What’s in your wine? An insider’s guide to winemaking
Winemaking begins with two months of early mornings, late nights, twenty-hour days, bleary eyes, blisters, bruises and splinters, headaches and hangovers. Then there’re dirty socks, wet boots, and aching feet, tired bones, filthy clothes, and foul mouths, day after day without a day off in sight. All whilst shoulder-to-shoulder with other sweaty, dirty-grape-juice-and-wine-covered sleep-deprived maniacs who’ve come from all corners of the globe with the common goal of turning grapes into wine. Living, working, drinking, craving coffee—together on the cusp of breaking point. All while seemingly vanishing, as far as friends and family in the real world are concerned.
Who would put themselves through this, you may ask?
Well I do, and I fucking love it! I’m Nathan Reeves and I’m one half of a small Yarra Valley-based wine label Out of Step. Wine is my passion. When I’m not making, thinking about or drinking wine, I’m either travelling or surfing. I love what I do so much I don’t consider it work. Making wine is the opportunity to witness, smell, taste, listen to and nurture its miraculous transformation from grapes. Friendships are cast in the cellar that can survive distance and time. It’s a chance to live, laugh and share the passion. It’s golden clouds, sunrises and sunsets, it’s travelling, adventure, cold beer and music. Because there is a unique story in every wine, told as the expression of a season, a climate, a piece of earth, a grapevine, a grapegrower, a winemaker and all of those crazy travellers. Then after harvest it’s the tranquil beauty and peace of winter in cellar, surrounded by the misty, dormant and sleeping vineyards, the wine gently maturing in barrel with rain splashing at the winery doors.
Because learning to make great wine takes a lifetime—and it’s fucking delicious to drink!
In this 3-part series I’ll offer insight into the effort, focus and commitment it takes, the production process and some of the science behind making wine from the vineyard to bottle.
PART 1 – HARVEST
It’s 2 am on a mid-March Wednesday morning in the middle of the 2014 Southern Hemisphere grape harvest. I’m in a rental truck, bouncing along the Northern highway about ninety minutes north of Melbourne, on my way to a vineyard in the central Victorian wine region of Heathcote, to harvest Grenache grapes which are well-suited to the soil and climate found there—it’s warmer, drier and less influenced by the Southern ocean. It’s the fourth trip I’ve made there in two weeks, to pick Shiraz, and later to sample bunches from the longer-ripening Grenache and Mourvèdre vines.
My business partner Dave and I complete the entire process, from the vineyard sampling and subsequent harvest, the following winemaking, laboratory work, bottling, through to delivery to many bars, restaurants and wine shops in Melbourne. It’s just the two of us, and that’s how we want it. Three days ago, Dave returned from the five-hour round trip with our last Grenache sample before picking. We met in the winery, crushed, tasted, chewed and spat out seeds, noted that the acid was softening, colour and tannins were building in the skins, fruit flavours were ripe and vibrant, and the berries were soft and sweet. We took juice samples to the lab and analysed the sugar and acid levels to confirm our sensory analysis. Then, after a quick check of the weather forecast we agreed it was picking time.
As I travel north the shimmering evidence of rain appears in the headlights. How much? I worry as I pull over to stretch and check how far I am from the vineyard. Still an hour. If I get there by three, I’ll get four hours sleep in the truck before I wake for the pick. We don’t use chilling or refrigeration in the winery—it’s unnecessary for the style of wine we make, is expensive, and may inhibit the wild yeasts that live on the grapes, so getting the fruit into the winery at a desired cooler temperature is ideal—we booked a 7am pick. That gives me time to help pick, drive back to the Yarra, process, clean the winery equipment and make it to the commercial winery where I work in time for night shift, which is also the reason for the odd hour of my drive. There’s not much time for sleep, but that’s harvest, my eighth now. I knew what I was in for.
Finally I arrive at the vineyard gate, hop out of the truck and walk towards the lights outside the break room, surrounded by a haze of insects. I find water in the fridge, climb into the truck, and close my eyes, exhausted but spirited by the excitement of tomorrow’s pick. I go to sleep thinking—I’m making Grenache tomorrow! I’ve never made it before! What seem like seconds pass. There’s a rumbling outside. What the fuck, is that a tractor already? Hopefully four hours was enough sleep. Yep it’s a tractor, it’s seven am and the vineyard crew and pickers are in. They laugh when this dishevelled guy swings open the truck’s back door. Morning Nate! ‘Coffee?’ I say. ‘In the break room buddy.’ ‘Cheers mate. We’re about to start.’ ‘Alright I’ll be down in a minute.’ Five minutes later I jump on the back of the tractor trailer cruising by with two of our picking bins on the back. I marvel at the sunrise over the red-and-gold picture-postcard Australian landscape. I think of how lucky I am to have such variety in my work. In one day I could be in inner Melbourne for breakfast, the Yarra Valley to check on vineyards, the winery to taste and monitor ferments, then up here in central Victoria, always catching up with other winemakers, vineyard crews, cellar hands and travellers. Chatting, discussing, learning, always meeting new people, seeing the land—every day brings new experience. After a few minutes of friendly chatter we arrive at the rows of vines that I’d chosen on the first sampling visit and the tractor splutters to a stop.
The pickers are already halfway down the row. I notice the moist red earth as I climb down from the tractor. My worry about the rain last night emerges. I crouch down, and dig my hands into the first few inches of dirt between the vines. Only the surface is wet and it’s still bone dry underneath. The vineyard manager reads my mind and says, ‘Only a couple of mls. fell overnight Nate, nothing to worry about.’ Too much water on the vines before harvest from rainfall or irrigation can swell the berries and dilute the sugar acid and flavours in the resulting wine. Conversely, restricting water by turning off the irrigation or dry-growing vines can help to concentrate and make a richer more intense wine.
My worries about the rain cast aside, I grab a pair of snips, stuff a handful of grapes in my mouth, suck the pulp from the skins, and think about the flavours, sugar and acid. I chew the skins to look at the tannins, spit them and the seeds into my hand to look at the colour. They taste ready, I’m glad we’re picking today. I grab buckets and hurry down between the sweeping vine leaves, brushing aside the golden orb spider webs. I don’t need to be here, and I’m probably just getting in the way, but for me this is an essential step in the winemaking process, the first look at what the wine will be like, and I love it. I help as much as I can, but the professional pickers see how slow I am and help around me so I can keep up. Once we have enough full buckets, the tractor fires up and I run back to the start of the row and help load the buckets in and begin sorting the fruit. I throw out any leaves, and sunburned or bird-damaged grapes and unripe bunches as the buckets are tipped in.
The pick takes around two hours and before long I’m saying thanks and goodbye to the pickers and crew, after a few quick photos I throw a case of warm beer in the back of the viticulturist Steve T’s ute, and hit the road again. Three hours later, after some careful driving negotiating bumps and worrying about the precious cargo on board, I roll into the winery where we rent space in Seville. It’s humming with activity! We are fortunate enough to share the space with a bunch of highly experienced and energetic Yarra Valley winemakers and they are all hard at it. Music on, a quick beer, then we process the bunches and get them safely into our one-tonne open fermenters, put a little dry ice on top to push out oxygen, lid on, clean up (more on this process in part two).
With minutes to spare I’m back to the job that pays the bills—night shift again. It’s a long one, but I feel jubilant as I reflect on the day, though it quickly begins to seem distant, as my thoughts on the Grenache fade into tomorrow’s Sauvignon Blanc pick from Lusatia Park. Two picks in two days—it’s going to be tough, but I can’t think of much else I’d rather be doing. Night shift ends and it’s midnight. At home, a hug from my gorgeous girlfriend (also a winemaker who reads my eyes and body language, instantly knowing the mix of happiness and exhaustion I feel), beer, shower, unconsciousness. It’s going to be another long one tomorrow. Wish me luck!
Feature article by Nathan Reeves
Photography by Aurora Jane