For thousands of years, people around the world have practiced winemaking, a process that is also known as vinification. Unlike the methods for making other alcoholic beverages, vinification is relatively simple and requires little human intervention.
Each step involved in the process of turning grapes into wine carries equal importance. Here is a basic outline of each phase of the winemaking process:
- growing the grapes, also known as viticulture
- harvesting the grapes
- crushing and pressing the grapes
- fermenting these juices
- clarifying the liquid
- aging and bottling the resulting wine.
While many of us are aware that a wine”s flavor depends on the grapes used to make it, fewer of us known that the original vineyard where the grapes were grown also affect the flavor and quality of the wine. In fact, a grape”s flavor is nuanced and refined by the following aspects:
- climate of the vineyard”s region
- drainage around the vines
- humidity of the region
- soil quality
- sun exposure.
Along with these regional factors that contribute to the grapes” viticulture, grapes” flavors are also affected by the vineyard”s winemaking techniques. In fact, vineyards uniquely tailor their winemaking process to ensure that they bring out the latent flavors of the grapes they cultivate.
The next step in the winemaking process is the harvesting of the ripe grapes. Harvesting grapes used to make wine requires that the growers have a keen sense of when grapes are ripe and have a deft sense of touch. Grapes must be harvested when they are ripe to ensure they have the proper combination of sugars, acids and moisture.
While winemakers can harvest grapes either by hand or mechanically, most vineyards choose to harvest by hand, as it is easier on the grapes.
Crushing and Pressing
Once grapes have been harvested, winemakers crush and press them to release their inherent flavors. As the grapes are crushed, the fruit releases the moisture and sugars within it. Although traditionally winemakers would complete this step in the winemaking process by stomping on the grapes in a large vat, today, most vineyards use specialized machines to crush and press grapes.
The liquid and macerated grapes resulting from the pressing process are referred to as must. In this stage, wine will become either red or white, depending on the winemaker. Here is how wine becomes either red or white:
- Red wines are allowed to rest in the must, leeching color and additional flavors from the skin and pits. This extra time in the must makes wines red.
- White wines are quickly pressed following crushing to separate the liquid from the solids, including the pits and skins. As a result, the liquid doesn”t have time to steep in the must and leech color from it.
At this point, the liquid is ready for fermentation. Grapes are ideal for winemaking because they contain high amounts of sugar and acids that naturally react with wild yeasts. This reaction almost immediately causes fermentation to start once the crushed grapes release their sugars. However, while grapes can naturally ferment, most vineyards ferment grapes in sterilized vats, adding their own yeasts, which they can control, to ensure predictable, quality results.
The process of fermentation can take anywhere from 10 to 30 days, depending upon the sweetness of the grapes and the climate in which fermentation takes place. Sweet wines are intentionally removed from the fermentation process earlier than necessary to keep some of the sugars from converting to alcohol.
When fermentation is finished, the next step in winemaking is clarification, also known as stabilizing. Clarification, the process by which all remaining solids are removed from the fermented liquid, can be performed in a number of ways:
- fining, a process that calls for the addition of substances that cause the solids in the liquid to adhere to one another and sink to the bottom of the vat
- running the liquid through coarse and fine filters
- siphoning the liquid off the top of the fermenting vats after the solids have settled to the bottom (This is the simplest way to clarify wine).
Aging and Bottling
The final stage in vinification is aging and bottling the wine. At this point, the clarified wine is transferred into either wooden barrels or metal vats in which the wine is allowed to further mature and develop flavors. If a winemaker chooses to age the wine in wooden casks, he will be allowing the wine to pick up flavors from the wood, adding greater depth to its flavors. While this can add body to some wines, keep in mind that the ”woody” flavor isn”t suited to all types of wine, hence the use of metal vats.
The duration of aging depends upon the grapes used for the wine and the desired result. Once aging is completed, the wine is bottled and stored for sale.
Various winemakers at vineyards around the world manipulate the vinification process to create an almost limitless range of flavors and varieties. Using different ingredients, smaller or larger batches and changing the processes (and duration) of fermentation and clarification makes the difference between cheaper and higher quality wines.