The harvest is finished, the last grapes are picked and hurriedly transported to the winery, and the vineyards are exasperated from months of labor and the burden of fruit-bearing.
All the while, golden leafage begins to fall to the ground. It is time for the vines to rest and to slowly transition into the peaceful months of winter dormancy to recharge their vitality.
But the wine maker's job is far from over, it is time to make some wine from the recently picked, loaded with flavor, grapes. The art of wine making is a complex and intricate process where nature’s magic, human ingenuity and knowledge, and some luck align perfectly. There is a precise sequence of steps to the basic operation of wine making. Within these steps, there are some nuanced variations depending on the color of the wine and its style.
For this article, we will concern ourselves with the production of quality still, dry, white, rosé and red wines.
Once the grapes arrive at the winery, they will be sorted by hand, which is the final stage in controlling the berries’ quality. The bunches are emptied onto a conveyor belt and sorting table and pass by the sorting crew. The damaged, unripe, or rotten fruit is eliminated to ensure that only the finest of the yield is passed to the next stage of crushing and pressing. So-called MODs (materials other than grapes) are also removed; these include leaves, branches, bugs, snails and any other impurities. Here, the wine maker decides whether or not to de-stem the grapes or proceed to crush them with their stems; it’s a stylistic choice since the stems contain additional flavoring and tannins.
Crushing comes first; historically, it was done by human foot treading and stomping the grapes into must, which is a mixture of the pulp of grape juice, skins, and pits. For the most part, today, mechanical presses have replaced the romantic dance of human stomping and eliminated sanitary concerns while improving the quality and longevity of the wine. This is also where the major difference between white and red wine production takes place. White wine juice is quickly separated from its skins and pits to avoid imparting of the astringency and coloring. The red grapes’ juice is left in contact with its skins and pits to extract the tannins and “red” pigment desirable for red wines. It is a process called maceration, and the longer the maceration, the more color and tannins are garnered to wine. After the maceration, the must is pressed to maximize the volume of juice.
Did you know: rosé wine is made from red grapes that are exposed to a shortened maceration to allow only a small amount of pigment to leach into the juice. The longer the maceration, the deeper rosé color achieved.
Once the pressing is done and juice separated from the solids, the proper fermentation can begin. Fermentation is nature’s magically simple process where, with the help of yeasts, sugar in the grape juice is converted into alcohol, releasing a little bit of warmth and CO2. A few decisions must be made at this stage which will have an impact on the style and quality of the final product. There are a variety of fermentation vessels where their shape, size, and, most importantly, the material they are made of matter. Fermenters can be made from stainless steel, concrete, wood, or clay differing in size from a few hundred to thousands of gallons. If your goal is a crisp, brightly flavored wine, you want to use a neutral, stainless steel fermenter. If you are aiming to make a fuller body wine with a richer, more decadent mouthfeel, wood is your best option.
The choice of yeast is another vital decision. Cultured yeasts (man-bred), most likely purchased at a specialized store, allows for a more controlled fermentation with more predictable results. It’s a safer option where the elements of chance are reduced. Ambient or wild yeasts, the ones which occur naturally in the winery’s environment, are higher risk, they act more spontaneously and temperamentally. Albeit, they are believed to produce wine of a more natural style, giving it a specificity of place and a stronger sense of terroir essential to some wine makers and consumers.
When the primary fermentation of a white wine, which can last from a few days to a few weeks, is finished, the wine maker must decide whether malolactic fermentation (MLF) should take place. MLF is something that all red wines go through. In the case of white wines, MLF changes the style of wine from more acidic, crisp, citrusy to rounder and fuller body. That transformation happens through the conversion of green apple-like malic acid into butter-like lactic acid. That buttery, creamy taste in your Chardonnay is the result of MLF.
Did you know: When attending to open tank fermenters from above, a worker has to be very cautious not to inhale CO2. There have been cases of people, dizzied and disoriented by a whiff of this odorless, poisonous gas, and falling into a vat and drowning.
After the fermentation process is completed, the wine goes through the filtering and fining stages to rid the still fairly unstable wine of the precipitates and solids which collect at the bottom of the fermenting tank or float in the liquid. Racking of wine, careful transferring of it from one vessel to another, is the most basic form of filtering. Commercial filters are used as well, and egg whites or clay are often used in fining. These substances adhere to unwanted solids in wine and force them to the bottom of a tank where they can easily be removed. Again, the extent to which filtering and fining are performed will decide on the style of the wine. The “savage” style, as I call it, is a result of minimally filtered wines. These wines will often be murky with a chewy texture and primal flavors.
Did you know that Blanc de Noir, literally meaning “white from dark,” style of champagne is made exclusively from red grapes – Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. This type of champagne is achieved by not allowing the pressed grape juice to remain in contact with the grapes’ skins, where the color comes from.
Most red and some white wines are set aside for barrel aging. Mainly wooden casks are used to allow for the exchange of oxygen from the outside. It improves the quality of the wine, stabilizes it, and adds complexity. A small amount of wine evaporates during this stage, and barrels have to be topped off to prevent wine’s oxidation. The evaporated wine is poetically called the Angel’s Share.
Bottling and stopping the wine, whether with a cork or screwcap, follow. Specialized machines perform these tasks, and watching the process is a testimony of human engineering ingenuity and precision. The final step is labeling, which I have always found fascinating, not the task of gluing the label onto a bottle, but what the content of the label does to a bottle of wine. A wine label is its birth certificate, its rite of passage, its stamp of authentication. Considering its limited size, a wine label contains a lot of information; it tells us where the wine is from, what year it was made, the name of its maker and the grape(s) variety(s) inside the bottle. Labels are known to depict helpful maps, contain soil composition and wine making info. They also happen to be works of art. Historically the labels of the famous Bordeaux producer Chateau Mouton Rothschild have been designed by such names as Miro, Chagall, Picasso and Dali, just to name a few. While purchasing or ordering a bottle of wine, we exclusively rely on the authenticity of the label and its information.
Did you know: The 2016 documentary film, “Sour Grapes” depicts an international wine fraud by the name of Rudy Kurniawan, who was a rich Indonesian wine collector considered to possess “arguably the greatest wine cellar on Earth.” His specialty was red Burgundy wines. Kurniawan would collect empty bottles, refill them with inferior wines, and forge the labels. He was busted while attempting to sell bottles of Grand Cru red Burgundies from a vintage in which those particular wines were not produced.
From the long growing season in the vineyard through the painstaking wine making process, our wine is finally in a bottle, sealed with a cork, dressed in its label, and ready to be consumed. Some wines are meant to be consumed shortly after bottling. Other, more serious wines are meant to be aged in the bottle for years, even decades, often a requirement stipulated by the laws of a wine region.
Rioja’s red Gran Reserva wines, for example, must have a minimum of 24 months in barrels, followed and supplemented with aging in a bottle of at least 36 months. In the bottle, the wine evolves; its flavors change, its texture softens, and a subtle complexity emerges. However long you decide to hold on to your special bottle of vino, remember that wine is like a human being; it has different things to offer at different stages of its life. And while savoring a glass, whatever the occasion may be, aside from the instant gratification that wines provide, try to marvel the nature’s miracle ways and honor the labor of those who helped in its creation.