Knowing the ins and outs of winemaking might not sound all that interesting or useful, but understanding the basics of how wine is made is.
What you need to grasp is how certain aspects of wine making are going to influence the wine that’s produced.
Firstly, let’s remember that wine can only be made with grape.
No other fruit can be added…
If another fruit is used, it cannot be called wine.
So in the first instance we need grapes… Nice, healthy, freshly picked ripe grapes.
This is vital!
Should the grapes be of average quality, should they not be ripe enough or too ripe and it will be impossible to produce a good wine. As a result, the wine maker spends most of the year tending to his plants, his vines, in order to get them to produce the best possible fruits.
Come harvest time, the whole estate gets together to pick the grapes and start the wine making process.
THE START OF THE PROCESS: THE PRESS
Let’s assume we have fantastic white grapes, that come in to our cellar…
Next up, we’re going to “clean them up”. And by that I don’t mean that we wash them, but simply that we remove any rotten, or damaged berries.
From there, we’re going to simply crush the berries using what’s called a press.
Back in the days these presses basically looked like a large wooden basket. On the top of the basket you would have a metal plate that you would screw down. By doing this, you would slowly crush the grapes and extract juice that would flow from the openings.
Today these presses are technologically more advanced but the principal is the same: to extract grape juice.
As the juice flows into tanks, it comes in contact with the natural yeast that is found on the grape’s surface.
In certain cases, when for example no yeast is present on the grapes, yeast will be added to the juice.
THE FERMENTATION PROCESS
Once in the tank, the yeast gets to work… This is the fermentation process.
This means that the yeast consumes the sugar in the juice and turns it into alcohol.
As this happens, the wine is going to start bubbling; this is because the fermentation process produces carbon dioxide. This is not important in still wines, but it’s important to remember for the production of sparkling wine.
Once the sugar has been turned into alcohol, we basically have a wine!
What’s important to understand here is that the more sugar you have in the grape, the more alcohol you have in the wine.
Or what could also happen is that not all the sugar is turned into alcohol and then you have some sweetness in the wine.
This means that the hotter regions that are going to produce riper grapes and in turn either more alcoholic or sweet wines.
Whereas cooler regions, where the grapes are going to be less ripe and sweet will produce less alcoholic wines.
Back to our wine…
At the end of the fermentation process, as I explained, you have a wine. But the wine, at this stage, is not quite ready for consumption.
At this point, there are a few directions the winemaker can decide to go.
The first is to get the wine ready by following the finishing process you can see below.
Alternatively, the winemaker can decide to mature the wine in barrels.
AGEING (or AGING)
Something that is relatively common is mature the wine in barrels, which are generally made of oak.
This process, when done well, brings more finesse to the wine, making it more complex (the wine will have more aromas and flavours). In other terms this process generally improves the wine.
Ageing the wine in barrels will bring it some unmistakable aromas of vanilla, of smokeyness, of toast, of butter or even of coconut.
However, some winemakers decide to take shortcuts, or try to reproduce the finesse of oak aged wines. They do this by “infusing” the wine with cheap substitutes such as planks of wood or even wood chips.
FINISHING THE WINE
Once the wine maker decides that his white wine as she/ he wishes, he will need to get the wine ready for bottling.
To do this, the winemaker will basically need to clear the wine from all its cloudiness.
At this stage the wine has lots of floating sediments and suspended molecules, that need to be removed for the wine to be clear, brilliant and ready for bottling.
This is done through processes such as fining and filtration.
The wine is “stabilised” which is meant to ensure that it won’t accidentally start fermenting again once it’s in the bottle.
It’s important that the more thorough you are in the filtration the more you’re going to strip the wine of texture, aromas and flavours.
At this point, the wine is ready for bottling.
The winemaker then decides what closure she or he wants.
This could be cork (the actual material or plastic or glass) or a screw cap; each bringing pros and cons which I will discuss in another article.
And once the wine is bottled, sealed and labelled, it is ready to make its way to your home and then into your glass.