It’s December. The cellar is quiet. The cacophony of harvest has faded. The wines have completed primary fermentation and are finishing in barrel. Now, we begin the slow journey through elevage – making decisions that will effect a wine’s arc of potability. It sounds like a heady task, but following a few very simple routines can result in a successful wine program.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

What do I mean by ‘wine program’?  For the branded winery, having a wine program means making and releasing wines on a schedule, with a house style that is both unique and recognizable to the public.

For the micro-winery, a wine program is principally deciding which wine to make, making the wine, and bottling it. If you have intentions to sell the wine, then this too would become a part of the program.

To this end, each variety that you make should be understood as a construct of aromas and flavors that are captured by the winemaker and enjoyed by the consumer. Harvesting those flavors and aromas has as much to do with the grape as it does with how the wine is treated before, during, and after fermentation.

Tasting wines of a similar style and/or variety is one very important way to begin this process. Knowing how you want your wine to taste can help you to plan out the processes that are imperative to your success.

Let’s take a look at three ‘wine programs’ and how they might be conceptualized – an early release white wine; a dry white wine meant for some aging; and a red wine meant for extensive aging. Included in these wine programs are a series of steps/tips that one would follow when making each type of wine.

An early release/aromatic white wine (sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, riesling) would be harvested in the early autumn, gently pressed, the juice fermented to a desired dryness, sulfured, clarified, fined, filtered and bottled.

The ideal time frame from harvest to bottle is about six months. The resulting wine would likely have vibrant acidity and elevated aromas of fruit, but would not likely age well and so should be enjoyed young.

Wines of this category are typically handled with kid gloves. The grapes have signature aromas and flavors that are sensitive to over oxidation, over pressing, and high temperature fermentations. A cool fermentation (~60ºF) for about 30 days is ideal in neutral oak or stainless steel. The use of new oak is a matter of discussion.

When fermentation is complete, the wine should be sulfured and any ullage (headspace) should be kept to a minimum by means of frequent topping up with wine of the same vintage. A conscientious practice of maintaining a moderate level of free sulfur can help retain aromas and freshness.

Early release white wines are typically bottled clear and bright. Prior to bottling, the wine should be clarified by gravity and fining, and finally cold filtered. An addition of sulfur after filtering should keep the wine healthy and drinkable for up to two years.

Having the equipment and the means to make this style of wine is perhaps the easiest and most cost effective. If you are making and selling this type of wine, promoting it and releasing it about six weeks after bottling is ideal.

A dry white wine that is meant for aging (chardonnay, for example) would be harvested in the early autumn, gently pressed, the juice fermented to dryness, lees stirred for several months as the wine pursues malolactic conversion (ML), sulfured when ML is completed, clarified, fined, filtered and bottled.

The ideal time frame from harvest to bottle is about 10 months. The resulting wine would have depth and body, with ripe fruity aromas and rich flavors, and could age well over several years.

It depends who you talk to. White wines are either meant to age, or they are not. Most of the protocols for early release white wines can be applied to age worthy whites, the only major difference is the use of ML conversion, lees stirring, and the use of new oak barrels.

Together, the conversion of the malic acid (green apple) in the wine to lactic acid (butter) and frequent stirring of the lees (dead yeast and nutrients) in a new oak barrel enriches the wine. ML conversion and lees stirring gives the wine a rounder mouthfeel and a smoother finish and helps to ward off the effects of oxygen and bottle aging.

Just like early release whites, age worthy white wines are bottled clear and bright. Prior to bottling, the wine should be clarified by gravity, then fining, and finally cold filtered. An addition of sulfur after filtering should keep the wine healthy and drinkable for several years.

If you are also selling this kind of wine, promoting the wine and releasing it about three months after bottling is ideal.

A red wine meant for aging (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sangiovese) would be harvested late in the autumn and de-stemmed. The must (grapes and juice) would be fermented together and pressed off to barrel where the wine would go through ML conversion. When ML is completed, the wine should be racked clean from its settlings and sulfured. An extended aging in barrel should follow, after which the wine would be racked and bottled. The time frame for aged red wines can take years.

Just as age worthy white wines benefit from ML conversion, so do age worthy red wines. But red wines have an added benefit in that they absorb color and tannin from the skins of the grapes as the juice and grapes go through primary fermentation together.

These phenolic compounds protect the wine against oxygen and give the wine a structure which aids its ability to withstand years and sometimes decades of aging.

To ensure your red wine program follows the course of your intentions, it is important to properly manage the extraction of tannins, flavors, and aromas during primary fermentation. One way to do this is by controlling your fermentation temperatures.

For instance, cooler temperatures (70-80ºF) retain more aromatics and alcohol. Warmer temperatures (85-95ºF) extract more color and phenolic compounds. Knowing how to handle the grapes can help you make a more precise wine.

Like all wine, reds also create lees, which should be left behind at every possible opportunity. For instance, when primary fermentation is complete and the grapes have been pressed and the resulting wine is in a container, it will drop a heavy sediment. This sediments is known as lees. The clean wine should be removed from the lees and the lees should be discarded. The clean wine should be placed in barrel and frequently topped up with wine of the same vintage.

After several months of aging, the wine should be racked and blended and sulfured before going back to barrel for additional aging.

Depending on your wine program, the reds can be aged in barrel and/or bottle for as little as six months, or as many as five years.

Deciding when to release a bottled red wine is very important. While some believe a red wine should be released only when the wine has matured and is ready to drink, others release their wines when the wine is young and vibrant, allowing the consumer to decide when it is time to drink the wine.

Every winery’s wine program varies from another. No one does everything the same way. And the concepts change for each wine program, with each vintage, every success and failure.

The basics of your own wine program begin with knowing what’s happening in the cellar, what should happen, and why you prefer one strategy over another. This comes from experience, and exposure to repeated winemaking attempts.

Knowing how you want your wine to taste will dictate your winemaking strategies. My cellar motto: Attention to detail for each wine, every barrel, every time.

In the end, as winemakers, our goal should be that each bottle of wine is as fresh and delicious as it can be, for as long as possible. Being able to see each step of the process ensures that each vintage is a success – from the vineyard to the bottle, and several years beyond.

* Check out my other articles about winemaking.