As all French people will tell you, making wine is similar to a scientist's experiment in a lab. However, this time it does not occur in a lab, but out in fields and then in large warehouses and underground cellars. Making wine takes time. The process cannot be rushed, and we must respect specific ground rules that we are very eager to share with you.
Did you know that evidence from the past indicates that wine was produced between 6,000 BC and 4,000 BC? Winemaking has significantly evolved over the years, with more technological and efficient steps existing today. Some critical aspects of winemaking from the past are still maintained today to produce what winemakers call authentic wine.
After exploring the question of vintage wine, we will now look at how exactly wine is made. The way grapes can turn into something as sophisticated and delicate as wine might seem pretty mysterious to some of you. So let’s dive right into it!
There are precisely five steps in making wine: first, there is the harvesting; second, there is the crushing and pressing; then there is the fermentation; fourth, the clarification and fifth the ageing of the bottle. The first few terms seem straightforward, but the final two do not, right? By the end of this article, deciding which bottle of wine to buy will never have been so much fun.
Beforehand, the often forgotten first step is obviously “grape planting.” Grapes are planted from winter to early spring, and it takes approximately two years for a vineyard to grow and for the fruits of the grapes to start showing.
As mentioned earlier, the first step of winemaking is harvesting or, in other words, “grape picking.” The harvest must be done at a particular time to maximize the amount of sugar in the grapes, which will later yield a higher alcohol quantity. Harvesting can be performed mechanically or by hand. There are two leading indicators to determine which time is best for grape harvesting; scientific research and tasting.
The most outstanding wines often originate from grapes harvested manually, as that method better preserves the taste. While mechanical picking can be too rough on the grapes, it speeds up the process 8 to 10 times. Winemakers will decide whether they will manually or mechanically harvest the grapes and both methods are still commonly used. Grapes are then collected in large bins or lugs; they are sorted to remove rotten grapes and then transported to the crushing pad, where the process of turning the fruit into juice will begin.
2. Crushing and pressing
The second major step in the process of winemaking is “crushing and pressing.” A machine called the "destemmer" is used to remove the stems from the clusters and crush the grapes smoothly. Back in the day, this very same process was operated by hand or, to be honest, by foot instead! The old tradition was to stomp on the grapes until they turned into juice. While it does sound like winemakers must have had fun times doing this in the past, today, most of this ritual has disappeared. However, it does bring a significant sanitary improvement and enhances the quality and longevity of the wine. For instance, it reduces the need to add preservatives or additional products to improve the wine artificially.
After the crushing and the pressing, it is essential to note that there is a difference in the operation between red and white wine.
After being crushed, the grapes are pressed to extract the juice and get rid of the grape skin for white wine. The juice is then put into tanks, where it will rest for a while. After the settling period, the liquid is “racked.” In other words, it is filtered to make sure the sediments are gone before the fermentation step starts.
The process is slightly different for red wine as after the grapes are lightly crushed and are not pressed in the same way. As opposed to white wine, the point here is to keep the grape skin for the fermentation. This adds more tannins into the wine and reinforces its shades of red. Now I know what you are thinking. What are tannins? They are naturally occurring polyphenol compounds that can be found in grapes. They are often associated with the dryness in wines and are known to have the possibility of giving people headaches.
Fermentation is the magical process that turns grape juice into an alcoholic beverage. Fermentation will convert all the sugar in the juice into alcohol. The liquid starts by fermenting naturally for 6 to 12 hours with the aid of wild yeasts in the air. Nowadays, many winemakers seek to control more of this fermentation process by incorporating their yeast strain to predict more precisely the result of the fermentation. Fermentation can go on from ten days to several months. It will differ depending on the desired wine result:
Long Fermentation Red Wine: the grapes are pressed after fermentation instead of before and will spend months ageing in barrels.
Sweet White Wine: the fermentation process is stopped before all the sugar is gone to maximize the sweetness.
This is a weird term, wouldn't you say? Why does one need to clarify wine? What does that even mean? After fermentation, the next step is indeed to clarify the wine. The wine is racked and siphoned to leave the solids and precipitates at the bottom of the fermenting tank. This is the stage where wine is not yet in a bottle or a barrel but a gigantic tank containing thousands of litres. Sometimes, egg whites, clay or other components are added to help rid the dead yeast and solids. After clarification, the wine is ready to be bottled or left for further ageing.
5. Ageing and bottling
Here we are! At the final stage of winemaking. Glad you stuck with us until now! The wine is now ready to be bottled if it is a “Jeune vin” (young wine) such as the Beaujolais Nouveau, or it can be aged longer, just like in the case of a Bordeaux or a Cabernet Sauvignon. Ageing can be performed in many different containers: in the bottle, stainless steel or ceramic tanks, large wooden ovals, or small barrels, commonly called barriques.
There you go, you got yourself some wine! Careful with the children, because we no longer have grape juice with us but instead delicate, flavourful wine just the way we like it! If you are wondering whether you should pick a wine that has aged for a long time or you are not sure what the year on the bottle truly means, then check out our piece unveiling all the secrets of vintage wine!