Destemming & Sorting Grapes at City Winery

The City Winery harvest team sorts and destems Pinot Noir grapes.

The City Winery team has been busy receiving tons (literally) of grapes for the harvest season — in the past two weeks, we’ve received 21 tons of grapes to sort and destem!

Now is the perfect time to explain exactly what happens during the “crush,” as it is commonly called. I spoke with City Winery Winemaker David Lecomte to get all the details.

First off, the term “crush” is misleading, David explains — at City Winery, we don’t crush our grapes, so that we can maintain the integrity of the fruit as much as we can in order to optimize fresh aromas in the wine. Instead, we simply destem and sort grapes before they are placed in tanks.

Look at these beauts we received last week! Pinot Noir at its finest.

The majority of the wine industry crushes grapes when they are received. The only constraint that makes crushing necessary is the need for must — freshly pressed grape juice that contains the skins, seeds and stems of the fruit — to be transported through hoses from the crushpad — where the crushing takes place, usually outside the winery — to tanks. In order to push the grapes through the hose without clogging, there needs to be a fair amount of liquid.

Some wineries build their crushpads at higher elevations than where the tanks are located in order to take advantage of gravity. In this case, the must simply flows through the hoses and into the tanks as aided by gravity — instead of the other option, where the hose is ran up the side of the tank, which can stand at sometimes 30 to 50 feet tall, making a pump necessary to transport the must up to the tank’s opening.

High-end and smaller wineries are able to mitigate crushing, and even some large wineries take precautions to minimize crushing. Some buy special, large-diameter hoses that enable easier transportation of must, and others simply minimize the length of the pipe needed to transport must. Both of these methods reduce clogging and make it easier for whole berries to be sent through a hose — therefore, crushing may not be necessary.

In other cases, some wineries place sorted berries into vessels that are lifted and emptied into tanks. This operation must be planned from the building of the winery, though, as lifting tons of grapes isn’t an easy task.

Assistant Kosher Winemaker Yanky Drew and wine aficionado Lane load grapes into the hopper, where they are carried up a conveyor belt to the destemmer.

David noted that in France, his home country, there is no such term as “crush” to explain this process in winemaking. It is simply called “harvest” or “reception,” because grapes are received or harvested, not crushed.

At City Winery, we follow this idea and have a setup that enables us to only use conveyor belts to transport fruit during the destemming and sorting processes. Each tank has its own setup guidelines, custom for its size and location in the winery.

Once a load of grapes is received, we line up the bins of grapes outside the winery’s loading dock and bring them in to the winery piecemeal.

From there, the grapes are loaded onto the first conveyor belt, which carries grapes to the destemmer and is generally manned by two people. One person is in charge of dumping grapes into the hopper at the bottom of the belt, and the second is tasked with evenly loading the conveyor belt rungs with grapes (as pictured above).

The mechanical destemmer, the silver box at the head of the sorting table, is quite effective, but the team sifts through the grapes after destemming to make sure no stems made it through.

It is important that grapes be loaded evenly onto the first conveyor belt, so that the destemmer can work as efficiently as possible. Incoming grapes push grapes in the destemmer out onto the sorting table. Clogging can occur if too many grapes are loaded into the destemmer — and conversely, if too little grapes are loaded into the destemmer, they won’t supply enough force to push out the grapes in the machine, causing the team to lose time and efficiency.

A closer look at the sorting table.

Once the grapes fall onto the sorting table, the team takes one last look at the fruit to ensure that they are of top-notch quality. All remaining stems are removed, and expert sorters, such as our winemaker and assistant winemaker, are experienced enough to pick out grapes that are diseased or under-ripe.

After grapes pass the sorting table, they are transported up another conveyor belt into the tank, where maceration and fermentation take place.

Once the grapes are completely destemmed, another belt carries them up to the tank.

After the must is sent to the tank, it ideally goes through a cold soak, in which it is chilled at around 45 degrees. This process holds off the fermentation process and is meant to increase the amount of fresh aromas present in the fruit. At City Winery, the cold soak lasts for up to a week, but typically good fruit gets 3-4 days in a cold soak, as determined by the winemaker. For troublesome crops, though, that may be in danger of oxidizing or molding, the cold soak is skipped and fermentation starts as soon as the crop warms up, which generally takes about one day.

Some wineries implement a 10-day cold soaking period, with the belief that longer cold soaks yield more aromatic fruits. While difficult to prove, it may very well be true. However, in an urban winemaking environment such as ours, where space is limited, we have to think about logistics. The winemaker is constantly planning out when crops are coming in and when he will need to vacate tanks in order to receive new crops.

David noted that the most critical part of early-stage winemaking is choosing the date of press. The decision to stop maceration — the process by which the grape skins impart the desired color and amounts of tannins and aromas to the juice — in order to press is made no sooner than 24 hours in advance of the press.

Each day, the juices are monitored to make sure they are developing well and are not in danger of oxidation — when the winemaker finally feels that he has gotten everything he wants in his wines from the maceration and fermentation processes, he presses it.

That, my friends, is an overview of how City Winery destems and sorts its grapes. Let us know if you have questions in the comments below!

Photos courtesy of Hank Smeal, cellar intern

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