From Grapes to Glass: An Essential Guide to Viniculture
When choosing wine, the first thing to decide is which type of wine you want — red, white, or rosé. While you probably know some basics, such as the kind of grape used to make the wine and where it's from, you might rarely consider the fascinating intricacies of winemaking. But behind every bottle is a story.
Viniculture is the journey from grapes to glass, and it’s far from short and simple — it’s a lengthy process that encompasses both art and science.
What Is Viniculture?
Viniculture is the process or business of growing grapes. The word comes from the Latin roots vīnum (wine) and cultūra (cultivation). In short, viniculture is a branch of horticulture, and this is where the wine industry begins.
So, where does viniculture take place? Viniculture happens on every continent, except Antarctica. The common grapevine, called vitis vinifera in Latin, is native to the Mediterranean region, reaching Germany, Portugal, Morocco, and northern Iran. Old World wine production uses this variety of wine grape. In North America, a descendant of vitis vinifera has been adapted to new climates where it’s been growing for years.
Viticulture vs. Viniculture
If you're a wine buff, you may have heard the terms viticulture or viniculture before, but the difference between the two is often unclear. They are closely related, and sometimes used interchangeably, but there is one distinct difference:
- Viticulture is the science, study, and production of grapes.
- Viniculture is the same as above, only it's specific to grapes for winemaking.
Simply put, viticulture is the science and agriculture of growing grapes, be it for table grapes or juice. However, in viniculture, those grapes are going straight to winemakers.
The Viticulturist Keeps Viniculture Going
Viticulturists are the people who grow grapes to make wine. More than just backyard gardeners, viticulturists are highly educated, often holding master's degrees in enology — the science of wine and winemaking.
Using their expertise and best practices, they have a deep understanding of harvesting grapes at the perfect time for ripeness and quality. If you ask a viticulturist what they do on a typical day, they might say it includes the cultivation of grapes, pest control, fertilization, and designing programs for sustainable farming.
Viticulturists have more responsibilities though, ranging from diagnosing problems and directing staff to monitoring climate and soil, and scheduling irrigation. They truly wear all hats.
Vineyard management is one place where viticulturists shine, and this makes them the best friend of wine producers the world over. The relationship between viticulturists and winemakers is important for more than just grape cultivation, it’s crucial for wine production and marketing. After all, winemakers trust viticulturists to guide their businesses towards yielding the best results.
Communication between viticulturists and winemakers is essential because both parties have the same goal in mind — making wine that people love. The knowledge and guidance from viticulturists is key for making wine exceptional. And as wine drinkers, we thank them.
Vinification: The Science of Winemaking
Vinification is the production of wine, which starts from grape harvesting and ends at bottling. It includes the nitty-gritty details of winemaking from topography to the composition of the soil. While the art of winemaking is fairly consistent, it can differ depending on the type of wine being made. For our purposes, we'll focus on the four basic steps of winemaking.
The Basic Steps of Winemaking
Today, grapes are almost always harvested mechanically. A hundred years ago, you would have seen laborers picking grapes off the vine, but now most harvesting is done by machines.
There are exceptions, but for the most part, even organic wine is harvested by machine. Modern harvesting machines are surprisingly gentle, and can maneuver the crops without being destructive. Once the entire crop is harvested, the grapes are headed to their destiny — in your glass of wine.
Here's how it all goes down.
1. Grape Pressing
After harvesting and destemming, the grapes get crushed to squeeze out the juice that will later become wine. If you're imagining grape stomping, you're on the right track. Only now, the stomping is done by machines. The grapes are promptly crushed and pressed by machines that do all the work.
It’s worth noting that there’s a difference in the way that reds and whites are crushed and pressed. When making white wine, the grapes are pressed quickly to avoid skin contact. (The skin contact is what gives the wine its color.)
On the other hand, red grapes revel in skin contact for a longer period, resulting in deep crimson colors. Grapes for red wine usually keep their skins through the fermentation process while grapes for whites don't.
Once the grape pressing is complete, yeast enzymes are introduced to the grape juice which is called "must.” The yeast begins turning sugars in the must into alcohol.
Reds typically take 5-30 days to ferment. During this process, reds get "punched down," meaning the skins that float to the top of the liquid are pumped down to evenly distribute the skin contact.
Fermenting white wine is different in that the skins have been removed, and the process is shorter. Whites ferment for less time than reds, depending on whether the wine is meant to be sweet or dry.
There are many ways to clarify wine, and the preference is up to winemakers. Reds are pressed at this time, and two separate liquids are created. The first liquid is the drainage before the pressing, and it’s kept as the primary juice for the wine. After pressing, the rest of the juice created is stored and aged separately. Then, both liquids are combined, introducing new flavor combos.
One method for clarifying wine is racking. This is a technique that simply moves the wine from one barrel to another. Solids filter to the bottom and the wine is exposed to unaudited amounts of oxygen.
Another more meticulous technique, called micro-oxygenation, is similar to racking but uses less oxygen exposure.
Some winemakers use a process called fining, which uses clay to attract the solids in the wine, and leaves a clarified liquid afterward.
After fermentation and filtering, some wines are ready to drink, and others are matured in oak barrels for up to three or four years before bottling. Maturation refers to many reactions that happen to the wine, from color to taste.
The most obvious change is color. For reds, wine juice starts violet and ages to become brick-ish, red, orange, and brown, while white wine turns golden. The smell of the wine also changes from grape-centric to more complex wine smells.
For maturing wine, most winemakers use oak barrel aging, which contributes to many of the new taste changes. Depending on the oak (age, origin, size of the barrel), the maturation process adds flavor to the wine. When wine is in contact with the wood, flavor compounds seep into the wine. Oak barreling adds vanilla, clove, smoke flavors, and more. The porous oak also slowly allows oxygen into the wine, changing the wine from astringent to smooth.
Some winemakers opt for stainless steel wine barrels for the maturation process as these are environmentally-friendly, long-lasting, and more economic for wine producers. Using steel does not impart any oak flavors — instead, it provides a more controlled taste.
Bottling is the last step in the winemaking process. Some wines are aged in the bottle, and some are ready to drink at bottling. Aging (or cellaring) means storing purchased bottles of wine in a cool, dark place for a specific period before drinking.
While aging allows some wine to develop character and complexity, most wine is meant to be consumed when it’s bought, or within a few years, when stored correctly. Depending on the kind of wine it is, there are recommendations for how long the bottle should age before being ready to drink.
Different types of wine are cellared for longer or shorter periods. Whether the wine is aged in the bottle or not, the wine that arrives in your kitchen has taken a long time to get to you, so enjoy it.
Keep the Art of Viniculture in Mind the Next Time You Buy Wine
While you might rarely think about the steps that went into creating that bottle of wine in your hand, learning about viniculture can give you a newfound and deeper appreciation for your next sip.
Viniculture happens on every continent and is run by viticulturists and winemakers working in tandem. From harvesting to fermentation, making wine is an unrushed, lengthy journey that requires expertise and a few tricks of the trade.
So, the next time you grab a bottle of red, white, or rosé, feel free to revel in the moment. You're tasting years of expertise, patience, and passion.