From grape to glass: what it takes to bring brilliant wine to bottle
It might a lifetime to reach the winemaking rank of our chief winemaker & director, David Lowe, or seasoned Lowe winemaker, Tim White, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t appreciate the craft. With the Lowe winery team in the thick of another vintage, we were on the ground to catch a glimpse of the process, from hand picking grapes to the busy weeks that follow. And with Tim in our ear with every detail, below we’ve distilled a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to make great wine.
It all starts in the vineyard
Long before the grapes are picked, they’re managed using organic & biodynamic practices to ensure they’re of the best quality possible. In lieu of pesticides, we turn to our biodynamic preparations, specifically Preps 501 + 508 to keep our vines healthy. As atmospheric preparations, these sprays target the fruit and foliage of crops; 501 enhances the photosynthesis process to bring light and vitality to the plants, and in our case, supports the ripening of grapevines in the weeks before harvest. Meanwhile, 508 fights off fungal growth and botritys on grapevines, a significant step during any pre-harvest rainfall.
In the lead up to harvest, our winemakers take weekly samples of the grapes to assess sugar and acid levels. In line with the moon’s cycle, our biodynamic calendar identifies the best fruit days to harvest our grapes, although some years – like this one – we have to be a bit flexible to work around the heavier rainfall.
From vineyard to winery
When it’s time to harvest, our team begins at sunrise. By handpicking, there is little to no juice lost from the grapes, so the bunches can be refrigerated overnight. By chilling the grapes, the temperature drops to around zero degrees, which helps reduce oxidation during crushing.
Machine-picked grapes, on the other hand, will typically have the skins pierced, exposing the juice to oxygen and bacteria that would affect the wine if left overnight, so those grapes are processed as soon as possible.
What happens next all depends on the grape varietal and the wine they’re destined to become. Most grapes are destemmed and crushed in a machine that removes the stems and gently pops each grape on the way through; for some of our wines, however, we leave a percentage as whole bunches.
“Good vineyard practices make better, more balanced wine. Tannins, for example, are influenced by sunlight, so good leaf cover on the vines can reduce that before the winemaking stage. The biodynamic vineyards here at Tinja make exceptional fruit, which is one of the key points of biodynamics, along with sustainability and a holistic nature to the farm.”
Dr Tim White, Winemaker
For red wines, the grapes are then moved to fermenting vats, like our beeswax-lined concrete tanks, where they’re fermented with the juice in contact with the skins to create a beautiful colour.
With the skins incorporated, red wine needs to be pressed off the skins at the end of the ferment. Shortly before all of the sugar in the grapes is eaten up, we drain off as much of the wine as we can, then scoop all the skins into the basket press. The press will then gradually get to greater and greater pressure until all the wine is pressed out and moved into tanks.
There is a secondary fermentation which happens on red wine called a malolactic fermentation that softens the acid in the red wine. Once that starts, we move the wine to barrels until all the malic acid is depleted. At this stage, it’s no longer cloudy and is much closer to the finished product. We take it out of the barrel and stabilise it, then put it back in the barrel to age – between 12-18 months depending on the wine.
White, rose & sparkling wines
When it comes to white wine, sparkling, and rose, the grapes are pumped into the press, a horizontal, stainless steel tank in which grapes are pressed by an inflatable airbag to squeeze the juice out. The press is programmed to define how hard the grapes are pressed, the length of each press, the number of repetitions, and how many times we rotate after each press. All of these factors influence the quality of the juice.
The programs are altered depending on the varietal, as well as what the winemakers want from the grapes (flavour, aroma), or don’t want (phenolics, which produce tannins in red wine, but leave a grittiness in white wines). If necessary, we add a vegan-friendly pea and potato based protein mix to the juice to remove traces of phenolics.
At the end of the press phase, the grape skins are added to our compost heap, and – along with our sunflower crops – help distract the cockatoos from feasting on our grapes yet to be harvested.
The tricks of the winemaking trade
The wine from the press goes through a cold settling process in tank, which settles the solids from the juice to get rid of the cloudiness. The clear juice can then be transferred to another tank, where yeast is added and temperatures rise slightly. Winemaker Tim White says:
“Fining is a term referring to everything we add to the juice or wine to make it better - to make it finer. I like to fine our wine as little as possible, because everything you add changes the wine - you’re not just fining out the bad stuff, you’re also losing a bit of the good stuff. So it’s a real balance.”
Yeast, specifically Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is what transforms sugar into alcohol and is therefore essential to the winemaking process. Yeast can be added or fermentation can start ‘wild’ with indigenous yeast present on the grapes.
“We manage nutrient and temperature for the yeast so they can be comfortable while they work - if they get stressed they will make unpleasant flavours in the wine. Each ferment is checked twice daily by the winemaking team with this in mind and adjustments made all the while.”
After a white wine has finished fermenting we will chill and begin stabilising it to get ready for bottling, although some wines (like Chardonnay) might end up in barrel to develop more complexity. “The shortest time from harvest to bottling I’ve seen was one month, and we hope to have our rosés and white wines into bottle before June (November for Chardonnay).”
Next stop, your glass…
Once these busy weeks and months come to a close and all the wines are safely tucked away in their tanks or barrels, our winemakers can catch their breath and shake off the stress of another vintage. The work of a winemaker never stops, and there will be countless checks & tricks used to ensure we’re bottling only the best, but it’s safe to say there’s no crazier time in a winery than vintage.
Every wine follows its own timeline, and with another vintage creeping toward the finish line, we’re excited about all the 2022 vintages we’ll be bringing to your wine glass in the coming months and years.
Be sure to look out for our winemakers on your next cellar door visit; you might just catch a glimpse of your favourite wines being made.
Words & video by Hannah Edensor & Tim White. Images by Tim White