Let’s be frank. You drink boatloads of the stuff. You wax lyrical about its terroirs and bouquets. You sniff. You swirl. But how much can you say about the actual art of winemaking? With our step-by-step breakdown, pull your nose out of that glass and dip into the barrel for a deeper understanding of how your drink was crafted. (Plus it’s a surefire way to add some more ‘body' to your usual wine chatter.)
One of the most crucial decisions for a vintner is when to begin the harvest. Choosing that perfect moment to start picking is tricky business; grapes need to be ripe for quality wine, but if they stay on the vines even a little too long, the chance of the crop being damaged due to cold or disease goes up. One has to play both scientist and artist to know exactly when to strike.
Most start by first picking sparkling wine grapes followed by white wine grapes, red wine grapes and finally iced wine grapes. Grapes can either be hand-picked, picked by mechanical harvesters or by a combination of the two. A worker can pick about 2 tons of grapes in an 8-hour day, while machinery can harvest 80 to 200 tons of grapes in an 8-hour day. The downside to using the less delicate mechanical method is, of course, the potential damage done to grapes.
Destemming & Crushing
Now that the grapes have been picked, it's time to extract their juice. Grapes first get de-stemmed and then crushed. The juice extracted is called wine musk. Most winemakers use machinery that very gently crushes the grapes without crushing the seeds. Crushed seeds can sometimes lead to far too much tannin. For some wines, like sparkling wines, this step is skipped, and the grapes undergo something called whole-cluster pressing instead. Sometimes pressing occurs as a final step, which aims to squeeze as much juice out of the grape as possible.
Did you know? Whether grapes are red or white, the juice you get from pressing is white. Red wine gets its color while the juice ferments (next step!) with the red grape skins.
With the juice extracted, it's time to begin the fermentation process. Fermentation is when juice is housed in a vessel (such as oak barrels or stainless steel tanks) and is exposed to yeast and heat. The yeast's job is to eat the sugars in the juice and convert it to alcohol and CO2. Of course, the CO2 doesn't stay in the fermenting juice (otherwise you'd have a carbonated beverage, like sparkling wine); it's simply released into the air.
Innovation: In the 1950s and 1960s, stainless steel fermentation tanks rocked the wine producing world; they were easily cleaned, prevented bacterial growth and could help control the temperature of fermenting wine.
After fermentation, the newly made wine is then transferred to another vessel such as oak barrels to begin the aging process. Letting the wine sit (age) for specific amounts of time can make all the difference to the final product. Red wine aged in new oak tends to smell and taste like sweet vanilla, cinnamon and pepper.
All about the oak: When wineries use oak barrels to age their wine, three types of oak are used: American oak, French oak and Hungarian oak. Vintners will select which kind of oak they want to use depending on what kind of qualities they want their wine to have.
As it's aging in the oak barrels, vintners will taste-test at regular intervals. Once they've determined their wine has aged the right amount of time, it's then off for the final step before hitting the shelves...
But that doesn't mean they're ready for actual consumption. Depending on the style, the wine may be ready to drink, or may require even a little more aging in the bottle. For example, the Spanish are famous for aging their wines before release. The Rioja Gran Reservas requires a minimum of 24 months in the oak barrels and another 36 months in the bottle! Needless to say, that excellent beverage in your hands is likely the result of a passionate process involving calculation, precision and much fine-tuning. Drink and bask in its glory.