It’s that time of year, at least if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, the time to harvest the grapes and begin turning them into wine. In fact I just heard from one Napa winemaker that she has three varieties already picked – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. They’re in the winery undergoing the early stages of winemaking. The Cabernet Sauvignon is still hanging on the vines just waiting a bit longer to get to the perfect ripeness for its harvest as well.
Then what happens? At the winery quite a lot! But for you – Pour a glass of wine, put up your feet and get comfy. Then think about what it is you’re about to sip – and appreciate the magic in your glass.
Getting from vine to wine is where the art and science of winemaking takes over. And while nothing can substitute for the best grown grapes (remember – great wine begins in the vineyard), it’s also true that the craftsmanship of winemaking can make or break even the best grapes by the time the wine is in the bottle.
So let’s do a some Wine Smarts 101 and go through the steps of winemaking. I find that knowing it makes me even more appreciative of the effort and passion that goes into each Sip I take. Maybe you will too. A quick word – I’ve streamlined the process to give you the best overview without getting too geeky and technical.
Harvest is a terrific time to be in wine country. And if you get the chance, doing some picking – it’s great fun (and some hard work too).
The single biggest determinant about when to pick is the sugar level of the grapes along with a watchful eye on the weather. When the grapes are picked it starts a sequence of activities that happen rather quickly. There is a bit of difference between white and red winemaking but essentially the idea is to get the grape juice fermented and turned into wine. Here’s how that happens.
As the grapes are brought into the winery the first step is typically sorting out damaged and less ripe grapes and bunches and then moving the rest into Step 1. NOTE: There are nuances and additional methods that winemakers can use in each of these steps but we are sticking with the basics.
- Step one is the Crusher/Destemmer – a machine that quite literally crushes open the grapes to let the juice out while separating off the stems. This juice is called “Free run” and often it’s captured to keep as the first best start of the wine.
- For white wine the crushed grapes are immediately moved to the Press, but not in the case of reds. For whites the Press gently squeezes out all of the juice into a tank to begin Fermentation
- The reds skip the Press for now and all the crushed goodies go directly into a Fermentation tank to start what is called Maceration. Maceration is letting the juice, skins and seed all stay in contact for a while – this is how the red wine gets red – since all grape juice is basically clear it’s the skins that give the color.
- Fermentation is how we get wine from grape juice. Yeast is added to the juice and it gobbles up the sugars and chemically turns it into alcohol.
- White wines are fermented cold and it’s best that it happens rather quickly to ensure the delicacy of the fruit flavors aren’t lost. The stainless steel, temp controlled tanks help the winemaker control that speed, and depending on the the wine variety and style, the fermentation can go from about ten days to around a month.
- For reds: Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Ok – apologies to Shakespeare’s witches, but reds like to seethe and bubble in the tank. Fermentation is hot and slow, keeping those skins in contact with the juice. As the natural CO2 is released the glop of skins and stuff rises up in the tank forming a cap. The winemaker has to regularly recirculate it to keep it all fermenting (called Cap Management) – usually from two to six weeks depending on the variety, e.g. shorter for Pinot Noir; longer for Cabernet.
- Not to confuse anyone but there is a secondary process called Malolactic Fermentation where the tart malic acid is converted into smoother lactic acid.
- For white the only wine usually undergoing this is Chardonnay. This takes out tartness and often adds that buttery quality you can taste.
- For reds it’s normal to do a Malolactic Fermentation
- Now we Clarify the wine. There are several methods winemakers use to make the juice clear – like pumping between one tank to another or barrel to barrel, or filtering, or a process called fining which involves adding things like egg whites to capture the sediments, etc. The important thing is to get the wine clear and the sediments out.
- Time to settle and Age the wine.
- Most whites stay in the stainless steel tanks, however oak can add complexity to wines like Chardonnay and it’s very typical to put it into barrels for some aging.
- Most reds go right into barrels to age and come together by softening the tannins in the new wine.
- Blending and Bottling. Blending is a part of winemaking. The winemaker can choose to mix different wines sourced from various vineyards, or from different varieties, etc. For more on Blending see this post. But the key is that when the winemaker is ready to present us with the wine then it’s into the bottle it goes. In many cases there is more aging to be done in the bottle, and some countries there are specific rules about this along with definitions about what makes a Reserve wine. Here’s some further info on that. However, most of the Every Day wine we drink goes from winery to bottle to the shelf – and it’s time to Sip!
Whew – So that’s how we go from vine to wine. I hope you’re not worn out by all of this Wine Smarts 101 – I never am!
And that means it’s time to Sip!