While winemaking is in many ways a traditional craft, there is still much to learn.
Winemaking is a delicate balance of science, nature and artistry that varies from vintner to vintner. You can smell, taste and feel the winemaker’s approach to this balance in each glass.
“Microbiology and chemistry are part of the winemaking process at every stage, and help inform the creative process of blending different types of grapes,” says Jennifer Haun, enologist at Chateau Ste. Michelle who oversees the daily red winemaking operations at Canoe Ridge Estate in Paterson, Washington. “For example, we analyze the levels of nitrogen in the soil during the growing season to balance the vine’s canopy with the amount of grapes it is carrying. As the grapes ripen, the winemaking team determines the perfect time to harvest using lab tests to support the winemakers’ perceptions of sugar, acid, and tannin balance when tasting the fruit in the vineyard.”
The marriage of science and artistry
Lab analyses also are involved in the creative decisions made during fermentation, the seven to 14 days during which grapes are transformed into wine. During this time, the winemakers are adding yeast, macerating the skin of the grapes, and manipulating the temperature to achieve the correct fermentation speed, flavor and color extraction, depending on the type of wine.
Once the fermentation process is completed, wines are racked off their solids, then stored in stainless steel, concrete, or oak storage tanks or barrels.
In red wines, a second type of fermentation, called malolactic fermentation, is undertaken during aging. The winemaker adds malolactic bacteria to the wine to convert malic acid into lactic acid, which is a softer acid for the wine. This helps to smooth out the mouthfeel and makes for a more palatable wine.
“It’s like the difference between biting into a green apple, which has malic acid, or taking a spoonful of yogurt, which has lactic acid,” says K.D. Organ, assistant winemaker at Canoe Ridge Estate Winery. “They’re both tart but yogurt is smoother and richer.”
Blending: The final artistic touch
The winemakers taste the wine several times while it ages, looking for tannin development over time. They use taste, smell, the appearance of the wine in the glass, and the feel of it in their mouths to evaluate how the tannins from the wine and oak are harmonizing together. Wines stored in stainless steel or concrete tanks develop differently and winemakers must also monitor them closely during the aging process.
Blending can happen at any point during the life of the wine; for Chateau Ste. Michelle red wines, that happens when the wine is just under a year old. “When we sit down to blend, we can figure out which wines will play together well, whether they are from a single varietal or vineyard, or multiple varietals and growing sites,” Organ says. “This is the final artistry part of the equation.”
It is also great fun, as the winemaking team gets to taste, discuss, and sometimes argue about what wines deserve to make it into reserve and single-vineyard blends. “I feel like a proud parent when a wine that I’ve crafted makes it into a cherished blend, like the Artist Series,” says Organ. “It makes all the long hours during harvest worthwhile.”
Once a blend is finalized on the bench, the winemakers choose the best barrels of each component wine to physically create the final blend in the cellar. Wine from the chosen barrels is racked to the same tank, then transferred back into the barrels and aged for another year to marry before being bottled and stored until ready for release.
“Lab tests provide us an understanding of what’s happening with the wine but it’s no substitution for the human element,” Haun says. “What differentiates Chateau Ste. Michelle wines is the varied experiences of our winemakers and the sheer number and styles of wine we produce. We also have partnerships with vintners in Germany, France and Italy who bring a global perspective to our creative process.”
Technology enhances craftsmanship
While winemaking is in many ways a traditional craft, there is still much to learn. Because of this, Chateau Ste. Michelle supports the Viticulture & Enology Program at Washington State University and the Wine Science Center at WSU Tri-Cities. This program is critical to the growth of the industry, providing cutting-edge research and training for the next generation of vintners and grapes growers.
“Since the opening of the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center in 2015, we’ve seen increases in enrollment and funding for research,” says Kaury Balcom, Public Relations and Communications Coordinator for the WSU Viticulture and Enology Program. “When the center opened in 2015 we had only a handful of students pursuing a degree in viticulture and enology. Now, we have over 120 students on the two campuses in Richland and Pullman. Students from all over the country are coming here to study winemaking.”