It’s just turned 3am on a balmy January morning and winemaker Jo Nash has arrived at the McPherson Wine Co’s winery in Victoria, Australia, ready to start the day’s Crush.
While for us in the UK, January weather is pretty bleak, Australia is in the midst of summer. This year, the south eastern region of Victoria saw near perfect harvest weather – plenty of rain during the growing period but dry throughout harvest and warm temperatures. Today it’s scheduled to hit 38°C, not unusual for February in this part of Australia.
In the world of wine, Crush signals the beginning of one of the best times of year. Definitions of Crush vary from winemaker to winemaker; some loosely refer to Crush as the entire harvest from picking the grapes through to the time when the wine is in the bottle. But it’s more typically defined as picking and crushing the grapes, which is more complicated than many realise.
During the growing season, in the lead up to picking, wine growers tend to their grapes constantly – pruning, weeding and keeping away hungry birds or animals. Finally, the grapes start to change colours during middle to late summer. Unlike other types of farmers, grape growers want their vines to hold less grapes because the grapes ripen more and are of a higher quality. Fewer leaves on the vines is also desirable so the fruit gets more sun exposure.
As the grapes ripen, the amount of sugar in the fruit increases and those sugars will eventually ferment into alcohol. Winemakers will closely monitor the grapes to determine when they’re ready to be picked and might even taste them or test them in a lab for sugar and pH levels.
The winemaker’s universe centres on a series of critical decisions and one of the most important is deciding when to harvest. They must delicately assess how the fruit has ripened and determined each vineyard block’s average sugar content. Grapes are picked by varietal because each varietal ripens at different times.
Once picked, it’s all about getting fruit to the winery quickly. Grapes are harvested overnight or in the early morning (depending on the winery) and rushed to the winery where they are crushed and de-stemmed (a process that liberates individual berries). At McPherson Wine Co grapes are harvested overnight, hence Jo’s early start.
Harvesting at night results in better wine and lower energy costs. Daytime temperatures change the sugar composition of grapes so picking at night when sugar levels are stable keeps surprises from happening during fermentation.
“Harvest can last anything from eight to 12 weeks, depending on the season,” Jo explains. “During this time we usually work six or seven days per week, 12 – 14 hours per day. And, the winemaker is always on call, which could mean a call out during the middle of the night.”
State of the art crushing equipment awaits the arrival of the grapes and, once the highest quality grapes have been sorted, the Crush can officially begin. Crushing the grapes and letting the juice come out allows the yeast to start fermenting, which is a key part of the winemaking process. For many white and sparkling wines, the grape juice cannot be exposed to the grape skins but for most other types of wines, mixing the juices and the skin during fermentation is very important. Pressing grapes instead of crushing them can help prevent the juices from mixing with the skins.
Instead of using bare feet to Crush the grapes, most wineries, including McPherson, now use crusher-destemmer machines to Crush and remove the stems from the grapes. The grapes are funnelled from containers into the machine, destemmed and then crushed. Then the grapes move into containers for fermentation.
Once the Crush is over, the grape juice is on its way to becoming wine which is where Jo’s expertise as a winemaker comes to the fore: “The winemaking team has so much control over the whole process, you can easily see the passion and skill involved. There is a definite science behind winemaking, but its more than just chemistry – winemaking is science and art together.
“You’ll be surprised how many people think we spend our days tasting wines and having long lunches. Don’t get me wrong, we do taste our wines to make sure the taste and quality is right, but years of hard work need to be done before we can get to this point.
“Anyone thinking of becoming a winemaker will find it an incredibly rewarding career – there’s few other products which make people smile so much as wine. But they need to be prepared to work hard and not give up, and always listen to feedback both good and bad.”
McPherson Wine Co wines are available to the UK trade exclusively through Lanchester Wines. Please visit www.lanchesterwines.co.uk for more details