Strategies for Getting Grapes Safely To Crush

It’s important for vintners who make estate wines to grow good grapes, but safely shepherding them to crush time is also essential to good winemaking.

Head Winemaker David Smith said Gervasi Vineyard’s storage room at their estate in Canton, Ohio plays a big role in facilitating that crucial step.

“We are fortunate in that we have a dedicated ‘cold room,’” Smith said. “This is a refrigerated space in the winery that we use to store the freshly picked fruit until we are ready to process it.”

Even for those with dedicated chilled spaces, having a strategy is key to making sure the grapes are in good shape when they head to crush.

Smith, for instance, said they harvest their fruit early in the morning while the grapes are cool.

“Typically we are crushing the grapes within 48 hours or less of harvest, so keeping them cold is the only protection step we use consistently,” Smith explained.

Creativity abounds for winemakers without dedicated cold rooms, but getting the grapes to crush quickly is a common strategy.

How they do that, of course, varies per winemaker.

In Richmond, Kentucky, winemaker Alex Southwell doesn’t take a lackadaisical approach to get freshly harvested grapes that are mostly used to make sweet wines to crush at Chenault Vineyards.

“During harvest, I actually crush all day as my staff is picking,” Southwell said. “This is something I started last year and it has helped a lot.

“While staff is picking I will go through and start picking up bins and taking them back to crush. Not only does this protect the grapes, but it also streamlines the process.”

Tomas Moreno, vineyard manager at Bel Lago in Leelanau County, Michigan, said getting the grapes out of the sun quickly is crucial, as is making sure they’re covered.

“We store them inside the barn,” he said.  “And we keep the lids closed on the picking bins to make sure water doesn’t get inside if it rains. When the bins are on the crush pad, we have to put them in the shade to make sure the sun doesn’t hit the clusters, and we need to keep them covered because rainwater getting into the bin can water down the flavor.”

In the Spanish province of Valencia, technical director Juanjo Muñoz said Bodegas Murviedro takes the sun completely out of the equation.

“We harvest at night whenever possible, and ensure that as little time as possible takes place between harvest and crush,” he explained.

Gene Estes, founder of Lost Oak Winery in Burleson, Texas agreed with the notion of crushing after harvest as soon as possible, sending them directly to the crusher/destemmer and the press. But Lost Oak sources some of its grapes from the western portion of the state, and a different strategy is used to keep them safe during transport, which can take as long as eight hours.

“In these cases, we ask our growers to add dry ice to the fruit in the bins and the truck must be refrigerated and kept at 35 degrees until arrival at our processing facility,” Estes said. “The grapes are then stored inside of the facility until they are processed. Processing is required within 4-12 hours, max.”

Winemakers whom Vintner Magazine spoke with said both metrics and visual cues help determine when it’s the right time to pick.

Moreno said using a refractometer out in the vineyard helped give him a rough idea of the sugar levels and Brix in the grape. He uses that information to tell him when it’s time to bring the sample to the lab for a closer look.

“I put 100 grapes in a zip-up bag, and they crush them inside the bag,” Moreno said. “We pour the juice into the beaker and measure the pH and Brix.”

Estes uses technical measurements as well, but he said there are visual cues he looks for.

Some of those at Lost Oak include a yellow to yellow-brown seed color (“No green,” he said), crunchy seeds, and dark red skins for red varieties and soft green-yellow to yellow for white varieties.

“Some shrivel of skins is usually a plus for red varieties,” he added.

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