What is the work of the Winemaker?
As you sit there sipping your next well-earned glass of wine, be it a light-bodied Pinot Noir or a dry, minerally Chablis, take a moment to consider the work that has gone into making the refreshing nectar that so perfectly complements your summer evening. Take note of the fruity, floral, sometimes earthy and woody, aromas and tastes, the way the wine feels on your tongue, the way it looks in your glass. Let these individual components take your imagination to the beautiful valleys and slopes on which these wines began their life. These flavours, textures, scents and colours - each factor forged by a host of submicroscopic compounds unique to your wine - are the product of an alchemy that been perfected by generations of savoir-faire and technique passed down from one winemaker to the next. Wine, after all, is a human invention, but one that requires a harmonious affair with nature. So how do these people do it? How does a winemaker take a woody grapevine root entrenched in soil and ready it to produce a bottle of wine full of personality, waiting impatiently to reveal its secrets to its lucky drinker? At Cuvée Privée, we are proud to offer a deep insight into the unique, symbiotic relationship between vine and winemaker for our lucky adopters. If you enjoy this article, consider embarking yourself on an unparalleled journey into the world of viticulture and oenology with one of our outstanding estates.
A Viticulture Overview
The work of a winemaker of course begins in the vineyard. While they impart a great deal of time and effort in the winery and cellar, none of this is possible without first nurturing and raising successful grapevines. The viticulture and winemaking processes of course vary from region to region, plot to plot, winemaker to winemaker and grape to grape. Different steps will take place at different times to make different types of wine. The following, therefore, is one example of many of a year in the life of a winemaker on the vineyard (in the Northern Hemisphere) and the myriad jobs they will have to carry out to prepare the fruit needed to create their beautiful product. This example starts with a winemaker who already has their vines planted: if they were starting on unworked land, it would require at least three laborious years filled with careful pest-control and close, vigilant study for the newly planted vines to begin giving useful fruit.
Just before November begins, the winemakers will work their fields with ploughs. The logic of ploughing just before winter begins, and just after the last harvest, is to redistribute organic compounds and minerals in the soil, some of which will have been sapped over the course of the previous year’s growth. The ploughing also pushes soil from in-between the rows of the planted vines up against the base of the vine stocks: this will act as a physical barrier against the cold, keeping the vines warm enough to avoid damage from the inevitable winter frosts that are on their way. Most vineyards today use mechanical ploughs and tractors to carry out this process, though some will still employ horses – a romantically bucolic sight for any onlooker that can be seen at Cuvée Privée partner vineyard Château La Roque.
Ol' Fashioned Ploughing: A horse working the fields in Château La Roque
From November until January, the vines will be dormant, bearing no leaves or flowers, instead focusing their energy on surviving the winter and taking up nutrients from the soil with deep roots in preparation for their emergence the following year. At this time, the winemaker will carry out a great deal of preparation for next year’s growth. This begins with preparation of the trellising; lowering the wires and removing the ties on the individual plants. The time-consuming process of pruning then starts, and most of the vines above the main stem (the ‘pied’ or foot) will be clipped away to make room for the buds to sprout again. Pruning continues until the hard, insulating, woody casing over the buds (known as the winter eye) opens up later in the year.
Pruning the vines: a crucial step of preparation
In February still, pruning goes on, and a number of techniques make up the finishing steps of this process, with each region and grape variety favouring its own particular method: “spur pruning, cane pruning, double cordon, single cordon, double guyot, single guyot” to name a few examples. Many of these techniques require a great deal of skill and understanding to carry out properly, with the winemaker inspecting and critically deciding which canes or stems will be responsible for bearing the following year’s fruit. The cuttings from the vines are gathered in the space between the rows and are ingeniously both disposed of and recycled into the remaining vine’s lifecycle simultaneously. These loose sticks are either crushed with a tractor or are burnt in a controlled manner; their debris or ashes provide organic matter and minerals for the growing plants.
The sticks are gathered and crushed into the ground between the vines by a tractor
March arrives and the winemaker is obliged to readdress their trellises as the growth cycle is about to begin. They will need to replace posts damaged by storms, inclement weather and passing machinery and to reinstall wires where they have been broken or tighten them again if they have become loose. The vines will also be "trained" to the trellises for stabilisation and to encourage bud development. The winemaker must keep an exceptionally vigilant eye on their vines at this time of year – small signs given off by the vines can be extremely telling regarding their health and growth rate. One major indicator that things are about to start moving again is when the plants begin to ‘bleed’! Sap rises to the surface of the vine to provide the necessary nutrients for resumption of the growth cycle after dormancy and leaks from the ‘scars’ left by pruning. Our winemakers will use this landmark event as a milestone for planning their coming year’s schedule (though they will still have to be flexible and able to adapt to unpredictable changes in weather, for example, that may impact the growth cycle).
Winemakers often use these branch tying tools to train their vines to the trellis
At the end of March, budbreak takes place and the vines come to life at a staggering rate. Within a matter of weeks, the once drab, woody lumps distributed along the cane of the vine burst open in bright pink and green and unfurl their leaves, abandoning their downy winter undercoats. This can be one of the most challenging times for a winemaker on the vineyard. These tiny buds are exceptionally fragile and very sensitive to the cold – they have, after all, shed their protective woody cover. For this reason, it is the spring frost, more often than winter frost, that is notorious in the world of winemaking. One or two cold nights in spring can have fatal impacts on a harvest, as much of France saw in 2017 when some estates lost over 90% of their typical yield. As such, the winemaker will do everything they can to avoid this damage. There are a whole host of techniques that go into protecting the vines from spring frost, including burning large candles, installing sprinkler systems or turbines and even flying helicopters over the vines to circulate air – yes, really, helicopters! To learn more about this challenging period, read our article on Frost: The Scourge of the Vineyard. Needless to say, however, regardless of which methods are employed, this will be a difficult time on the estate, with many sleepless nights for the winemaker (from both worrying about and tending to the vines – the coldest periods which require the most work are often in the early hours of the morning). As the weather improves, the rows will be tilled again to remove the small insulating mounds of mud left at the base of the plants. Some estates will use a plough for this, with others preferring to take a manual approach, but as you can imagine, hoeing these hardened clods can be very tiring work!
One of the large turbines used to circulate warm air masses to avoid spring frost
Once the leaves are out on the vines, photosynthesis can take place and the plants will have the fuel they need to grow increasingly rapidly. In this period, usually around April and May in France for example, the work of the winemaker continues and they must continue to apply their intuition and judgement to the management of the vine. If the shoots extending from the buds are not trimmed, cut back and some removed, they can very quickly become unruly, growing over each other, blocking sunlight and physically constricting future productive bunches, hampering their development. Equally, shoots may grow from the old wood at the base of the plant that will not be likely to produce fruit. These are known as suckers, as they leach nutrients required by fruiting stems for growth and development, and they also have to be removed in a process known by the French as épamprage. During this time, the vines will grow at a rate of 5 to 15cm per day, and as such the winemaker will constantly have to lift and adjust the trellising to accommodate the increased mass.
Around the time June arrives, the shoots which have been bearing closed inflorescent buds drop their caps and open into clusters of tiny white flowers. This flowering is the beginning of the reproductive cycle for the vine, which is utterly crucial for winemaking. After all, grapes are the vine’s fruit, a capsule of seeds borne from fertilisation in the ovary at the base of the flower. Most grape varieties used for winemaking are hermaphroditic (bear male and female reproductive organs) and therefore are able to self-pollinate, even without the need for pollinating insects. Most pollination occurs between flowers of the same bunch – an incestuous, yet useful scenario for the winemaker, who can be confident as a result that pollination and fruit production will take place. They must still, however, take every precaution to ensure that these processes are encouraged. One significant condition that may both damage a grapevine’s yield and hinder the growth of its berries (known as millerandage) is coulure, where pollination does not occur and the flowers shrivel and fall off prematurely. This can be caused by cold and rainy conditions during the pollination period. While this is in part unavoidable, winemakers must ensure all other environmental factors are perfect to diminish the impact of such conditions: not carrying out defoliation too early, for example, to allow enough shelter for the flowering clusters, and measuring and rectifying soil content and biodiversity.
By the time July has come about, fruit set has taken place: berries have grown in the place of the white flowers that once decorated the vines and gradually begin to swell in size. Because of the heat and the time of year, this is when pests can become a real issue in the vineyard. At Cuvée Privée, we aim to work with winemakers with a sustainable focus, who carry out organic and biodynamic pest control measures. At the Forget-Chemin estate in Champagne for example, small devices known as RAKs are hung on the vines, which give off moth pheromones to confuse pests and prevent them from reproducing and increasing in number. See one of our founders, Marie, explain more about the procedure here. Other clever direct pest-control methods employed by winemakers include mechanical (constant tillage of the soil, mulching or indeed flooding) and biological measures (encouraging the growth of predators, pathogens or even competing pests). Naturally, this is a big job, and will be carried out continuously over the course of the vine’s growth cycle. Also during this period, continued canopy management will be required on all of the vines – another hefty task out in the vineyard.
Cuvée Privée co-founder Marie holds a RAK device used for sexual confusion of vine pests
Véraison (ripening) is the word on everyone’s lips when August comes around. The once small, opaque, green berries will now be swollen and will have changed colour to their recognisable red or yellow (or somewhere in between depending on the variety!). The stems also mature, and turn woody and brown at the same time. Weather conditions will of course dictate when this period begins and for how long it lasts, though naturally it will be at the discretion of the winemaker when they choose to begin the harvest. Before this, though, another important job must be carried out. Different bunches on the same vine will have matured at different rates – as such all of the vines must be trimmed again, removing over-ripe or under-ripe bunches to ensure a consistent and even harvest.
In September, at the behest of the winemaker, the harvest begins and they will spend from one to three weeks with their team working the field collecting the fruits of their labour. Harvest generally starts around 30 – 70 days after fruit set, although this estimate varies and over the last few years the cycle seems to have been speeding up, especially in France; many believe this is a result of global warming and consistently higher temperatures throughout the year. Our co-founder Marie interviewed Francis from the Jourdan & Pichard estate in Chinon on the matter: see a snippet from their conversation here. A number of considerations go into the decision to begin harvest, including the grape’s ratio of sugar to acidity, their phenolic content and the amount of tannin contained in their skins. Refractometers are used by the winemakers to assess sugar content when making this difficult call.
On a great deal of vineyards in France, grapes are harvested by hand. This means teams of workers using shears to collect bunches in huge baskets that are transferred to the winery. For grapes being harvested to use in wine (as opposed to those for consumption as table fruit), mechanical harvest can also be carried out, as typically the bruising caused by this method is less problematic for winemaking grapes. However, for more fragile grapes that break more easily, this is not an option, as grapes with torn skins will oxidise and may grow bacteria. In mechanical harvest, large, sophisticated and expensive vehicles travel down the rows of the vineyard, shaking the vines whose grape bunches resultantly fall onto a conveyor belt. They pass through filters on this belt that remove unwanted foreign objects and debris until they reach a basket which is taken to the winery for the next processes: de-stemming and crushing.
A well-earned bucket toss: that's a lot of hand-picked grapes they've collected...
Once harvest is completed, the vineyards will be readied by the team for next year’s growth, and so the cycle continues.
Winemaking: A Brief Summary
Once the work in the vineyard is “finished”, the job is only half-done of course and the work of the winemaker must continue! The grapes are delivered, unloaded and transferred into smaller containers for processing. During processing, they are sometimes destemmed (particularly for white wines), and then they are crushed to generate the “must” (grape juice). Depending on the type of wine desired, the must sits in its skins, seeds and other residue left over from crushing (collective known as the "pomace") in a process known as maceration for a period of anywhere from three to one hundred days. Maceration is ideal for red wines, where the tannins, aromas and colour from the skin are necessary to create a recognisable finished product. The must is pressed and then fermentation begins (the must is left in the presence of yeast, which breaks down sugars and creates alcohol and carbon dioxide).
Fermentation takes place in wooden barrels/steel tanks, though red wine often undergoes the process in open containers where it is periodically stirred or pushed down (pigeage) to ensure it leaches the desired compounds from the pomace. Fermentation lasts for a number of days or weeks, depending on the wine. Red wine is then pressed and moved into tanks or barrels for ageing (élevage). It will be consistently racked (moved from barrel to barrel/tank to tank) to remove sediment (such as the "lees" – the dead yeast cells) and to impart different flavours from different containers. Ageing time varies from wine to wine (from months to years). Some wines undergo cold stabilisation to avoid tartaric acid build up at the end of the ageing process.
Next, clarification begins. This usually involves filtration to remove unwanted particulate impurities. Fining agents can also be added to remove soluble substances, such as unwanted polymerised tannins and colour phenols. Then it’s time for the all-important “tirage” – bottling. This is normally carried out by sophisticated automatic production lines which remove air from empty bottles, fill them with wine and seal them with a screw cap or a cork. The full bottles are then labelled and stored, ready to be sold! Clearly all stages of the winemaking process require a great deal of consideration and management by the winemaker – it’s a very hands-on occupation.
Bottling: the yearly highlight that every winemaker anticipates with bated breath!
It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it!
So, there you have it, the diverse and intense work of a typical winemaker in making your favourite alcoholic beverage: a true art. And we haven’t even breached the subjects of estate management or commercialisation. All year long, the winemaker is often responsible for the estate on which they work. Hosting vineyard tours, tastings etc., the work doesn’t stop! And then comes securing distributors, marketing the wine, auctions… the list goes on.
Let's go back to your next glass of wine. Take a sip and think of the grape varieties, and the vineyard, and the terroir, and all of the emotions and memories that its flavours invoke. But also think of the winemaker, the unsung hero who has spent countless hours perfecting their chef-d'oeuvre for you to enjoy. To get to know them and their work even better, become a member of the Cuvée Privée family and adopt a vine in one of our exceptional French estates.