We are so inundated with marketing messages that despite our familiarity and steady consumption of wine, our knowledge is still limited to how a bottle looks like, the reputation of its maker, the information on the label, reviews from the snotty wine critics and everything in between. If we think about it, most of what we know about is quite insubstantial. Unbeknownst to many, the story behind the scene – how wine is made – is a straightforward but interesting affair as well.
The process is simple: the grapes are harvested, crushed, fermented, bottled and aged. But this what would happen for a basic wine. Things get interesting when winemakers diverge in their practices to produce different wine varieties. In addition, vintners add their own brand of traditions, secrets and enhancements, resulting in a highly diverse winemaking practices.
The stage where the grapes are crushed and fermented is where the divergence occurs between the production of white and red wine. Red wine involves the fermentation of crushed grapes that includes the grape skin. This is what gives the wine its red color. White wine is fermented without it. In a very distant past, I falsely assumed that red wines are made from black grapes and white wine from green grapes. So you see my mistake. There is another variety called rose wine. What happens is that vintners allow the pulp to come in contact with the grape skin for a short period of time. The outcome is a diluted color that eventually results in a wine called blanc de noir.
The actual fermentation ranges from about a week or two. At this stage, yeast is added as fermenting agent. The yeast will convert all the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. A second fermentation follows, which – in turn – result in further chemical change. This is what mellows the wine, reducing its acidity and giving it its rich and soft flavor. Afterwards, the wine is transferred to tanks, barrels, or bottles for the aging process. Wine aging can take from a few months to as much as 20 years.
Here are some interesting variations in the winemaking process that result in the production of different wines:
Regular wine involves the release of carbon dioxide. But an additional fermentation that traps them instead would result in the production of sparkling wines such as the bubbly Champagne.
Vintners retain some residual sugar after the fermentation in order to make sweet wines. This can be achieved through various methods such as harvesting late, infusing sweet grape juice after fermentation, freezing the grapes or infusing an additive to kill the yeast.
Vintners mix different batches of wine – those made with different grapes, condition and age – in order to calibrate taste either according to a standard or to produce a new varietal.
Sulfur is added to wine as a preservative. It admirably does this function by killing bacteria and by acting as antioxidant.
For some producers, winemaking is an art and for some, a scientific process. Both of these are correct. Countries like France have long perfected oenology, establishing an elaborate and unique winemaking tradition. This is built on primitive wine making skills and technologies, eventually evolving into sophisticated practices. Then, there are vintners who have embraced technology, making the process simple, fast and highly technical. Both of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages. They can also lead to different wine quality.