Colin Mills, compiler of the Hortus Camdenensis, died in late November 2012 after a short illness. As he always considered the Hortus his legacy, it is his family's intention to keep the site running in perpetuity. It will not, however, be updated in the near future.

Letters on the Culture of the Vine Part 7: The Vintage (Continued)

Letter XII – The Vintage – Gathering the Crop

In the preceding paper, the necessary preparations for the vintage were described, we have now to treat of this important operation itself. The first grand requisite, is that the crop should be sound and fully matured. For the manufacture of good wine, it is necessary that every bunch should be ripe, and free from defect, a few that are unripe or mouldy, may spoil a whole batch of wine. Before the period for gathering is fixed upon, the vines ought repeatedly to be looked over with care, and the less ripe bunches examined as well as the ripest; for although I should certainly not recommend that the vintage should be delayed on account of a few unripe bunches, which may be otherwise disposed of, it is necessary that all which are intended to make good wine, as I have said above, should be perfectly ripe.

It is at this time that the advantages of a judicious selection of sorts at the planting are manifest. The “Pineau Gris” will be ripe four or five, perhaps six, weeks earlier than the “Blanquette.” Both are good wine grapes, yet if they should happen to be largely intermixed in a small vineyard, it would be impracticable to crush them together with advantage, and very inconvenient, without doubt, to use them separately; the same objection applies in an inferior degree to the intermingling of various other sorts. In an early paper, I endeavoured to guard against this error, by numbering the sorts I described as nearly as possible, in their order of ripening. Let the wine maker ever bear in mind that a very small portion of unripe fruit will spoil what might otherwise have become excellent wine; and in planting, he should endeavour to combine those good sorts only, which ripen nearly at the same time.

It requires observation and experience to decide when the crop has reached the proper degree of maturity. In less favorable climates, where it is of importance not to lose a day after this point is attained, and still not to gather prematurely, great precautions are taken not to err, and generally only persons of experience are allowed to decide. Here, we are usually not so pressed by the season as to cause a day or two to be of much importance, and we can wait until all the signs of maturity, or the majority of them, are fully developed. These signs are various, and none of them taken singly can be relied upon. They are as follows :- When for twelve or fifteen days there has been no perceptible increase in the size or the transparency of the berries; when after this they become flaccid and leathery to the touch, and are detached from the stalk without the slightest effort, when the bunches for several days have become altogether pendant, and the upper portion of their foot stalks brown and hard; when the seeds also become brown and hard and, upon pressing the berry, separate themselves completely from the pulp, leaving no portion of it whatever adhering to them; when the juice has become luscious and syrupy, so as to stick to the fingers like the syrup of common sugar, and to impress upon the palate, in some sorts, an intense sugary sweetness, accompanied by a sort of glutinous fullness, and in others (often the best wine grapes) in which the sweetness is masked by a sort of harsh astringent quality, the glutinous fullness alone; when the majority of these signs are observable throughout the bulk of the crop, the period of its perfect maturity for the manufacture of a dry wine, has certainly arrived. In certain varieties there will be many bunches, the foot stalks and seeds of which will not be brown and hard, although the fruit be quite ripe. In such case the seeds will generally be found to be imperfect. The high colour of black grapes must not be taken as one of the signs of maturity, neither must an imperfect color in some kinds be considered as a symptom of the reverse. Grapes may have attained all the maturity of which they are susceptible, even to the extent of shrivelling upon the vines, and yet be imperfectly colored, but when this happens, it is an almost certain sign that the vine is producing too large a crop. When it is proposed to make a sweet wine, the grapes must be allowed to hang some weeks after they have attained the ripeness above described, in fact, until they have shrunk considerably. It will be found difficult to make a sweet wine, when much rain falls towards the period of maturity, when the vines are in a very vigorous state of growth, or when they are producing a large crop. In average years the grapes will be ripe in from five to seven weeks from the time when they first colour or swell to maturity, but they may require two or three weeks longer.

It will sometimes happen that the heavy autumnal rains set in before the grapes are ripe, and this can never fail to produce serious injury. Even twenty-four hours or less, of hard rain, will cause the berries of some sorts to burst, and when this evil occurs to any considerable extent, (unless dry land winds immediately succeed for several days so as to dry them up,) rottenness is sure to follow. Should this misfortune take place, there is no remedy but to begin gathering the grapes, taking first the most damaged, and continuing until all the injured bunches are pulled. There is no hope of making good wine from them; but by adding to the must a large quantity of common sugar, (for this purpose the commonest will answer, but the drier and more free from molasses the better, as this substance will not dissolve readily in the must,) to the extent even of one pound per gallon, a wine may be made which will keep with a little care, and serve for common purposes.

In the wine districts of France and the more temperate portions of Europe, the driest and warmest weather is considered to be the most favorable for the vintage. There the autumn is usually well advanced by the time the grapes are ripe, and the weather is often cold before the vintage is over. But here we are differently circumstanced. The perfect maturity of the grape is generally so much more early, frequently occurring before the first heats are over, and its saccharine properties so much more fully developed, that I prefer the coolest weather the season offers. Indeed, supposing the crop to be perfectly sound and well matured, I consider cloudy weather, accompanied by a few misty showers to be favorable. It is a general law that other circumstances being the same, the fermentation will be so much the more violent, as the weather is warmer when the grapes are gathered and pressed. Now it is almost invariably more violent here than is advantageous for the quality of the wine; the aroma is thus partly lost, and, unless care be taken, there is a great loss of spirit also. The best wines I have succeeded in making, have been those in which the fermentation was comparatively gentle and long continued. It should therefore be an object with us to abate this tendency to ferment with excessive violence by every means in our power; and with this view, amongst other methods, to choose the coolest weather for gathering the grapes the season offers us. But it might be dangerous to delay after the crop is quite ripe, lest heavy rains should occur, and blast the hopes of the wine grower. In hot weather, then, I should not recommend the vintage to be deferred, but rather to proceed with the gathering at the earliest dawn, and to cease when the sun has acquired power, resuming the work in the cool of the evening. If it should be impracticable to adopt this plan, and the grapes become heated by exposure to a hot sun, it may be partly remedied by contriving to spread them out thinly on cloths or some other clean surface, and exposing them to the cool night air, taking care to crush them the next morning while they are cool. When this last plan is to be adopted, care must be taken in gathering and bringing them home, that they are not crushed or bruised unnecessarily.

The period for gathering the crop having been ?xed upon, a suf?cient number of hands should be provided as vintagers, selecting those only who are likely to be attentive and obedient. Each should be provided with a sharp knife, and each pair should have a bucket or other convenient clean light vessel furnished with a handle to carry it by when full. To each pair a row of vines should be assigned, the whole to be overlooked by an attentive trusty person. The gatherers should be instructed to gather none but the grapes which are fully ripe and sound. Those berries which are rotten or damaged, as well as any portions of withered leaves attached to the bunches, they should be directed to remove before they put them into their vessels. They should be directed to be careful how they cut such bunches as are attached to each other, or to the vine, by any other means than the footstalk, lest they pull off and scatter on the ground a number of the ripest berries. Where the crop is valuable, it is usual in Europe for each person gathering to be provided with a pin, to use in picking off the ground such berries as are unavoidably dropped from the bunches.

As the buckets are filled, they should be carried out to the ends of the rows, where a cart should be waiting to receive them. In the cart should be placed, standing on end, with their heads out, two or three moderately sized casks (from 30 to 60 gallons,) or other convenient sized vessels to hold them. Larger sized casks are apt to be inconvenient on account of their weight when full. It is desirable to have it so managed, that on their arrival at the cellar, the casks of grapes can be slung, and by means of a tackle, hoisted from the cart to the stage on a level with the press, and their contents shot into the treading box at once. With large sized casks, this would not be so easily practicable. As the buckets, are emptied into the casks, their contents should be examined by a careful person, bunch by bunch, if the state of the crop demands it, and all that is either unripe, or rotten and mouldy, separated from the good, removing at the same time, any foreign substances overlooked by the gatherers. In sorting them it is necessary to distinguish the really rotten grapes from those which merely have their skins injured, whilst their pulp is sugary and rich, as well as from those which have dried on the bunch like raisins. Observe that all which have commenced to shrivel or decay before they were ripe are bad, and must be rejected to be used for vinegar; if left in, they are very apt to spoil the wine. A little experience will soon teach an observant person to know by sight the good from the bad amongst the shrivelled or rotting grapes. Their taste will do so at once. If the weather be favorable for the gathering, and it is proposed to express their juice at once, the grapes may be pounded in the cask with a rammer of wood as they are poured in from the buckets, so as to compress them as much as possible, and save carriage to the cellar; and when the cask is filled, a cloth should be thrown over it to keep off the sun if there be any. As one cart is loaded, another should be in readiness to take its place, but one pair of horses will serve for both carts.

From what has been observed, the reader will comprehend the importance of employing as gatherers, only such persons as are old enough to understand the directions they may receive, and willing to abide by them. Eating grapes amongst the rows of vines should be absolutely forbidden; but all may be allowed to partake freely when they are assembled from time to time to rest at the ends of the rows. If the practice of eating grapes at will, be not at once checked, the dirty habit of putting every fine looking bunch to the mouth, and biting off a few of the best and ripest berries, will soon become prevalent, until many of the workers become gorged past all power of exerting them selves. Let all be cautioned in this respect before they enter the vineyard, and then let the first refractory person be immediately turned out of it; the example will not be lost upon the rest. In wine countries, where regularity is of course introduced into this the most important business of the year, eating grapes is only permitted at meals, and when the labour of the day is finished.

I say nothing about the expediency of mixing or keeping separate the various sorts of grapes which may have been planted together in the same vineyard, because it is a point upon which, at present, every one here must decide for himself, and in which experience alone can guide him. I may remark that few vineyards of reputation contain less than two or three sorts, the combination of which is considered necessary, or at all events desirable, in the manufacture of their produce; but few of them contain more than three or four varieties; and the confused medley of sorts in the common vineyards of many vine districts, is justly objected to as being one of the causes of the inferiority of their produce. The combination of several kinds appears to be more frequent in the manufacture of red Wines of reputation, than in the white. In an early paper I described various sorts which are crushed together in vineyards of great celebrity.


Letter XIII – The Vintage – Crushing the Grapes

The grapes having been brought home to the cellar or place for expressing the juice, they may be forthwith crushed, if the weather at the time of gathering has been favorable; but if heated by exposure to a powerful sun, or sultry atmosphere, (if it be not very inconvenient to do so,) I should prefer to allow them first to be cooled, by being spread out thinly, and exposed to the fresh night air. I have already described a box or trough to be used in treading them out, and as my object at present is rather with reference to operations upon a limited scale, I will suppose that a small one of about six feet square, has been constructed upon the same principle. This would be sufficiently capacious to contain upon the gratings half a ton of grapes, and leave room for two men to commence trampling them out. I will suppose, also, that a sort of platform adjoining the treading box has been erected large enough for three or four casks of grapes to stand upon it. If this platform can be so placed as to admit a cart to be backed against it, much trouble in unloading the grapes will be saved.

To commence with the process of manufacturing white wine; the men to be employed in treading out the grapes having taken off their shoes and thoroughly cleansed themselves, should stand on the gratings, and having spread with a shovel a thin layer of grapes over the surface unoccupied by the uncrushed fruit, proceed to tread them out by a rapid motion of the feet. In this work they are very much assisted by having some support for the hands, without it, the labour of treading out grapes for, perhaps, fourteen or sixteen hours a day, becomes excessively fatiguing. The thinner the layer of grapes is spread upon the gratings, the more rapidly and thoroughly will any given quantity be crushed. As the first layer is finished, every bunch having been thoroughly trodden, it should be shovelled up into a corner to drain, and another layer spread and operated upon until the skins and stalks (technically called the “Marc”) have accumulated so as to occupy too much room, or no more grapes are left. The marc should then be again spread over the gratings, and well trampled for a few minutes the second time; the longer it can be allowed to remain upon the gratings to drain, the less trouble it will afterwards give in pressing. Without some means of pressing the marc by the application of considerable power, a large quantity of juice will be left in it, which will be so much the more valuable and difficult to extract, as the grapes have been richer and more saccharine. Therefore, although to make wine on a small scale, a screw or lever press may not be absolutely requisite, no person possessing an acre or two of vineyard should neglect to have one.

Of the simple presses, the screw answers best, and if it be long enough to work through about two feet or two feet six inches of space, it will be sufficient. I have been in the habit of using an iron screw of a very powerful description, which, for convenience in working, has the head where the leverage is applied, downwards. This head works completely through the “cap” of the press, which is thus raised and lowered with the screw. The cap is about eighteen inches broad in the centre, and so long as to work at each end in grooves made for the purpose in the cheeks, or uprights of the frames in which the screw is fixed. The latter is thus always kept quite perpendicular, without which, it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to apply much pressure with the screw to a pile of marc; as from its mucilaginous nature, it has a great tendency to slip out at the bottom and sides. A wheel with spokes is used for turning the screw, and when very high pressure is required, additional power is obtained by passing a rope round the spokes, the other end of which is attached to a windlass. By these means, in a very strong shallow trough, about five feet square, the marc can be subjected to a pressure, which, in a few hours, renders it perfectly dry. When the quantity to be pressed is considerable, some little nicety is required on the part of the workmen.

The marc, after being removed from the treading box, is built up in a perfectly square pile, of about three feet to three feet six inches each side, and as upright as possible, but if any thing, tapering a little inwards, and placed exactly in the middle of the trough, so as to have the screw directly over its centre; about every six inches in height, a layer of well combed straw reed is introduced, (rye straw is the best,) to prevent the pile from slipping, and it is thus continued until built up to the height of four feet or more. A couple of stout planks are then placed on the top, and the screw turned down, until, by simple leverage, it can be got no further. This is called the first pressing, and the must obtained by it is usually added to that which flows from the treading box. The screw being then turned up sufficiently, the sides are pared off to the thickness of several inches with a large sharp knife, and the parings are built on the top: the screw is again turned down, and the produce, if the grapes have been very highly matured, again added to the first running. The sides are then again pared down, and after the screw is turned down by the simple leverage, the power of the windlass is applied, and the marc left to drain as long as convenient. Very little juice now remains in it, nevertheless, it may be broken small by hand, water added to it, and then be left to ferment; to be afterwards distilled, or expressed for vinegar. The must obtained from the last pressing should never be added to the first running, unless the quality of the wine be a secondary consideration. It is always more or less harsh and bitter from the addition of some of the juice from the stalks, which quality, it will, of course, communicate to the rest of the wine. As the must is expressed, it should be conveyed to the vats or vessels in which it is to ferment, each of which, it is desirable to complete as quickly as possible, after it has been commenced, that the process of fermentation may commence simultaneously in the entire mass. It is not prudent to fill the vat or vessel used to ferment in, to more than four-fifths or five-sixths of its capacity, (unless, indeed, the plan be adopted of racking it into another vessel just before the tumultuous fermentation is about to establish itself, as I shall describe underneath,) for during the height of the process, the mass sometimes increases so much in volume that, without this precaution, the wine would flow over and run to waste.

If the process is to be carried on in vats, it is best to have a cover of wood for each, made like the lid of a harness cask, (to be put on either in one or two pieces, according to the size of the vat,) and fitted quite close, every crevice being carefully stopped, as soon as the fermentation becomes active, with a luting of dough [to fill and seal], except an aperture of about three inches diameter, to be left near the centre of the lid. This aperture should have a piece of thick leather, rather larger than itself, attached to it by nailing it on one side, with a slight weight upon it, that it may act as a valve to open for the escape of the carbonic acid gas, and shut again as soon as the pressure against it ceases. The object of having a cover of this description to a fermenting vat, is to prevent the free escape of the aroma of the grape, and the spirit, (the most valuable of the properties of wine) which, during an active fermentation, are volatilized to a considerable extent, and the portions so volatilized altogether dissipated, if the vat be left quite uncovered. When casks, with their heads out, are used instead of vats, a substitute may be made with the detached head of the cask, by nailing to its upper surface a stout lath, something longer than the diameter of the head, to prevent it from slipping, and drawing a square piece of clean cloth, such as Osnaburg [coarse linen], quite across the mouth of the cask before the head is put on. It is alleged by some practical men, that a simple cover of canvass, or other similar material, is sufficient to prevent the escape of those principles of the wine, which it is desirable to retain, and still to admit the free passage of the carbonic acid gas. Of this I have had no practical experience, but I prefer the solid covers, with a valve. When the fermentation is carried on in casks, through the bung hole, a small piece of leather can be attached to it by nailing, as above described, to answer the same purpose. Another method is sometimes adopted in Europe, viz., to fit to the hung-hole a tube of tin or wood, to which is attached a leather hose, sufficiently long to be passed into a tub of water. The aroma is said thus to be retained in the wine, and the spirit caught by the water, which permits the gas to escape; and it is alleged that if the fermenting mass be large, and the process active, the water will become impregnated with spirit, to such an extent, as to render it profitable to distil. I do not, however, consider the quantity of brandy to be thus obtained, likely to be sufficient to cover the expense, at least such, upon trial, I have found to be the case.