How is wine made?
Below is a very basic explanation of the wine making process step by step. There’s a lot more to it but this is all you need to know.
Humans have been making wine for over 8,000 years. Without any scientific understanding, ancient people believed that wine mysteriously transformed from grape juice as a gift from the gods. Trial and error was the core way to help wine evolve into more delicious stuff throughout the years. It is as simple as picking grapes off the vine, smooshing them into juice, and waiting for the magic to happen. While the basic concept remains the same, it wasn’t until about 150 years ago that Louis Pasteur discovered how alcoholic fermentation occurred. He ran experiments that determined that it was a live yeast bacteria that converts sugar into alcohol. This was the breakthrough moment that changed the wine industry as we know it.
Growing grapes for winemaking
Winemaking starts in the vineyards. The wine is only as good as the grapes that go in it. Viticulture is fancy farming and it’s the fancy name for growing grapes. Grapes are a vine that grow uncontrollably. It is the job of the farmer to control the vines. The farmer tames the vines by creating support systems and training the vines to adhere to a shape. The proper word for this is trellising. It’s not so different than trellising a vine against a lattice fence. You’re guiding the vine on where to go and supporting it along the way.
There are many different ways and just as many reasons to trellis and train a vineyard. They vary depending on the climate, the unique needs of the grape variety, and the needs/abilities of the farmer. Trellising a vineyard should make it easier to care for the vineyard for everything from weed control, preventing disease, and ease of harvesting.
Grape vines produce fruit once a year. The winemaker determines when the grapes are ripe, usually when sugar levels and acidity are in balance. During harvest, harvesters cut the grapes from the vine, put them in baskets, and transport them to the winery.
Grapes can be sorted in the vineyard or at the winery. Sorting in the vineyard means that only healthy clean grapes are picked. The harvesters discard rotten grapes or leaves them on the vine. This usually occurs at estate wineries that make wines from their own vineyards. Wineries that buy fruit from farmers will need to sort their grapes on a sorting table to make sure only healthy grapes go into the wine.
Fermentation can only begin if the juice inside the grape interacts with yeast. To get the grape juice out, the grapes go into a crusher to break the berries open. The destemmer separates the berries from the stems. The stems impart harsh bitter tannins in the wine and we don’t want that.
The difference between white, red, and rose fermentation
At this step in the wine making process, white wine and red wine diverge on different paths. White grapes jump ahead to the press. Red grapes go through maceration. Red grapes that have very little contact with the grape skins make pink-colored wines.
The next 2 wine-making steps are happening simultaneously.
Maceration is how wine gets its color. For red wine, skins are in contact with the juice throughout the fermentation process. The juice inside of all grape berries is clear. It is the skin that give wine its color. As the grape juice begins to ferment, alcohol and heat rise in the solution. Alcohol and heat extract pigment out of the skins and into the liquid. The longer the skins stay in contact with the juice, the darker the color will be. Red grapes that will become rose wine only macerate for up to 24 hours. Whereas, red grapes that will become red wine can macerate for up to a month.
Wine Fermentation Process
Fermentation is the process in which the sugar in grapes converts to alcohol. This happens when the yeast begins to eat the sugar. Yeast is everywhere. Fermentation can begin with wild yeast found in the environment but usually winemakers will add reliable, predictable commercial yeast. Alcohol, carbon dioxide, and heat are the byproducts of this fermentation. This process can take anywhere from 10 to 21 days. It is important to control the temperature of the must/wine during this time. If the wine is too cold yeast will go into hibernation. If the wine is too hot, the yeasts will die.
Pressing separates the skins and seeds from the juice. With white grapes, pressing occurs before fermentation. With red wine pressing occurs after the juice has already become wine. White juice is pressed whereas red wine is pressed. Pressing, whether done in a basket press or pneumonic press, gets the last bit of juice/wine out of the skins. Then the juice/wine is pumped into vats. The skins and seeds were discarded. Some wineries use the skins to make grape distillates, fertilizer for the vineyards, or feed for animals.
Dead yeast and other grape guts will fall to the bottom of the vats. The wine above the guts transfers to a different vat. They discard the sludge at the bottom. This is one way to clarify the wine. Wine can be clarified by bentonite clay, egg whites, or fish bones, too. Don’t fret on this. I’ll write about it soon.
The winemaker blends the wine whether it is a single variety wine or a blend of multiple grapes. Each vineyard site, each vat, and each barrel is different even if the grape variety is the same. The winemaker will carefully select how the wine will come together. There’s a lot of chemistry involved to make a balanced wine.
Unoaked white wines and roses need about 4 months to be ready for consumption. Reds take longer and can take up to 2 years to be market-ready. Oaked wines will spend time in the barrels to take on oak flavors and have small transfers of oxygen through the wood to aid development.
Even after racking, some small particles will remain. Filtering the wines makes the wine clear and free of particles. To some extent, all wines pass through a filter. Some winemakers choose to minimize filtration to preserve as much character as possible.
Last step is the bottling line. Pretty self explanatory. The machine fills the bottles, seals them with a cork or screwcap, seals them with a foil, and adds a label. Depending on the size of the winery, some of these steps like labeling will be done by hand.
Okay so this isn’t technically part of the wine making process step by step, but as a sommelier, I feel like this is the most important. Cheers, friends!
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