How is Wine Made?
Winemaking is a fascinating process where the winemaker, as an artist, combines their knowledge and skills to create something decadent and beautiful.
The steps require much scientific explanation, making the process seem overwhelming. Once you break everything down, winemaking becomes easier to understand.
Let’s look at a brief overview of the winemaking process.
An Overview of the Winemaking Process
Before we begin, there are a few terms to know that will help you better understand winemaking:
- Oenology: The science of winemaking.
- Viticulture: Refers to the growing of the grapes.
- Varieties: Refers to the different types of grapes.
- Winemaker: Also referred to as “vintner,” is the expert making the wine.
Now that we’re familiar with these terms, let’s examine an overview of the process:
- Harvesting: The first step in the winemaking process involves selecting the grapes from the vine. Grapes must be picked at the right time to exude the optimal amount of sugar, tannins, and flavor expression.
- Pressing and crushing: Done manually for hundreds of years by stomping, this step involves crushing the grape clusters, skins, and seeds while squeezing the grape juice into a separate vat. When the skins and grapes are left to ferment together, this is called the “grape must.”
- Fermentation: After the grape skins are separated from the juice, the juice is left to start the fermentation process. This is when the yeast cells in the wine turn the sugars into alcohol. This usually happens naturally, although some winemakers add yeast to kickstart the process.
- Filtering: Once fermentation is complete, the wine is filtered and fined to remove any sediment left over.
- Aging: Most wines are aged for a certain amount of time, some more than others, to get the most out of their notes. Depending on the type of wine, the winemaker will decide whether to age the wine in oak barrels or stainless steel barrels.
- Bottling: Once sifted and clarified, the wine is ready to be bottled and sold!
We’ve covered the basics of the wine process. We’re ready to dive into the various forms of winemaking for red wine, white wine, and more.
How is Red Wine Made?
The main component that separates red winemaking from white winemaking is what happens between crushing and fermentation. Red wines are more likely to be fermented with whole grape clusters still in the juice. As we learned earlier, this mixture is called the “grape must.”
During fermentation, sugar-consuming yeast converts the natural sugars from the grapes into the wine’s alcohol content. The higher the grapes' sugar levels, the more alcohol the wine will have. Some winemakers add yeast to speed up the process. This results in a dry wine as more sugars are consumed by the yeast. Most wines take a few days to up to a month to ferment.
Why Are Red Wines Fermented With Grape Skins and Seeds?
Grape skins, seeds, and stems contain the phenolic compounds that give the wine its color and tannins. The compounds that color the wine are known as anthocyanin. Tannins refer to the astringent compounds that give your mouth that puckering aftertaste. You may experience tannins when snacking on bitter chocolate or drinking a strong tea.
To get the most out of the grape clusters’ properties, winemakers keep stems and seeds submerged. This is accomplished by pressing the grapes down or pumping the juice over the skins into the vat.
Light red wines like Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Gamay are soaked in the grape must throughout the entire process, as their thin skins don’t contain as many tannins or color. Robust red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are made from darker, thick-skinned grapes, lending to their higher tannin content. For this reason, the wine is soaked in the must for a much shorter period.
1. Malolactic Fermentation
After the first fermentation, the wine’s acidity (or malic acid) is converted into creamy, chocolate-like lactic acid.
Like most wines, red wines are commonly aged in either steel or oak barrels. However, red wine is more commonly aged in oak barrels. The two most common oak barrels are French and American oak. French oak adds additional herbs and spices to the wine’s flavor, while American oak adds vanilla textures and flavors. Wines like Tempranillo, Chianti, Syrah, and Zinfandel are almost always aged in oak barrels.
These wines will age anywhere from a few months to a few years. Some are aged for even longer as red wines tend to become nuttier and smoother with age.
This step involves removing proteins and sediments in the red wine that might make it cloudy. Winemakers may use egg whites or casein as fining agents to remove the sediment. The protein in eggs, for example, binds to the unwanted components in the wine.
4. Bottle Aging
Robust red wines like Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Aglianico have the potential to age for decades due to their high tannin and alcohol content. Wine collectors store age-worthy varietals in dark, temperature-controlled areas like cellars or special wine fridges to keep their compounds intact as chemical reactions smooth the wine’s properties over time.
We’ve addressed red winemaking, so let’s now look at its close cousin: blush wine.
How is Rosé Wine Made?
Unlike red winemaking, the grape skins are not fermented with the wine when it comes to Rosé. Instead, the grape skins are left in contact with the juice for as little as a few hours. Simply touching the juice gives the wine a bright pink hue. Because it macerates (sits in the must) for such a short time, there are very few tannins in Rosé.
Moving onto even lighter wine, let’s examine the white winemaking process.
How is White Wine Made?
The white wine process is quite similar to red winemaking, with a few crucial differences. First, white wines are not fermented in the grape must, leaving these varietals with bright hues ranging from clear green to straw yellow.
Next, several white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Grigio are fermented in steel tanks to preserve their freshness. Heavier white wines like Chardonnay undergo malolactic fermentation and longer aging due to their full-bodied structure. This is why we refer to many Chardonnays as being buttery or creamy, as the vanilla flavors from the oak barrels have added to the flavors and textures.
Lastly, white wines are not commonly bottle-aged like red wines, as they don’t have the same organic compounds like tannins, which promote longevity in aging.
Now that we’ve addressed white winemaking, we’re moving on to sparkling wines.
How is Sparkling Wine Made?
While there are technically six methods for crafting sparkling wine, the two most common are the Traditional and Tank Method. The former is preferred for making French sparkling wines like Champagne, while the latter is famous for its use in producing Italian sparkling wines like Prosecco and Lambrusco.
Let’s take a look at both of the processes.
To preserve brightness and acidity, grapes used in sparkling wine production are picked earlier. The grapes are then pressed and fermented into a dry base wine known as Cuvée. Next is Tirage, where yeast and sugars are added to the Cuvée and then bottled for a second fermentation. More alcohol is added to the bottles in this stage, which creates CO2 over time, giving the wine its fizziness. After the sparkling wine is fully fermented, it is then sifted and clarified before it is bottled again and sold. In the case of Champagne, the second fermentation can take a minimum of 15 months.
Though similar to the Traditional Method, the Tank Method is faster and more concise. First, a base wine is created, where a mix of sugar and yeast is added. Next, a second fermentation in a pressure tank takes around ten days. This is where CO2 is formed, giving the wine its bubbles. Finally, the wine is filtered before a small dose of more sugars and natural grape juice is added before bottling.
Speaking of sugar, let’s look a little deeper into the process of making sweet wines.
How is Fortified Wine Made?
Initially produced in the 13th century Mediterranean, Fortified wines are infused with liquors like brandy, making them incredibly sweet and high in alcohol. Wines like Port undergo the same winemaking process as red wine, except that brandy is usually added within a few days of the start of production.
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