We finished pressing out the last of this year’s harvest just before Halloween. The weather sort of cooperated: no hard freeze in October, but lots of cold, rainy days to end the season. Overall, the 2018 grapes were a little lower in sugar than last year, but also, on the positive side, lower in acid. It appears the hot weather we had for the end of summer was great, but the extremely high humidity may have contributed to the lower sugar levels. Grape vines “transpire”: This is the moisture the vine gives off to the atmosphere. High temperatures and wind can increase transpiration; however, high humidity, which we experienced in August and September, prevented this moisture transfer because the air was already saturated with water, resulting in larger berries that were lower in sugar. For low sugar conditions in the grapes, the winemaker can “Chaptalize” (named after French doctor and chemist Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal). This is a process of adding sugar to the grape juice before fermentation to allow the yeast to work longer and the finished wine to have a slightly higher alcohol level. This practice is most often seen in northern regions of France, Germany and the United States. The 2018 grape crop turned out to be pretty good, with some excellent yields. That makes it two years in a row with decent grape production, following up a difficult stretch from 2014-2016.
In the winery, certain grape varieties are finishing up fermentation, where all the sugar has been converted to alcohol. At this point, many red wines and some white wines get a secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation. The wine is inoculated with a malolactic bacteria to convert the naturally occurring harsh malic acid into the softer lactic acid. This process can take several weeks, and some carbon dioxide gas is given off. In the end, the wine will be less fruity and a bit more mellow; this works very well for barrel-aged red wines and chardonnay. Often the wine is then racked off the “lees." The lees are the sediment in the bottom of the tank or barrel after fermentation has been completed; they are composed mainly of expired yeast cells. This also is a step to clarify the wines. There is a style of winemaking called “sur lie,” mainly used in white wines, where the lees are left in contact with the wine for several months to several years. Long-term contact with the lees can make the wine a bit smoother and creamier, and is often used in the production of barrel-aged chardonnays. This is also the time we clean up and store the grape-picking boxes, the crushing destemming machine, the press and a lot of equipment that was used in the winemaking process.
With Thanksgiving on the horizon, now is a great time to visit Finger Lakes wineries and taste the wines they have available in their tasting rooms. What to have with your turkey dinner? It’s really a personal choice: Rieslings are great, pinot noir is excellent, there’s nothing wrong with a rosé, and cabernet franc can be outstanding! Ask the winemaker at your favorite winery; they may have some excellent recommendations. So go out and experiment with all types of wines before your holiday dinners and parties, and have a great Thanksgiving!