How Wine Is Made: Everything You Need to Know About Winemaking
A few things have changed since the days of using bare feet to press grapes, but you might be surprised to learn that many traditional winemaking methods remain the same.
This guide will walk you through the five essential steps of how wine is made, including how the grapes are harvested, the difference between making red wine and white wine, and why understanding the process will help you appreciate wine even more.
Harvesting the Grapes
When it comes to how wine is made, it all starts with plucking grapes from the vine. There are a few ways to go about this, either by employing people to pick the grapes by hand, or by using a picking machine.
The method for picking grapes doesn’t have much impact on the wine itself. While some may argue that hand-picked grapes reduce potential damage to the fruit and improve selection, using machines is often faster and cheaper. However, plenty of vineyards are on steep hillsides, making large, heavy machinery difficult to use.
Because many wine regions are based in hot climates, grape harvesting is often done at night to protect pickers from the hot sun. Once the grapes are picked, stems and all, they are then transported for crushing.
Crushing the Grapes
After the grapes are picked and gathered, they are put through a machine called a destemmer. This device (you guessed it) destems the grapes.
This next part is where red, white, and rosé wines differ greatly. Unlike red wine and rosé wines, white wine grapes are fully crushed in a press. This procedure extracts the skins and seeds from the grape, leaving only the grape juice.
This grape juice is then filtered using a process called racking, which ensures that all the sediment — including grape skins and seeds — are gone.
By contrast, red and rosé wines are only lightly pressed before they’re fermented. This is because many of red wine’s qualities and character come from the tannins found in the grape skins and seeds. As such, they’re fermented with their skins on.
The Fermentation Process
Fermentation is probably the most critical step in wine production — it’s when alcohol is created. To trigger this chemical reaction, yeast is sometimes added into the tanks with the grapes. The added yeast converts the grape sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide, giving the wine its alcohol content.
At this point, many mass wine producers will mix in other additives, such as artificial colors, sweeteners, and preservatives like sulphur. Winemakers are usually legally permitted to add whatever natural ingredients they like. However, this can include dangerous amounts of sulphur and factory-grown yeast.
On the other hand, brands such as Usual Wines have chosen not to do this. Instead of hidden additives and potentially harmful chemicals, you’ll find wines made the Old-World way, in small batches from sustainably-farmed grapes without any additives.
For red and rosé wine, the grapes ferment with their skins on, giving them that iconic crimson color. While red wine grapes have contact with their skins from 5-14 days, rosé grapes only ferment with their skins on for a few hours, giving them a much lighter hue.
Red wine is fermented at a temperature of 70-85 degrees in large open vessels. While the wine ferments, winemakers use the open-topped vessels to punch down the grape skins, extracting more flavor.
White wine is a little simpler than red and rosé. Once white wine is racked, the clear grape juice is fermented at a lower heat, at just 45-60 degrees. This entire fermentation process takes several weeks to be completed.
The Maturation Process
The maturation process can add a host of complex flavors and textures to wine.
While some lower-quality red wines are matured in much cheaper stainless steel tanks, red wine is often matured in oak barrels. Because oak barrels are porous, they allow small amounts of oxygen to dissolve in the wine. This softens the harsh textures of the tannins and gives a smooth, oaky flavor.
There are a host of different barrels available to winemakers, each with their own qualities:
- French oak and American oak are the two most popular barrels. Each creates different wine qualities based on where the wood originates. French oak can give the wine a subtle spice, while American oak can give off hints of vanilla.
- Using new oak barrels can create different flavors than reusing old barrels. This is because oak flavor extraction is reduced each time it’s used.
- Some winemakers choose to forgo the barrel altogether and oak their wines using oak chips. These wood bits are much cheaper than investing in oak barrels.
While the majority of white wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks, there are a few, such as Chardonnay, that use a red wine method of fermenting the wine in oak barrels.
Maturation periods depend on what the winemaker is trying to create. While some wines will mature for years upon years, others are designed to mature for a short amount of time — many will be on sale a few months after the grapes were harvested.
Fining, Bottling, and Corking
Once the wine has matured, it’s ready to be clarified, or “fined.” This process involves removing any unwanted particles from the wine, which could make it look cloudy or off-color. To achieve this, winemakers add a substance that binds to the unwanted particles, making them larger and therefore big enough to filter out.
There are a range of fining agents used in wine production. While there are some vegan options, such as bentonite (clay), most are derived from animal products. Popular agents include milk, egg whites, gelatine, and fish guts. (Yes, fish guts.) In the past, even bull’s blood was a popular additive. If you’re a vegan wine lover, make sure you do your research before popping that bottle.
While most wines are fined, the rise in biodynamic, organic, and natural wines has seen some winemakers go without. However, the end result doesn’t look as appetizing since the wine can appear cloudy.
After the fining process, the wine is bottled. Sterile glass wine bottles are filled from the bottom via a tube. While this process is commonly automated, some smaller wine producers will do this by hand.
Once the wine is safely in the bottle (where it belongs), the bottle is sealed. While corks are the traditional method of closure, screw caps have become increasingly popular. Some sommeliers even argue that metal screw caps are superior to cork, due to their greater ability to keep out bacteria and prevent the wine from spoiling.
Appreciating How Wine Is Made
As you can see, making wine is no small feat. Wine production is a long and arduous process, where much can go wrong.
It takes many pickers and large expensive machinery to harvest and prepare the grapes. After this, winemaking is a delicate science, as wine producers work tirelessly to press, ferment, and mature the humble grape into one of the world’s favorite drinks.
Using traditional, centuries-old techniques, wine producers use yeast and sugar to create alcohol. It takes years of knowledge to age their wine perfectly, giving it specific flavors and textures.
Remember, not all wine is created equal. While quality winemakers invest much time in these processes, many mass-produced wines are created by taking short cuts. For example, many vintners will include additives and artificial sweeteners to increase alcohol and speed up fermentation.
For wine that’s multifaceted, delicious, and lets the natural grape flavors be the star of the show, look for smaller independent winemakers. Then, the next time you take a sip of merlot, raise your glass and toast the winemakers of the world.