in decision making for yeast strains. White Labs maintains a library. I encourage you to visit their site.
We chose Cote de Blanc yeast because it produces fine, fruity aromas. After inoculation, primary fermentation took place for 2 weeks. Make sure the temperature is at a good range for the chosen yeast strain and leave the carboy undisturbed until fermentation is completed.
Malolactic fermentation is the process of using the bacteria Oenococcus oeni to convert tart tasting malic acid to softer tasting lactic acid. Often, a package is added to the juice and kept at a temperature of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit for 4 to 6 weeks. MLF is detectible if a flash light is shined into the container and small bubbles are visible.
Sulfur Dioxide Addition
Rack the fermented with and add Sulfur Dioxide (SO2). This compound protects wine from spoilage by bacteria and oxidation, it’s important to add it at the right stage, when both primary and malolactic fermentation has been completed. We added Camden tablets at the rate of 1 tablet per gallon of juice.
After SO2 addition, we used Oak spirals purchased from our local wine supply store, they can also be purchased at The Barrell Mill. We chose American oak, but French oak can also be used. I recommend using French oak spirals for cold climate Chardonnay. Follow the directions on the spiral or oak shaving package. It usually takes 4-6 weeks for the oak extraction. Typically, oak is added after fermentation, after the wine is racked a final time into a carboy.
When the wine is ready to bottle, add more SO2 to prevent spontaneous fermentation in the bottle! It’s important to remember this step. Corks can pop if fermentation occurs in the bottle.
Purchase white wine bottles and corks. We also wash the white wine bottles that we have saved throughout the year. When the wine is ready to bottle rack it into bottles and cork it using a floor corker or other corking tool. It’s important that the wine bottles are clean and that bottling occurs quickly to prevent oxidation.
During the first couple weeks, store wine bottles on their sides in cases. After the time has passed, store them upright in cases. Placing them upright allows any fine material to settle to the bottom. You’ll notice that I’ve relied on gravity to remove fine particles. I’ve never filtered our wine.
Wait a few weeks to prevent bottle shock. Open the bottle with a smile and enjoy!
In the next segment, I will discuss the process of making Rosé. It’s very similar to making white wine with a few minor adjustments and consideration