We’re entering that time of year in Wine Country when the word “crush” gets thrown around. Yes, crush is a word describing high school puppy love, but in the land of wine it signals the beginning of one of the best times of year, when the grapes are harvested and crushed (literally) to make wine.
Crush may bring about ‘I Love Lucy’ images of stomping grapes with your bare feet – and that Old World tradition is still used today by some wineries – but there are also more modern practices happening during harvest season. We thought we’d give you a rundown of what crush means in Wine Country!
What is Crush?
Definitions of crush vary from winemaker to winemaker. Some loosely refer to crush as the entire harvest from picking the grapes in August through November to the time when the wine is in the bottle, aka “harvest season.” But it’s more typically defined as the period just after the grapes are harvested, when the fruit gets crushed and the juice is ready to be made into wine.
Crush is one of the main steps in the winemaking process, which includes harvesting, crushing and pressing, fermentation, fining/clarification, and then aging and bottling. It may sound simple, but it’s actually more complicated than many realize.
In the Field
Courtesy of Unsplash | Rohit Tandon
The period culminating in grape crush starts when the grapes begin to change color, known as veraison, which usually happens in July or August. As the grapes ripen, the amount of sugar in the fruit increases and eventually, those sugars will ferment into alcohol. During this time, winemakers will closely monitor the vines to determine when the grapes should be picked, a process that can find them in the vineyards daily to taste and take samples for testing sugar and pH levels.
Pick Me, Pick Me
Courtesy of Unsplash | Vindemia Winery
While winemakers have their personal preferences regarding pick times, based on whether they want higher levels of acid or more ripe, fruit-forward notes, the weather also impacts when the grapes are picked and the pick date can easily vary every year.
Generally speaking, grapes for sparkling wines are usually picked first (lower pH), while grapes for dessert wines are typically the final ones picked (more sugar). For high quality and/or small-production wines, grapes are usually picked by hand, which requires a lot of labor. For most mass-production wines, the grapes are harvested by machine for the sake of time and money. The biggest downside to harvesting by machine is that the grapes have to be sorted for quality and ripeness, and to remove debris after they are picked, but many small wineries still hand-sort for quality control to ensure nothing out of the ordinary is going in the wine.
We’ve Got A Crush
Courtesy of Unsplash | Vindemia Winery
After the grapes are sorted for quality, the winemaker decides whether or not to remove the stems (if the stems are left on for fermentation, it’s referred to as ‘whole cluster’). Essentially, leaving the stems on adds tannin structure and flavor, but some grapes don’t need that extra oomph.
The destemmed grapes are then gently squeezed to release the juice. Traditionally, the grapes were crushed by foot, but more often today mechanical crushers are used to separate the grape skins and juice.
For white and sparkling wines, the grape juice isn’t usually exposed to the grape skins or else you’ll end up with colored wine, so the grapes are gently pressed to prevent the juices from mixing with the skins. For most red wines, keeping the juices and the skin together during fermentation is a key factor in adding color, texture, flavor, and body.
F is for Fermentation
Courtesy of Unsplash | Danielle Comer
Once the grapes are pressed and crushed, the ‘must’ – the juices and grape pomace – is allowed to rest. Spontaneous fermentation can start naturally, but many winemakers add certain strains of yeast to kick start the fermentation process and/or to have more control. Yeast then consumes the grape sugars and converts it to alcohol – what differentiates grape juice from wine!
After the crush period, winemaking techniques can vary greatly, depending on the final results desired, but may include Malolactic fermentation, lees aging, and fining and filtration. And that’s all before the wine is aged and bottled. Quite a process, right?
The next time you enjoy a bottle of wine, think of everything that went on behind-the-scenes before reaching your glass. There’s so much that goes into making a bottle of wine, so if you get a chance to witness ‘crush’ at a local winery, don’t miss it!