It is rare that your timing of a visit to a winemaker coincides with the harvest and it is rarer still to get a tour during this busiest of times in a winery. So we thought we would share the story and photographs that we took during our visit to Achaval Ferrer in Mendoza, Argentina.
As every winemaker will tell you the wine starts in the vineyard - if you don't have the right grapes you can't make the right wine. In the picture above (taken from the Achaval Ferrer winery) you see the Andes in the background which provide the water to drip-irrigate the vines that actually grow in the desert.
The process starts with the grapes being hand-picked in the early morning and placed in small crates for delivery to the winery. Here they are loaded into a conveyor system that transports them to the cleaning table.
At the cleaning table leaves, bad bunches and berries and other items that they don't want in the wine are removed.
The de-stemmer removes the grapes from the stems. Whole bunches are put into a cylindrical drum which has a spindle with arms reminiscent of a coat stand.
The single berries are then poured continuously onto a berry sorting table where any unripe or damaged berries are removed. We were given malbec berries to taste. Thinking about how tannic the wine is, what was really surprising was how sweet the grape flesh was. The berries were small, the skin was thick and the pip was disproportionately large.
The berries are then pumped into concrete tanks. Achaval Ferrer differs from most wineries over the next few stages. Most wineries in hot countries do cold maceration; leaving the skins in contact with the grape must to extract colour and tannin before fermentation begins. They then increase the temperature (or rather, reduce the cold) to start fermentation. So most wineries are full of stainless steel tanks as the process, end to end, takes 25 to 30 days.
Concrete tanks were used before stainless steel for cold fermentation was developed. The maceration and fermentation process at Achaval Ferrer takes 6 to 10 days. As the the skins break the must runs and fermentation starts. This produces gasses that push the skins upwards to the top of the tank. During this time the wine is pumped over the skin cap almost continuously to ensure contact with the skins and to allow the alcohol that is developed to evaporate and thus reduce the alcohol levels.
When fermentation is complete the wine is drawn off into oak barrels for maturation. The best wines are put into new barrels whilst ordinary wines go into barrels that have been used one or twice before (referred to as second or third fill). New oak imparts greater flavours and tannins to the wine. After many fills an old oak barrel hardly imparts any wood flavours or tannins and the wine can taste as though it had never seen wood.
Wines spend anywhere from 6 months to 2 years in oak before they are bottled. Wines may be stored in bottles for up to 18 months to 2 years before they are released for consumption.
Removing leaves and bad bunches
Lifting to the de-stemmer
Pumping over the skin cap
Pumping over fermenting wine to release alcohol
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