Optimizing Harvest, Crush and the Fermentation Process

Having a successful harvest and crush and getting the fermentation process on the right track is reliant on a number of factors, according to winemakers and winemaking teams that shared tips and insights for the September/October issue of Vintner Magazine.

Vintner’s expert panel said having the right personnel, the right attitude and finding the process that works best for your winery were all important ingredients to ensuring a successful harvest and ensuing crush.

However you choose to manage the process, do it decisively and with a sense of urgency, said John Rivenburgh, director of vineyards and winemaking at Kerrville Hills Winery, a Central Texas incubator, winery and crush facility.

“There are a couple of things that I think greatly contribute to the harvest going well and to our winemaking operations going well,” Rivenburgh said. “You need to have a good sense of urgency and not letting the lulls (between steps) trick you into stagnation.

“I have a tendency to keep my foot on the gas. Keeping urgency alive is important to the best wine outcome. You get those lulls while you’re waiting for the fruit to ripen. This is particularly true in Texas with our three zones.

The Gulf Coast got its first fruit in over the July 4 weekend, and then we finished up the Hill Country and the High Plains. Now we have our late season reds just starting to come in.”

He said it’s important to do some barrelling as you go along as things trickle in. Instead of 20 tons coming in all at once, Rivenburgh said they’ve been getting five to 10 tons every two to three days.

“You have to keep your foot on the gas because between fruit coming in and other activities, things can pile up quickly,” he said.

Procedures and Equipment

At Château Luchey Halde in France, Sales Manager Nadège Giamarchi said the winemaking team said a long slow press with a pneumatic press was the method the Bordeaux producer believed to be best.

“We crush the entire bunches because the steam facilitates the evacuation of the juice out of the press,” Giamarchi said. “The quality of the machine is very important.”

At Vignobles Reynaud (also located in France), the Reynaud family uses a number of practices that depend on the quality of the fruit they’re working with.

Our most used practice is automatic winding, or one pump per tank managed by an automaton,” a spokesperson for the family said. “This allows continuous wetting of the pomace cap in small volumes. This technique can be replaced or supplemented by the “rack and return” technique, where the fermenting juice is drained to another tank and then promptly pumped back on top of the cap.”

For their top-end cuvées, the Reynauds have adopted “integral vinification,” or vinification in barrels. The barrels are kept horizontally on oxoline wheels.

“We practice extraction by rotating the barrel, which puts the marc back into immersion in the wine so we have a smooth, complete extraction,” the family spokesperson said. “Then, it’s possible to practice the punching of the cap, but we do not use it at home to date.”

Removing Margin for Error

Kerrville Hills Winery is no stranger to trying different things when it comes to crush and the winemaking process that follows.

Among the latest practices Rivenburgh has introduced include co-inoculation, which is the practice of adding selected wine bacteria at the beginning of the winemaking process shortly after yeast inoculation.

The technique is gaining in popularity because it secures the malolactic fermentation, which traditionally occurs naturally after the completion of primary fermentation.

The secondary fermentation step removes the malic acid in wine that can be a carbon source for yeast and bacterial growth, leading to spoilage, spritz and unwanted flavors.

Rivenburgh said doing both fermentation steps simultaneously eliminates a lot of margin for error.

“For us, it streamlines operationally the ability to get our wines into the barrel more seamlessly and quickly,” Rivenburgh said. “We’re going through malic fermentation while going through primary fermentation, and it’s better managed for bacteria.

“The tried and true approach is to finish fermentation, innoculate for malic acid at the completion of primary fermentation, press and then wait for that malic to finish in the barrel or tank. Then you manage the malic through the barrel, which can be a little dicey, honestly. This gives us the ability to streamline the whole process.”

Rivenburgh said wine drinkers may notice a difference between red wines that are co-inoculated.

“There’s much more pronounced fruit expression at the end of the wine, and at the end of fermentation,” Rivenburgh said. “There’s a higher fruitiness.”

While co-inoculation was a worthwhile pursuit, Rivenburgh said he’s learned there’s a sweet spot when employing new tools and technology.
Too much can be a distraction, he said.

“We’ve come back around to focusing on some strong, solid basics and concentrating on fundamentals, rather than chasing scientific pursuits like flash detente,” Rivenburgh said.

Taking Care of Staff

Katie Santora, head winemaker for Chehalem Winery, is a realist when it comes to harvest, crush and the rest of the winemaking process.

“I am not sure there will ever be a perfect year or a perfect wine,” Santora said. “ I believe we will always be learning, working more thoughtfully, efficiently, and in-tune with the vintage.

“To do that, we must have venerable conversations about where we lack and what steps are needed for improvement. Sometimes they are hard conversations to have, but in the end, it makes us better winemakers that are more insightful and present.”

Santora said the ability to adapt on the fly is key.

“You can only plan so much for the unexpected,” she said. “Let’s face it, winemaking is agricultural work, and with that comes weather that we cannot control. Therefore, having a plan and being flexible when things change (because they always do) will help everyone move through the days.”

Santora said organization was essential. To keep the workflow on track, she said being two to three steps ahead of the work being done in the cellar was key and proper, efficient equipment keeps things moving.

But her other tips for harvest (and the crush that quickly follows) are purely humanist. Be patient and kind while everyone is working long, hard hours and putting their personal life on the backburner, and be able to stop and connect with the people who are working for you.

“Creating personal connections with colleagues by eating lunch together or grabbing a beer at the end of the day can maintain positive team morale,” she said.

Sam Baron, winemaker at Kivelstadt Cellars in Sonoma, said it was important to avoid overworking your team. Baron said 100-hour weeks were too long, and 40-hour weeks weren’t enough. He also seconded Santora’s thoughts on communication, saying he had taken courses on effective communication.

“I’ve been on both sides of the harvest work curve,” he said. “I believe the sweet spot is in 50-60 hours. Schedule efficiently and communicate expectations and tasks effectively. It’s all a test of communication and organization, set your team up for success and they will achieve.”

Helpful Hires

Hiring Production Winemaker Meredith Reed was one move that Rivenburgh is glad he made.

“Hiring Meredith has allowed us to really stay on top of every detail of our operation and make it run much more efficiently,” he said. “She directs her own daily activities and it frees me up to take a broader view of the business and what we’re doing with the wines. I’m able to pay attention stylistically to where the wines are going because I’m not loading all of the data and recording all of the numbers.”

Santora said hiring her assistant winemaker Jessica Spera and cellarmaster Cate Lever at Chehalem in 2019 had similarly helped her during production.

“We are about to embark on our fourth harvest together, and our trusted rapport enables things move more efficiently,” she said. “We know each other, our strengths and weaknesses, and how we can step in to support each other and work as a team.”

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