Wine makers are pretty magical when you think about it. They take an unassuming little grape and with a special combination of art and science, turn it into that heavenly elixir we call wine.
This is not an article about how to make wine, rather one on how wine is made. This is because every time we go to write an article that answers a question like “Why does Chardonnay taste so amazing now when it used to be shit?” or “Why the fuck is my wine not vegan?” we realise that we need to have some basic understanding of the wine-making process before we can answer it.
So we have put together a highly dumbed-down version of the process. There are five basic stages, and using different tools, techniques and adjustments at each stage is what gives us the glorious variety we see from one bottle of wine to another.
Picking the grapes. Sugar, acid and tannin levels have to be perfect at the time of picking, and the wine maker will determine this based on the style of wine they are making. In WA, harvesting or “vintage” is usually sometime in March, but just a day or two can make big differences to the qualities of the grape.
Grape crushing and pressing
Crushing is essentially just bursting the skins of the grapes so that the insides can be exposed to fermentation, done in a variety of ways from foot stomping to using fancy machinery. The free-run juice is released and you end up with a sloppy mix of juice and solids called wine must.
For red, pink and orange wine, the contact time of the juice with the skin, pulp and even stems is important for colour, flavour and tannins; so the must may be left to ferment for a while before the juice is all pressed out, sometimes up to two weeks. For white wine, we don’t want any skin contact and so the mix is pressed straight away to separate the juice from the solids.
The good bit, when the sugar in the grape juice starts turning into alcohol! Usually yeast is added to get the process going, but there are also naturally occurring yeasts in the air and from the surface of the grape which can do the job, known as “wild fermentation.” It starts once grapes are crushed “primary fermentation” and is kept either in an open vat, a steel tank or an oak barrel, at a carefully controlled temperature for fermentation. When the juice or wine is moved from one vessel to another it is sometimes called a “secondary fermentation.”
In champagne production, the secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle (giving it all that bubbly goodness). You may have also heard of malolactic fermentation – this is a secondary fermentation process that occurs in some red wines and Chardonnays, giving it that creamy, buttery taste.
More sugar equals higher potential alcohol content, and sweetness can be retained in the wine by stopping fermentation before all the sugar has been taken up by the yeast.
Clarification and stabilisation
Even though all the big chunks of stuff were removed when the grape juice was pressed, it is still pretty cloudy after fermentation with smaller particles like dead yeast cells (lees), proteins, bacteria, and tannins. Winemakers use a number of techniques to get it clear including:
- Filtration: yep, just what it sounds like. The wine is passed through filters which may vary in the size of the particles they catch.
- Flotation: Small bubbles of air are injected into the must, the particles stick to the bubbles and rise to the top making a foam that can be scraped away.
- Fining: a substance called a fining agent is added, it sticks to the cloudy shit in the wine, turning small particles into big particles that drop out of the wine more quickly. Often the fining agent is some kind of animal product and that’s why a lot of wine is not vegan (more on that here).
If wine is subjected to extreme temperatures or movement after its bottled, particles can form and so it needs to be stabilised. Clarification tends to stabilise wine but some other methods include refrigeration and pasteurisation.
When wine is aged in oak barrels, some oxidisation occurs and this also helps to stabilise the wine.
Ageing and bottling wine
Ageing wine in an oak barrel increases it’s exposure to oxygen, softening the tannins and producing a smoother, rounder wine. It brings out the fruitiness and adds vanilla and oak to the flavour profile. Ageing in steel vats preserves the youth and freshness of wine and is commonly used for zesty whites.
From there the wine is bottled up either to sell straight away or age a bit longer until it’s ready to drink.
So there you go! The wine-making process for dummies, if you will! Not that you guys are dummies, I just know you get bored easily and honestly while actual wine-makers will probably shudder and maybe even cry upon reading this at least I have saved you from some of the batshit boring information that’s out there (you’re welcome).
But now we know the basics, we can move onto the more complicated shit! What do you want to learn about next? Hit us up in the comments or on Facebook.
All photography by Shannon Kate.