A Force to Reckon With
by Matt Kemberling & Joe Brock • September 1, 2016
Gravity. When you first hear the word, most people think of the force that keeps their feet firmly affixed to the ground. Fermentation fanatics might also know it as specific gravity — the measure of relative density of wort or must compared to water. But did you know that gravity (the force) also plays an important role in winemaking?
When it comes to wine, we sometimes take gravity for granted. In a winery though, gravity can make a difference in a wine … not just in the quality, but in the final cost of the wine.
Gravity & Grapes
Let’s start with one fundamental problem of winemaking: the grapes. Wine grapes are small berries in a cluster hanging from a central branch that grow on a vine. One thing these grapes share with everyday grocery-store grapes is they are incredibly delicate. Do you pack grapes next to milk in a grocery bag? No. You pack them on their own or with a loaf of bread. Why? Because bruised grapes don’t taste the same. The same goes for winemaking. Tender loving care is given to each cluster of grapes. Winemakers are constantly looking for ways to treat the grapes more delicately, which is ironic because they eventually end up squeezing the living juices out of them.
What does this have to do with gravity? The answer lies in the winemaking process. The typical steps are, in order: sort, crush, press, ferment, bottle. Most wineries are on one single level. This means they have to pump the wine from one step to the next. Pumping wine isn’t delicate. Pumping can really shake up a wine. To combat this, some wineries use gravity to their advantage.
Case in point, and located right in our backyard, is Shelton Vineyards.
The winery at Shelton is built deep into the hillside. This allows for multiple levels, one for each stage in the winemaking process. Grapes start out on the crush pad. There, gentle sorting takes place, including the removal of stems and leaves so only grapes remain. Then they are loaded into the crusher. Juices and grape skins fall down into the first tank, where the skins are allowed to mix (or are pressed) with the juice for a short time. The skins are discarded and the flavorful juices flow freely out of a pipe and into the tank room below. Here, fermentation takes place under close supervision. Some wines are transferred into oak barrels, while others remain in the steel tanks. Gravity plays a major part in each step.
After fermentation and aging, the wines are ready for bottling. At Shelton, even this part depends on using gravity. The result is a flavorful wine that is more expressive and requires a little less work when compared to the typical pumping operation.
Did we mention it costs less, too? No pumps means less energy consumption, and that generally means a lower electric bill. Wineries can pass the savings on to the bottle.
Still not convinced? Shelton offers tours of their winery on a regular basis. Stop in and see it with your own eyes and taste the difference.
Here’s the sorting and crushing machine. Grapes are added into the sorter, then loaded into the hopper on top of the crusher and fall into the presser. There they mingle until ready to drain.
After the wine goes into the tank, some will end up in barrels like this.
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