There is No Off-Season in Winemaking: Winter on the Farm
If you’re a fan of Virginia Wine, you’ve probably seen your fair share of pictures of tractors rolling through lush, green vineyards. Winemakers and vineyard workers leaf pulling and working with clusters of fully ripe, beautifully colored grapes. And, if you haven’t seen a lot of those images and videos, you DEFINITELY have seen the countless stories and content surrounding harvest and crush season in the fall – undoubtedly the most “documented” part of the winery lifecycle, and rightly so, because it’s beautiful, mesmerizing and unbelievably captivating.
What isn’t documented at nearly the same level is the winter season, or everything after harvest, crush and pre-bud break.
The vineyards are barren, there’s no grapes to press, the available color palate is filled with grey, brown and white.
And, unless there’s a snowstorm, there aren’t a lot of obvious “moments” that, on the surface, are as inspiring to document.
Unless, of course, you can see the beauty in the off-season.
Unless you can see the life happening beneath the surface of winter.
And unless you know that the winter season is one of the busiest and most important times of year at a Vineyard and Winery.
The reality is, there’s no off-season in wine.
Here’s what we mean in this look here behind the scenes of what we’ve been up to here at Wessex Hundred.
Put a Cork in It
The winter, especially the first part of the new year, is when The Williamsburg Winery bottles!
Usually, it’s during this time that the previous year’s vintage of whites (in this case the 2019 grapes), and when the red wines from two years ago (vintage 2018) make their way from barrel (or tank) to bottle.
Why the delay on reds? Red wines typically age longer than white.
Because a majority of the white wines see no oak at all, they can be bottled in the early part of the year. For those whites that do age in oak, they’ll be bottled in the late spring.
The Williamsburg Winery has its own bottling line at Wessex Hundred, and as a result, isn’t forced to bottle all at once, so can easily space it out throughout the year (even though most of the bottling does happen in winter).
A Little of This, A Little of That
The Williamsburg Winery blends in the winter.
Well, blend may be a bit misleading.
Chances are, when you hear blend, you think first of a Bordeaux-style blend such as the Gabriel Archer Reserve or a mixed white blend like A Midsummer Night’s White.
But even varietal wines may still be “blended.” For example, a 100% Chardonnay wine can be a blend of multiple vineyard lots of Chardonnay, or Chardonnay from the same vineyard, but a blend of some aged in oak and another lot in stainless steel.
This is when the winemaking team really makes their creative mark on the vintage.
Under the Surface in the Cellar
If you’ve ever done a tour of The Williamsburg Winery in the winter, you may have noticed a lot of loud noises and what appears to be “commotion” in the cellar.
Hoses are draped all over the cellar floor, the booming sound of barrels being rolled echo throughout the building.
The winemakers could definitely save a lot of money on gym memberships this time of year because it’s pretty physical, labor intensive work that happens when the winemaking team reorganizes, or better yet, re-catalogs the cellar.
After bottling, the now empty barrels need to be washed and prepared for the incoming vintage. The wines that are blended and need further aging, usually reds, are pumped from barrels as single varietals, together into a tank, and re-pumped into neutral oak barrels for another six to 12 months (on average) where they’ll age together as the final blend.
Barrels that have been used four to five times are usually retired at this point and sold off to a waiting list or to other craft beverage producers in the beer and spirits industries.
Spur pruning is the removal of the part of the grape vine that the grapes grew and hung from the previous year (the tall vertical extensions) from all 42+ acres at Wessex Hundred.
Each year, the vines are pruned back to the canes, where later in the spring new spurs will push out during a process called “bud break.”
This long, labor intensive process is done by hand with big sheers.
FUN FACT: Chef David McClure uses a majority of the vine clippings to smoke meats, fish and vegetables at the Gabriel Archer Tavern and Café Provençal.
So, if you ever see “grapevine smoked” on any of menus, that is where it came from!
The degree to which the farm plants each year varies, but for the last several years, The Williamsburg Winery has done significant vineyard expansions, with most of that activity taking place towards the tail end of winter and the beginning of spring.
In 2019, The Williamsburg Winery planted five acres, made up mostly of Petit Verdot and Tannat. This year, in 2020, The Williamsburg Winery is undergoing one of its largest vineyard expansions in the 35+ year history of the farm (8.5 acres of four varietals – Tannat, Petit Verdot, Muscat Blanc and Muscat Ottonell).
Throughout early winter 2019, and into early winter 2020, the farm team has been hard at work preparing the soil, installing the posts and getting everything in place for the install, which is expected to kick off before the first day of spring.
You’ll want to stay tuned!