Making wine is a lengthy, tricky process. Patience, skill, and even luck are all necessary ingredients in the perfect bottle of wine.
Fine wines start with fine grapes. Wine grapes are different from the ones you typically find in stores. Their skins are thicker, and they have seeds. They’re also sweeter than most grapes, which might surprise you if you’ve tried lots of dry (non-sweet) wines. The high sugar content, however, is necessary. It’s the sugar that will eventually ferment into alcohol.
Though vines can produce good grapes for a few years, they can’t do it forever. Vintners sometimes have to plant new grapes in the spring. The vines are attached to something to hold them up, like a stake or trellis.
Wine grapes need to be grown in a sunny area. Plants use up a lot of energy when they make fruit. Without adequate sunlight for photosynthesis, vines don’t have the ability to produce enough grapes. Sunlight is part of why California and certain parts of France are ideal wine-producing regions.
Sometimes vintners shear the grapes off the vine by hand. Other vintners use mechanical harvesters to pick the grapes.
When is the right time to pick? Lots of factors go into it.
- Grape color
- Plumpness of grapes
- Color of stems and seeds
- Grape type
- Wine type
Winemakers gain a lot of information from things the average person might not even notice. Brown stems, plumpness, and even chewiness of the grape seeds all indicate ripeness.
Of course, tasting a grape is the simplest way to test its ripeness. That isn’t completely reliable, though. One ripe grape doesn’t mean all the grapes are ready.
Certain wines can’t be made at all if the grapes are picked at the wrong time. For example, ice wines are a type of dessert wine that can only be made of grapes that have frozen on the vine.
Vintners use a destemmer to remove stems. The destemmer also crushes the grapes a bit, though most of the crushing happens in a crusher machine.
However, crushing machines didn’t always exist. Throughout history, people traditionally crushed grapes by stomping on them. This practice has mostly gone extinct. You’ll still find grape stompers at small festivals, but you probably won’t find them at modern vineyards.
The crushing stage is where we see one of the first significant differences between the making of white wine and red wine.
Grapes meant for white wine are put into a press after the initial crushing. The press is basically a fancy juicer. It squeezes every drop of juice out of the grapes but leaves the skins behind. Next, vintners put the juice in tanks and let any leftover sediment settle at the bottom. Finally, winemakers filter out the sediment. The juice is ready to ferment.
With red wine, vintners leave the skins on for the beginning of fermentation. Though the destemmer will crush the grapes a little, red wine grapes aren’t fully crushed at this stage.
The remaining grape skins are where red wine’s deep color comes from. The skins impart more than color, though: They also add layered flavors and aromas.
Vintners usually add yeast to the grape juice to kickstart fermentation. As the sugar breaks down, yeast—a type of single-celled organism—turns it into alcohol.
Some winemakers don’t add yeast, though. In those cases, the vintner allows ambient yeast from the environment to slowly settle into the wine. If a winemaker chooses to do it that way, the process is slower. Some people swear it’s worth it: They say that ambient local yeast adds a special flavor.
The yeast also creates carbon dioxide. With red wine, the carbon dioxide causes grape skins to rise to the surface of the juice. Winemakers have to push the skins back down and mix the concoction repeatedly.
Once red wine has already fermented, vintners finally crush and press the grapes completely.
There are a lot of ways to age wine. Vintners pick methods based on the kind of wine they want to produce. Each way of aging will produce different flavors.
Here are some variables winemakers consider when aging wine:
Vintners age wine before bottling it. The pre-bottle aging process can last anywhere from a few months to a few years. Some wines become smoother as they age while others become sour. For instance, Malbec tends to acquire a vinegar flavor if aged longer than twelve months.
Vintners can age wine in a variety of materials. The main three are oak barrels, neutral wooden barrels, and stainless steel.
Oak barrels are the container of choice for many winemakers. They add significant flavor. Neutral woods, on the other hand, have less effect on the taste. Stainless steel adds almost no flavor at all, which allows the grapes to express themselves fully.
If a winemaker ages the beverage in wood, they might choose to use toasted barrels. A toasted barrel has been charred with flames. The charred containers can add toasty flavors to wine.
It’s time to bottle the wine! Some vintners bottle wine by hand. Others use machines.
Winemakers have to make sure the bottles are extremely clean. If the bottles aren’t clean enough, bacteria or bad strains of yeast can infest the wine, leading to spoilage. Finally, corks are compressed and placed in the bottles.
If the winemaker has done everything right, the end product is delicious. Next time you open a bottle, remind yourself of the process that went into what you’re about to drink.