How is Wine Made: A Beginner's Guide

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Crushing grapes gets you grape juice, but how do we get from a simple juice to the fantastic wine in that bottle in front of you? Here's a quick overview for those of you with a “budding” interest in viniculture (we're so sorry for that one).

Before we get into it, a quick reminder that if you want more detail on any of the terms below, you can always check out our glossary. Or you can ask Vina, our AI wine assistant, at the bottom right to dive deeper on anything here!

The Basics of Winemaking

Winemaking is a beautiful blend of art and science, where natural processes and human skill come together to create something truly special.

In its most simple form, winemaking (or vinification or vinifying grapes) is done by harvesting grapes, crushing them, and then fermenting them, transforming grape sugars into alcohol.

Depending on the desired wine style, winemakers decide on the duration of fermentation and post-fermentation ageing, and the types of vessels used, such as stainless steel tanks for freshness, and oak barrels for added complexity. For whites, only the juice ferments, while reds ferment along with their skins, giving them colour (and rosé and orange wines are a bit in between, which we'll talk a bit more about below).

Harvesting and Crushing: The First Steps

Harvesting grapes isn't merely about picking fruit—it’s the vintner's first decision towards defining the style and quality of the final wine. The timing of the harvest, both time of year and time of day, is crucial as it affects the sugar levels and acidity of the grapes.

In the cool of dawn, grapes are often harvested to retain their crisp acidity and delicate aromas.

Precision is key during harvest, as timing affects sugar levels and acidity, and different methods, yield distinct impacts on the grapes and resulting wine (for example, handpicking can help yield higher quality but is time- and labour-intensive, whereas machine harvesting can move much more quickly but with less ability to select for grape quality).

Either way, ensuring the picked grapes reach the winery in prime condition—free from bruises and rot—is crucial for the production of high-quality wine.

Once the grapes are harvested, they are carefully sorted to remove any leaves, stems, or other debris. The sorted grapes are then gently crushed to release the juice, which is the starting point for the winemaking process.

Fermentation: Transforming Juice into Wine

Fermentation is the grapes actually begin to turn into wine, which happens as yeast converts grape sugars into alcohol.

During fermentation, winemakers have several choices to make that can greatly influence the final product. One important decision is the choice of yeast, as different strains can produce different flavors and aromas. The winemaker may also decide on the fermentation temperature, which can impact the speed and character of the fermentation process. Additionally, the duration of fermentation and the use of oak barrels or stainless steel tanks for aging are other choices that can affect the wine's taste and texture.

Throughout this process, winemakers may employ techniques such as pump over or batonage to help cycle the wine and enhance its flavors and aromas. The winemaker closely monitors the fermentation process, checking the sugar levels and tasting the wine regularly to determine when fermentation is complete. This decision of when to deem fermentation complete is crucial as it marks the transition of the fermented wine into the maturation phase and plays a significant role in determining what the finished product looks and tastes like.

Ageing: Developing Depth and Flavour

After fermentation, wine enters the ageing phase, which is integral to its development. Vats, barrels, or bottles serve as vessels where the wine matures, undergoing chemical transformations that enhance its complexity and flavour profile.

Wooden barrels are a frequent choice for developing richness and adding distinct oaky nuances. Even here there are huge choices to be made, such as what type of wood to use, how long

The length of time wine spends ageing can greatly affect its character, with some wines reaching optimal maturity within a few months, while others require several years. Factors such as oxygen exposure, the type of vessel used, and the wine's inherent qualities all play a pivotal role in shaping the final product.

Experimentation with different ageing methods adds another dimension to the winemaking process. Techniques like sur lie, where the wine remains in contact with the yeast lees, can impart creaminess and toasty notes. As the wine evolves, decisions about filtration and fining help refine its clarity and stability before it journeys into the glass of the expectant connoisseur.

Blending and Bottling

Either before or after agening, winemakers may choose to blend different batches of wine together to create a desired flavor profile. Blending allows for the harmonization of different grape varieties or vineyard plots, resulting in a more complex and balanced wine.

Once the blending process is finalized, the wine is then prepared for bottling. This involves filtering the wine to remove any sediment or impurities and adding any necessary additives, such as sulfur dioxide for preservation. The wine is carefully bottled, sealed, and labeled, ready to be enjoyed by wine enthusiasts around the world.

What Makes a White Wine

The key to white wine is to extract the juice and separate it from the skins, as it is the skins that give wines their colour. In fact, you can make white wine from most red grapes as long as you keep the skins away from the wine (many sparkling wines are actually made from pinot noir, a red grape)!

For white wine, the pressing process is a ballet of pressure and timing, gently coaxing the juice from the fruit while leaving the skins largely untouched. This results in a juice that is primed for a pure expression of varietal character, free from the intrusion of skin-derived components. After extraction and separation, the juice is then allowed to settle, ensuring any solids are removed before fermentation begins. Subsequent to the settling, yeast is introduced to the clarified juice, initiating fermentation.

The methodical removal of skins during pressing plays a pivotal role not only in the clarity of the wine but also in its flavour profile and texture. The winemaker's deft touch ensures that the final product will boast the desired levels of brightness and aroma.

Fermentation Temperature: Keeping it Cool

Temperature control is paramount during fermentation, influencing the wine's final character, flavour development, and stability. Precise cooling systems ensure the heat generated by yeast activity remains in check.

Cooler fermentation preserves aromatic compounds in the wine, especially important for whites and rosés. Too high a temperature can produce unwanted flavours and aromas, reducing the overall quality. Therefore, the temperatore is meticulously managed.

Crafting Red and Rosé Wines

Creating red wines involves extracting rich colours and tannins from grape skins (and sometimes the stems, too!) during maceration. This process plays a significant role in developing the wine's complexity, colour, and body. Where with whites skins are quickly removed, with reds they are left in contact for a prolonged period of time.

In contrast, rosé wines are made by only allowing limited skin contact - enough to add just a little bit of colour and some added tannins, striking a delicate balance between red and white wine characteristics.

The Difference Between Reds and Rosés

Red wines are known for their robust flavours, stemming from prolonged contact with grape skins. This skin contact imparts deep hues and a tannic backbone.

Rosé wines, with their signature blush, balance between the lightness of whites and the structure of reds, offering a refreshing profile.

The maceration period for reds is extensive, often weeks, allowing for a rich colour and tannic complexity. Rosés, on the other hand, may see only a few hours.

To create a rosé's subtle tannins and soft colours, winemakers carefully monitor the maceration time. This precision prevents the overpowering characteristics typical of reds.

Consequently, rosé wines are typically lighter in body and tannins compared to their red counterparts, prioritising a graceful, fruity elegance over robustness.

Managing Tannins: The Art of Extraction

To balance a wine's structure, tannins require skilled management throughout winemaking.

The process begins with the grapes themselves – the choice of varietal, the timing of the harvest, and the physical act of crushing the berries all play roles in determining tannin levels. Specific yeast strains and fermentation temperatures can lead to variations in tannin complexity and integration. The elements of time and technique during the fermentative stage are decisive in shaping the tannic profile of a wine.

Post-fermentation, winemakers may choose to age the wine in oak barrels. This practice can enhance tannin presence through the subtle infusion of wood tannins, adding layers of complexity and dimension. The type and toast level of the oak, along with the duration of barrel ageing, finely tune the tannic structure.

Finally, in the bottle, tannins continue to evolve. They can polymerise, or link together, mellowing over time and contributing to a smoother mouthfeel (given reds have more tannins than whites, this is generally reds are better-suited to long ageing than whites). Proper cellaring conditions support this transformation, allowing the wine to develop a more harmonious character. This maturation can yield a remarkable wine, showcasing the skilful interplay of technique and time.

Sparkling Wine: Capturing the Bubbles

Sparkling wine production is akin to alchemy, infusing still wine with a vivacious effervescence. It requires a secondary fermentation process, which gives rise to the wine's signature bubbles.

While there are a number of ways of creating sparkling wines, the arguably most famous is the méthode traditionnelle, the method used in making Champagne.

Under this approach, the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation inside the bottle it will eventually be sold in. Sugar and yeast are added to the base wine, initiating the second fermentation. Carbon dioxide gas (a byproduct of fermentation) is trapped, creating the sparkling sensation in the wine.

Thereafter, yeast cells die and settle in a process called autolysis, enriching the wine with creamy, toasty flavours. Bottles are periodically turned and angled in a riddling rack to concentrate this sediment for eventual removal through a process called disgorgement.

Thus, each bubble that graces one's palate is a testament to meticulous crafting. Time-honoured practices blend with the vintner's vision to create these joyous, effervescent treasures.

Orange Wine: An Ancient Method Revisited

Orange wine conjures a sense of antiquity.

Amber-hued, this distinctive tipple is not made of oranges. Rather, it is the product of white grapes, macerated with their skins and seeds, often in clay vessels, known as amphorae. This skin-contact method, typical for reds, imparts a unique tannic structure and complex flavour profile to these wines. Historically, this technique originated in the Caucasus, today's Georgia, millennia ago.

As a rough shortened explanation, orange wines are white wines made like a red, whereas rosés are red wines made like whites.

Instead of promptly removing the skins after crush - as is done for white wines - skins mingle with the juice for days to months, endowing the wine with its characteristic colour. This process results in a robust palate presence akin to reds, while retaining some white wine attributes.

Though palates vary, you can expect a tapestry of nutty, dried fruit, and honeyed notes in an orange wine, alongside a nuanced tannic bite. As awareness grows, orange wines have burgeoned in popularity, providing an intriguing counterpoint to more familiar wine styles.

Conclusion

We hope the above is a helpful crash course in the basics of winemaking. If you'd like to learn more, you can ask our AI wine assistant, Vina, or you can reach out to us at the Raravina Wine Hotline!

Until next time, Stay Nosey.