Merryvale Red Winemaking

Step by Step

Here is a broad overview of how red grapes are transformed into award-winning wine here at Merryvale.

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Red grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir) are hand harvested, then hand sorted if necessary to discard defects. The clusters are then gently de-stemmed without crushing and the must put into stainless steel tanks.

When naturally-occurring yeasts have begun to ferment the must, nutrients are added during the first pump-over. Rather than inoculating with an introduced yeast, using the wild yeast results in added complexity and seamlessness in the wine. Fermentation may last from 5 to 15 days. After fermentation finishes, the wine is left on the skins, often for an additional 30 days of extended maceration, to allow softening of the tannins which have been extracted from the skins.

The free-run wine is separated from the skins. The skins, which are still quite moist, are shoveled into bins and placed into a pneumatic press. The wine is monitored coming from the press and only wine without aggressive tannins is included with the free-run, making it the most supple and concentrated of all the lots. The later press fraction is kept separate.

The wine is put into 225L French oak barrels where it completes the second fermentation (called malolactic fermentation). The secondary fermentation softens the wine. At Merryvale, French oak is used exclusively because of its addition of distinctive flavors such as vanilla and nutmeg and its complementary tannin components.

Racking of the Bordeaux reds occurs every three months. In the first year the wine is aerated during racking to soften the tannins. In the second year in the cellar the wine is not usually aerated during racking. (Less tannic grape varieties such as Pinot Noir and Zinfandel are not racked nor aerated, and the Pinot Noir is bottled after nine months.)

Blends are made in the winter following harvest. In their second year the wines are fined with fresh egg whites if necessary to resolve excess tannins. After up to 20 months in French oak barrels, the wines are racked for a final time and bottledusually without filtration. Unfiltered wines, because they have not been stripped, tend to be more complex wines.

Oak in Winemaking

Among the constituents of oak are many flavorful compounds. The molecules that give vanilla, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg their flavor are all found naturally in oak wood. Oak also has a huge array of tannin molecules, plus sugars that caramelize when toasted.

Inside a properly made oak barrel, the fermenting juice or wine slowly absorbs the wonderful flavors and caramelized sugars from the wood which complement and add complexity to the flavors of the fruit. Additionally, the tannins in oak blend with the tannins and color of the wine to enrich and stabilize them.

The two main families of oak used for wine cooperage are American and European. Merryvale uses French oak exclusively. Although American oak is relatively dense making it easily watertight and cheap to mill and cooper, compared to French oak, it has relatively large amounts of some distinctive flavor compounds, reminiscent of dill and coconut, that are not part of the classic, Old-World wine tradition. American oak also tends to produce wines with coarser tannin structure than the more subtle and supple French oak.

For many winemakers and connoisseurs, French oak just tastes and feels better than American oak.

Visit our Reading Room for articles on vineyard selection, tannin management, blending, and more.