There are several steps that go into making your favorite wine before you find yourself swirling your glass and pairing the drink in perfect cheese harmony. Whether you consider yourself a wine connoisseur with an expert palate, or just an ordinary “Thirsty Thursday” participant, you might still be curious as to how wine is made.
Grape vines are planted in early spring when temperatures are mild. Soil preparation is necessary, and usually done the winter before.
Soil tests provide insight to what kind of soil is present, the pH levels, and any nutrient deficiencies it may have. Depending on the results, soil amendment may need to take place to provide the best soil structure.
An irrigation system is a method in which water is supplied to the vines at regular and measured intervals. Applying water deeply and into the roots, away from the leaves and the fruit, will allow for ideal growth. The amount of water used varies by climate and amount of rainfall the plants the receive. Here at Wheat State, we water the plants about 2 to 3 gallons per week.
In viticultural areas where the land is more valuable (such as California’s Napa Valley, France or Italy), vines are usually planted 6’ apart in rows 8’ wide. In the midwest, vines are usually planted 6-8′ apart in rows 10’ wide. This allows room to get a tractor easily down the rows.
Vines require adequate sunlight, so planting them north to south is ideal to allow for both sides of the vines to get sun as it shifts from east to west.
When to Harvest Grapes
Grape growers don’t let new vines grow fruit for two years! Once their root system has been established, they are ready to support the weight of the job.
The correct time to harvest grapes relies on several factors: geographical location, ripeness, and the type of grape. In a warm climate, grapes will ripen faster due to sunlight. Harvest can begin as early as August to September. Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin are examples of grape varieties that are harvested early.
In cold climates, harvests generally take place in late September to early October to allow for additional ripening time. Grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are picked later in the year.
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Grapes don’t continue to ripen once picked, so it’s important to pick at the perfect time because there’s no turning back! There is a scientific way to check ripeness—a process known as Brix. Brix measures sugar levels and estimates alcohol content in the grapes to ensure a correct harvest date. Different styles of wine require different Brix levels. Grapes are also harvested based on the pH level of the fruit as well as the ripeness.
How Are Grapes Harvested?
There are actually a couple of ways that grapes can be harvested—an old school way and a new school way. Hand-picking grapes is one method. While this method can sometimes be less efficient and more expensive, it does allow for better precision and handling of the grape.
Workers can determine which grapes are ideal and which ones may need more time on the vine. These manual harvests can last from early morning to late evening, taking up several days depending on how many vines there are.
At Wheat State, we start Harvest in the mornings are usually done by noon, due to the smaller nature of our vineyard. When we pick, we invite our customers to come help. We offer everyone a free shirt, lunch (and a great time!). If we get 30-50 people we can make pretty short work of it.
Machine harvesting is also an option. These machines work by hitting the vine until the grapes fall off onto collecting trays. Really! Even though the vines take a beating, the machines allow for work to continue even if it’s dark outside. This improves productivity by speeding up the process. A vineyard will sometimes mix these two techniques as they both offer their own advantages.
Turning Grapes Into Wine
After a harvest, the crush process is the first step for turning the grapes to wine. This method is exactly as it sounds—the grapes are crushed! These aren’t the traditional barefoot grape crushing techniques you are probably thinking of, but rather they involve a machine. The grapes are destemmed and then crushed to separate the insides from the skins and the seeds. White grapes are pressed to extract the juice, then the sediment is separated from the liquid. Red grapes are lightly crushed, along with their skins, and set aside in a fermentation tank.
Fermentation is a process that all wines must go through to convert the sugar to alcohol. This is achieved by adding yeast to the vats. Red grapes will be pressed after fermentation is complete, then they will begin the aging process in barrels.
Aging the wine can be done in different ways depending on the desired outcome. It is a process that can be done in weeks, or it can take several years. Red wines are generally aged longer to highlight the flavor compounds, while white wines are meant to keep their light flavor. Aging can also be done in barrels made of different materials such as oak, French oak, stainless steel, or ‘toasted’ barrels.
Next, the wines are bottled and can either be drunk right away, or left for further aging.
Experience the Winemaking Process
This year at Wheat State Wine Co, we harvested 24,000 pounds of fruit from our vineyard that made over 2000 gallons of wine!
If you want to experience the vine to wine process firsthand, we offer free winery tours and tastings. And if you want to taste the fruits of all these labors, you can find our wines in these restaurants and stores. We also offer online ordering (state restrictions apply).