Are you a wine lover but don’t really know much about the process, other than the fact that someone grows and crushes the grapes? If so, you’re in good company, because this is all that most people seem to know, even if they drink wine on a regular basis. To more fully appreciate your next glass of wine, read on to learn about the seven steps involved in the winemaking process:
Before planting grape seeds, winemakers assess the soil and climate to determine which types of grape will thrive in the region. In northern California, with its warm climate and rocky soil, Cabernet Sauvignon grows nicely. On the other hand, regions with sandy soil and cooler temperatures tend to produce better Sauvignon Blanc.
The planting process also entails planning space between the rows and assessing how to trellis (or interweave) the vines. The vineyard workers then cover each baby plant with a carton for protection against the cold, and over the course of several years they carefully water and prune the vines to prepare for harvest.
The harvesting process begins at different times for different grapes, with the start date depending largely upon the fruit’s sugar levels. Winemakers harvest white wine grapes before red wine grapes, starting with grapes used for sparkling wines and then moving on to Chardonnay grapes and finally red wine grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet (which comes last). Harvesting often begins during the early morning (around 3:00 a.m.) to avoid fermentation caused by the heat of the sun.
De-stemming and pressing (white wine) or crushing (red wine)
Prior to crushing the grapes, workers de-stem them to avoid the production of excess tannins, which red wine already gets from contact with the grape skins. Traditionally, vineyard employees crushed grapes with their feet, but most vineyards now mechanically crush the grapes to turn them into must, which consists of grape juice mixed together with the seeds, skin, and solids.
When making white wine, vineyards press the grapes and quickly separate the skins to avoid tannins and color from entering the wine. Tannins are a substance that gives wine its bitterness and dryness, qualities that are necessary in red wines. For this reason, winemakers don’t separate the skins from the juice when making red wines.
Six to 12 hours after the crushing process, the wine begins a natural process called fermentation as a result of contact with wild yeasts from the air. However, some winemakers choose to use commercial cultured yeast to control the final product.
The fermentation process ends when all the sugar in the wine has turned into alcohol, although winemakers who produce sweet wines stop this process prematurely to leave some sugar in the wine. In all, fermentation takes between 10 days and one month.
Following fermentation, winemakers begin the process of clarification, which entails removing solid materials, such as proteins, dead yeast cells, and tannins, from the wine and transferring the wine into an oak barrel or a stainless steel tank. The next part of the process is either filtration of the large solid particles or fining, which involves adding clay to the tank to attract these particles and draw them to the bottom of the tank.
Next, winemakers decide whether they want to bottle the wine immediately or give it time to age in bottles, oak barrels, or stainless steel tanks. Oak barrels can give wine certain characteristics, such as a smooth texture and a vanilla flavor. Even the type of oak used (American or French) can inform the flavor of the final product.
The length of the aging period depends on the type of wine and the flavors and textures the winemaker wants to give to it. For example, a Sauvignon Blanc might need just four to six months of aging, while Cabernet Sauvignon might require 18 months to two years.
Winemakers also must decide whether they want the wine to go into a corked bottle or a bottle with a screw top. Before bottling, they test the wine several times with a wine thief, a device that allows them to extract samples, to ensure the wine has the right flavors. They then take the wine to the bottling line, which may just be a simple line for small vineyards, whereas large producers use a more robust bottling system that can bottle up to 200 cases per hour.
Now that you are aware of the basic steps involved in producing red and white wines, you might look into the specific process for some of your favorite vintages. Search for flavors that the winemaker was aiming for during the pressing and aging processes. You may discover that you prefer wines that are pressed or aged a certain way. Consequently, your next trip to a vineyard should be much more productive now that you know what to watch for during the winemaking process.