Grape Heads #2: The Journey of the Humble Grape

Ahh. Vintage. The craziness is here. The smell of crushed grapes running through the winery, early morning tastings of ferments when they're all nice and spritzy, snacking on fresh Giallo and Zibibbo grapes reducing the total yield of Esoterico - it's a lot of hard work, a lot of draggin' hose, and a LOT of cleaning. But we love it more than anything. That's why it's been a little while between drinks for the blog!  So we're here with another edition of Grape Heads, our ever so sporadic and hyper relaxed wine education series! For issue #2 we're gonna have a peek through the looking glass to what we actually do every vintage: the basic fundamentals of making wine. How does a grape actually go from being comfortable and cosy nestled in it's own canopy on a vine, to being lifted, swished, sniffed and appropriately guzzled from your glass. We're here to lift the lid on what goes on behind the curtain of Unico Zelo winery!


This is fundamentally the most important and the most difficult part of making wine. An indisputable fact and the reason we have wine in the first place. We believe that growers are the unsung rockstars of wine, who put in the hard yards 365 (or 366 for vintage 2020!), rain, hail or shine - all of which affect the end result. Frost damage, sunburn, too much rain, not enough rain, mould - these are all the battles that a grower will face every single season, no matter the growing method. The challenge only becomes greater when growing in a more sustainable method such as organics or biodynamics, when you reduce the amount of chemicals that are synthetically designed to fight these battles (we'll leave the hardcore details of organics and biodynamics for another Grape Heads). But under the watchful eye of a great grower, we can still get our hands on some absolutely incredible fruit, if it's managed the right way and irrigated appropriately (ideally as little as possible). Bless you growers - this year more than any other, we salute you! 


Aaaaaand after a full year of meticulous management, it's time to pick! Getting out in the vineyard, with a hat, gloves, a water bottle and many, many buckets. The first question is - when do you pick? We're looking for two things before we decide what time we actually take the grapes from their home: Baume and Acidity. Baume is the measurement we use in Australia to measure sugar content in grapes, and therefore giving us a reading of what the end alcohol result will be in the wine. Acidity is as standard measured by pH - the higher the number, the lower the acidity and vice versa. Ideally pick our whites for the most part at around 12-12.5 Baume to give us about 12-12.5% ABV, and we're aiming for a pH of around 3.5 in the most ideal circumstance. For reds, it's more dependent on the style of wine we're making. A lighter bodied wine will be picked earlier to retain acidity for maximum chill-ability (Unico Patent Pending), where as a heavier bodied wines we will wait for the Baume to increase and the acidity will drop accordingly! As far as the actual picking method, there's two options: handpicking and machine picking. We personally try and steer away from machine picking as we lose control of the crushing aspect of the grapes, as the machines that pick the grapes aren't as gentle as human hands. That's why we love a good handpicking! It's a more expensive method as you've gotta pay for a good picking crew - and picking is hard bloody work - but it's worth every penny cause the grapes come in those lovely bunches that make the wine just that much better!


Now it comes to our part, the fun stuff: processing! At this point, there is more than one path to go down. Honestly there is quite a few. So we'll keep this pretty straight forward and not overtly complicated - leave that part to us in the winery. As soon as we get our hands on those lovely little bunches we have a few options. The first and quickest is "whole bunch" or "direct" pressing, and that literally means that as soon as we get the grapes, we put them in our awesome pressing machine which then exudes all of that wonderful juice! We then pump that into whatever fermentation vessel we choice and let it do its thing. You could let it carbonically macerate if you so pleased - but we covered that last time. The next option is crushing, basically exuding all the juice from the grapes but leaving on the skins, but often de-stemmed! For whites (and rosé!), it's more often than not just on skins for around 24 hours. If you start leaving it after crushing for say 3 days or more, you're really entering the zone of orange/amber/skin macerated white wines - which is still very, very cool! For red wines, you'll be needing some skin contact, so you'll be wanting to crush or do whole berry fermentation (also covered in the last Grape Heads) and leave your juice on skins for... well, basically however long you want! maybe a week, maybe a month - some people go for a year or more! After you've decided it's had enough skin contact love, it then gets pressed off to it's chosen fermentation vessel!


Now it's the waiting game while you wait for the sugars to become alcohol! There's two lanes you can go down: cultivated or wild yeast. Cultivated yeast cultures are a really effective way to make wine. You're pretty much guaranteed that the wine is going to ferment and do its thing with absolutely no stress, and if you're using the right strain of yeast, all those varietal characters are still going to scream from the final wine! But you can always go down the route of wild or indigenous yeasts for your fermentation. Yeast is everywhere. Literally. You're probably covered in yeast right now! So back in the day, before yeast cultivation and wine science became the big industry it is today, this was pretty much the only way to go. The ideology behind it is that this expresses the truest reflection of the vineyard possible, as these are the yeasts that are indigenous to vineyard and can never be replicated year on year - every wine is different, no two wild yeast strains are the same. The risk is that a lot of the time you can wildly unpredictable ferments, some will go absolutely bananas and before you know it you'll have a barrel or a tank overflowing with fizzy almost wine (we know ALL about that), and sometimes the yeasts are just not strong enough to kick off a ferment and you've got some rapidly oxidising grape juice. For us, the risk is worth the reward, as the resultant wine is unique, expressive and distinctly represents the vineyard it comes from, that particular year. It's the wine we want to drink and therefore, the wine we want to make. 



After your primary fermentation is finished, begins the most hands off part of winemaking. This is the patience game, how long do you want to leave your wine in its chosen vessel? First thing you've gotta deal with is lees. These are all the dead and residual yeast cells that are littered in your wine and for the most part can be a good thing! For White wines, if you let the less settle and re-stir them through the wine you can add a nutty and creamy flavour and texture to the wine - oft used in Chardonnay. After you're done with them you'll then need to rack them off the lees, which is basically just transferring to a new vessel leaving all the settled lees sediment behind. The longer you age your chosen wine, the more often you'll have to do racking and pump-overs!


We're really at the pointy end now! We've taken the wine out our vessel and now it's time to get that bad boy into bottle for bottle ageing or preferably, immediate consumption! For us, we're lucky we have a full time epic production and bottling crew who rock this out. We essentially hook up the vessel the wine is in, run it into a filler which will then filter it (if necessary), we'll dose it with the tiniest amount of sulphur, cork it, label it, box it. That's that! You can let it mature in bottle if you have that patience - with the right wine you will be duly rewarded, but for the most part this is when you grab it, chill it (if necessary), rip the head off it and enjoy! And the life of a grape has now been completed as you guzzle appropriately. By the time this has happened, the next batch of grapes should be starting to appear on some vines signalling the vintage to come... the Circle of Wine!

1 comment

  • RW

    Truly informative. Every year is a ongoing experimentation. Keep up the great work

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