Napa Valley’s annual wine grape harvest has come to an end, but winemaking teams are still hard at work crafting our region’s famous, high-quality wines. Here’s a snapshot of what happens at local wineries during the winter months.

What are winemakers doing in their cellars right now?

While some of the most exciting days for Napa Valley’s winemakers occur from late August to early November as grapes are picked in the vineyards and taken to wineries, other equally critical but somewhat less obvious tasks are underway right now.

For the current vintage (2017), winemakers are “racking” their young, freshly fermented wines. Racking means moving the wine from one vessel to another, which usually happens multiple times in the winemaking process. This helps clarify fresh, young wines by moving the juice off the yeast used during fermentation.

Another common activity is “barreling down,” primarily for red wines, which means moving them from fermentation vessels to the oak barrels in which they will age, from a few months to as long as two or three years.

Much of the focus right now is on the current vintage, but winemakers must also pay attention to other recent vintages, like 2016 or 2015, which are barrel aging in their cellars. While these wines are resting, winemakers are checking their progress, periodically testing them or topping off barrels where small amounts of aging wine have evaporated. Occasionally, these wines will get moved from one barrel to another, intentionally exposing them to air to aid in the maturation process.

Finally, now is the time winemakers and cellar crews can be found cleaning, servicing and stowing away their harvest gear. It’s their chance to catch up on repairs and maintenance and to deep-clean equipment so everything is ready for next year.

Are the activities different for white wines?

For white wines that are not barrel aged, time in the cellar is relatively brief. Following racking, lighter style 2017 white wines like sauvignon blanc will soon be bottled and ready for release, some as early as the first quarter of 2018.

More complex white wines, like chardonnay, will spend additional time at the winery and may not be bottled for another six to 18 months. During this time, the wine may be aged in oak barrels or it may be put through malolactic fermentation, which softens the wine and can give it a buttery character.

Why is this time so important in the winemaking process?

Quality starts in the vineyard, but what happens in the cellar is also critical to the ultimate expression of every wine. Winemaking decisions add to the style and flavor of a wine: will it be fresh and reflective of the flavor of the grapes it was made from, or more complex with nuances of oak from extended time in the barrel? Was the wine fermented in stainless steel, oak barrels (large or small) or concrete? Is it filtered or fined? Cold stabilized? Each winemaking decision contributes to the outcome for each wine.

Are winemakers doing anything differently this year, following October’s wildfires?

The biggest change this year is more frequent and rigorous lab testing of wines made from grapes harvested after the fires started. The good news is that 90 percent of this year’s crop had already been picked before Oct. 9. The potential effects of smoke on wines made from grapes picked after that are not yet fully known, but local winemakers are taking every possible step to ensure only the highest quality bottlings go to market.

Is now a good time to visit local wineries?

The slower winter season is a great time to visit our local wineries and learn more about the winemaking process. Tasting rooms are quieter and winery staff have more time to answer your questions. Through the NVV’s Napa Neighbor program, you can show your Napa County driver’s license to enjoy VIP treatment, like complimentary or upgraded tours and wine tasting, as well as special discounts on wine. We also recommend Napa Neighbor Day on Jan. 13, when participating Napa Neighbor wineries will offer enhanced one-day-only specials. Learn more and see all the Napa Neighbor offers at napaneighbor.com

Ask the Vintners is a monthly column written by the Napa Valley Vintners nonprofit association. Submit your questions to ask@napavintners.com and learn more at napavintners.com.

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