Here it is April and the time has arrived to put wines into the bottle. Specifically, our Solesce, Oriana, Abracadabra Red and Rosé all typically get bottled in April. Needless to say, this is a very important time in the life of the wine. It’s not really the beginning of the wines’ life like harvest and it certainly isn’t the end when it is poured into a glass to enjoy. We could call it the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end, but in any case, it is the winemaker’s last chance to make a difference in the wine. And what a difference it can make! Simply put, other than the picking and time of fermentation, there is no point in the wine’s life that is more critical. That is why winemakers sweat the details at bottling time and consequently feel some anxiety. Not only are we unable to change the wine after the cork goes in, but there are a lot of logistics that must come together at bottling time, any one of which can blow the whole thing.
Getting the wine ready can be simple, in the case of reds like the Solesce and Abracadabra: we just pull them out of the barrel, give them a quick filtration, adjust the SO2, check the oxygen level and they are pretty much ready to go. The Oriana and Rosé have more stability issues that need be addressed namely heat stability, which requires bentonite fining to fix, and cold stability which requires chilling the wine often for several weeks. We also do more extensive fining trials especially if the wine has some unwanted astringency. Carbon dioxide levels are also checked as there is a risk of ‘spritzy’ wines if they were fermented within the last few months.
Now we get onto the logistics which start months in advance when the bottling truck is scheduled. Capsules, corks, glass and labels require lots of advanced planning. Each wine often has its own packaging requirements, and winemakers must work with many suppliers to order and schedule everything to arrive well ahead of bottling day. Just getting the labels done requires getting the right information to the printer including the AVA, alcohol and varietal, calculating numbers including waste, and getting federal label approval. Corks require inspection and sensory testing before ordering. Each item requires special attention and if one is not right the bottling cannot take place, the package will be wrong, or the wine will be off. When getting several wines ready for bottling there is often a logistical issue of how many tanks are available, which wines fit into which tanks and in what order you move them from tank to tank when racking and filtering. Then there is figuring out the warehouse for the best place to store the wine. Oh, and don’t forget the bottling crew has to be arranged, which is something Robert does a great job organizing. Altogether, it’s a lot to think about.
Finally, there is bottling day itself which should go smoothly if advance planning was properly carried out. There are over a dozen quality control items to watch out for, from selecting the right packaging (don’t put those rosé labels on the red Abracadabra) to getting the label positioned properly to fill height and cork depth. Perhaps the best part of bottling is when it is over. We have freed up barrels for next year’s harvest. In the case of Rosé, we have fresh wine to sell. Time to relax and enjoy a special bottle of wine from a previous bottling. And we don’t have to worry about bottling again until July. Time to start working on the 2017 blends! That is the real fun.
At Brian Carter Cellars, we have just two bottling's per year. Together with harvest, it is the most intense part of the winemaking process. In many ways, it is actually the most stressful for several reasons. For starters, it is the culmination of all the hard work that has gone into the wine up to that point. All the walks through the vineyard, the sorting at the crusher, the punch downs, the pressing, the barrel selection, the blending, and the topping come down to this moment. A thousand details that had to be done just right can be for naught in this final hurried process. Secondly, it is a winemaker's last chance to touch the wine. Once the cork goes in, there isn't much I can do to change the wine.
The process of bottling takes place over just a few short but furious days. It is not my favorite part of the winemaking process, nor do I think it is for most winemakers. Even though the dates have been set aside for months, everything must come together for the bottling to work. The corks, the bottles, the labels, the capsules, the truck, the labor and of course the wine, all these things have to be planned well in advance and missing any one of them, the process comes to a screeching halt.
The wine is no small part of the process, but if everything has been prepared properly, it should be a minor part of the bottling process come bottling day. Before bottling, the winemaker has to check the wine’s stability, especially for white wines which can turn cloudy in the bottle if they are not heat and cold stable. Bentonite is added as a fining agent to remove proteins that lead to heat instability. Chilling and the addition of potassium bi-tartrate (cream of tartar) gives cold stability to the wine. The decisions of whether to filter the wine or not and how tight the filtration should be are critical. Precise additions of sulfur dioxide made to each lot, too little will cause the wine to become oxidized with time, too much will cause the wine to have an unpleasant aroma. We also carefully monitor the wines oxygen, carbon dioxide and temperature.
Once bottling day arrives, the wine must be ready, the packaging materials are all there, the truck is in place, the crew has assembled, and then the real fun begins. It is hectic, it is noisy, it is mechanical, it is sometimes heavy lifting, and it is often monotonous. But the winemaker's attention to detail needs to be in top form. Are the bottles clean, do we have the right corks, labels and capsules going on? Is the cork going in the correct depth? Is the vacuum on the corker giving us the right cork pressure? Is the fill level correct? Is the capsule wrinkling? Are the labels going on straight, unwrinkled and in the right position? Is there any scuffing as the bottles go into the cases? Are the boxes labeled correctly? Are the cases stacked properly on the pallets and the pallets stacked properly into the winery? There isn't any time to relax while the line is pounding out four pallets (224 cases) an hour.
At the end of the last day of bottling, there is a big sigh as the final step in the process is completed. Time to relax, enjoy a glass of wine, and dream of more fun times in the winemaking process. Once again, it is time to get back into the vineyards, the buds are breaking!
If this description hasn't scared you off from helping out on bottling day, get ahold of Robert at Robert@briancartercellars.com and let him know you would like to come out for a day. Our next bottling is April 7th, 8th & 9th.
Director of Winemaking