The Basics: From Vineyard to Bottle
Winemaking is a complicated, lengthy process that turns grapes into the luxury liquid we love. The combination of the growing environment, the grapes, and the winemaking processes give each wine it’s unique aromas and flavors.
REGION & HARVEST
OLD WORLD VS NEW WORLD
Old world wines come from Europe and follow traditional methods for winemaking. The wine must follow strict regulations, including wine blend percentages, aging, and labeling.
New world wine is any region outside of Europe. These regions enjoy the freedom to explore new methods for producing wine. Luckily for consumers, their wine labels are much easier to understand making the wine selection process much easier to navigate.
Part of the winemaking process involves selecting the proper location, environment, and soil for each type of grape to thrive. While each type of wine grape has its own unique flavors, the soil and climate add their own touch of flavors and aromas similar to seasoning a dish.
It is said that terroir comes through in the wine and that terroir gives the wine a sense of place. A more practical way to say it is that cooler climates produce more acidic, crisp, herbaceous wine. The warmer climates produce riper, jammy wine. Vines grown in mineral-rich soils like those found in France can bring a bit of mineral taste to the wine.
Harvest time happens in the fall (in the Northern Hemisphere). Specific timing varies based on the type of grape, the wine being produced, sweetness and acidity levels and weather forecasts.
Wine grapes start the season with very high acidity. As they grow and mature, the acidity levels come down and the sugar levels come up. The winemakers pay close attention to these levels and once the grapes hit the right balance for the type of wine they want to produce, they start harvesting.
WHITE WINE MAKING PROCESS
Immediately after picking, white grapes are added to a hopper where they are destemmed and lightly crushed to start releasing the juices.
The grapes then go to a pneumatic machine where they are pressed to separate the skins from the remaining juice. This step is important in white wine production because stems and skins add tannin and color to wine which is not the goal for white wine.
Tannins create that bitter taste and dry mouthfeel. And yes, white grape skins can add color to wine. That is how orange wine is made.
Yeast is added to the juice to start the fermentation process. The yeast eats away at the sugars in the juice converting it to alcohol. The more sugar eaten by the yeast the higher the alcohol content and the dryer the wine. A sweet wine with low alcohol content is created by stopping the yeast before all of the sugar is eaten.
The fermentation of white wine is mostly done in stainless steel tanks but can also be done in oak barrels. The approach depends on the type of wine and the flavors the winemaker wants to achieve. Stainless steel does not impart any flavors, but oak barrels will add vanilla and toast flavors and will deepen the color of the wine.
At this stage, the fermentation process has finished. The white wine stays in stainless steel tanks or is added to oak barrels. This stage is where the wine continues to develop its character (otherwise known as flavors, aromas, body).
Unoaked Chardonnay matures in stainless steel tanks while oaked Chardonnay matures in oak (just as it sounds). The oak gives the wine a toasty flavor and develops a deeper golden color. Some highly oaked chardonnay can taste a bit like a campfire. To find the right balance, producers will blend the chardonnay from both stainless steel and oak barrels. This achieves a much lighter oak flavor.
Other whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are matured in stainless steel tanks to keep them light and crisp. On occasion, Sauvignon Blanc, will be lightly aged in oak and is called Fume Blanc.
5. BOTTLING & STORAGE
Once ready, white wine is bottled. You’ve likely noticed more wine bottles have screw tops instead of corks. This is becoming more and more acceptable. The biggest benefit of screw tops is that it keeps oxygen from the wine which helps keep the wine fresh.
Corks are beneficial for wines that are meant to age overtime in the bottle. This is because corks allow a very minimal amount of oxygen to enter which further develops the wine’s flavors, aromas, and body.
Wine bottles with screw tops can be stored upright while bottles with corks should be stored on their side. This prevents the cork from drying out which would allow too much oxygen to enter the bottle and would start the oxidation process, degrading the wine before it’s time.
RED WINE MAKING PROCESS
The red grapes are picked and immediately crushed in a delicate fashion to break the skins.
The juice from red grapes runs clear just like white grapes. The red grape skins are what add color to red wine. At the same time, the skins and stems also add tannin. You know that bitter taste and drying sensation you get from red wine? That's from the tannins.
In this stage, red grape skins, stems and juice are added to stainless steel tanks. Next, the yeast is added starting the process of converting sugar to alcohol.
3. DRAINING THE JUICE
Rosé wine comes from red grapes and is kept in contact with the skins for only a few hours. At that point, the juice is drained off and continues with fermentation.
Red wine completes fermentation and then the juice is drained from the skins and stems.
After draining, the remaining skins are pressed to extract the remaining juice.
At this stage, the Rosé wine goes into stainless steel tanks. This style of wine is rarely matured in oak.
Most red wine goes straight to oak barrels in this stage, or it can mature in stainless steel tanks.
During maturation, the wine continues to develop its flavors, aromas, and body. Aging in oak barrels deepens the color of the wine and will impart vanilla, toast, and clove notes. If aged in American oak barrels it will develop coconut notes.
6. BOTTLING & STORAGE
Once ready the wine is bottled. Red wine is placed in dark bottles which helps to reduce the amount of light that hits the wine as light can damage wine.
Red wine is capped with either a cork or screw top. The cork allows an extremely minimal amount of oxygen to enter the bottle which helps the wine to continue to develop in bottle. The screw top keeps oxygen out of the wine.
The cork closure is best for a wine that can be aged over time. However, most wine on the market is meant to be consumed within 1-2 years.
Rosé bottles are some of the most beautiful. This wine is meant to be drunk young and is placed in very clear bottles. It has the added effect of showing off the beautiful pink color of the wine.
Find out more about the proper ways to store wine.