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A Winemaker's Journal


By Elias Fernandez

Decisions, decisions. At the grocery store you have to choose between paper or plastic. At the gas pump it’s ATM or credit. And for lovers of fine wine there’s the eternal dilemma of whether to pour red or white.

It’s a tough choice sometimes: dark and extracted vs. lush and fruity.

As dissimilar as these wines are, early in the lives of red and white grapes it takes a practiced eye to tell them apart. They all start as clusters of hard, green berries and it’s only within weeks of picking that they take on distinctive colors.

These grapes truly go their separate ways at this time of year, during harvest.

At our winery we put newly-picked red grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, into a mechanism called a destemmer/crusher, which first separates the berries from the stems. The fruit is then crushed giving us a purple, slurpy, delicious-smelling mass of skins, pulp, juice and seeds. This goes by hose to a stainless steel tank where its initial fermentation takes place.

Red wine fermentation is hot and fast. Generally Cabernet Sauvignon ferments for seven to 10 days at 70 to 90 degrees.

We create this mass of crushed fruit, called must, because we want the juice to pick up rich color and firm tannin from the skins and seeds. (Some winemakers put their reds through “extended maceration,” meaning that this mixture of skins, seeds and new wine will soak together for up to 45 days. This tends to be the case with French wines.)

Meanwhile, here comes a load of white grapes, such as, Chardonnay. Instead of putting them into a destemmer/crusher, here at Shafer we load whole clusters of this fruit into a press and apply just enough pressure to crack the skins open and release the juice.

The other parts of the cluster stay behind in the press because, unlike reds, white wine would suffer from mixing in the tannins that exist in the skins and seeds, masking the fruit and obliterating its delicacy.

The newly-pressed Chardonnay juice travels through a hose to a large stainless steel tank for about 24 hours to let any remaining solids settle out. Then we transfer the juice into barrels, where it ferments, picking up some of the toasty characters of the oak.

In the barrels the juice becomes wine at about 50 degrees and fermentation lasts up to a month. This slow, cool fermentation allows the wine to retain all the delicacy of its natural flavor and aroma.

The results? Thanks to all that contact with skins and seeds, high-quality red wines tend to be substantive and mouthfilling. Tannins from the skins and seeds allow the wines to age gracefully, taking on mature flavors.

Whites on the other hand tend to be more delicate and fruity, thanks both to the lack of tannins and to the cooler, slower fermentation time.

So what will it be, red or white? I can’t imagine a more wonderful dilemma to deal with.