Often what people think of when they picture making wine is the romantic notion of picking grape bunches in the vineyard on on warm, sunny Autumn afternoon, then prancing around in a giant barrel squishing grapes in your bare feet. After that there’s maybe a short waiting period, and what comes out of the spout at the bottom of the barrel is delicious wine. It’s art and romance rolled into one. After all, Robert Louis Sevenson said “Wine is bottled poetry.”
What a beautiful labour of love it is to make wine, isn’t it?
I Love Lucy Grape Stomping Scene
Sorry, to burst your bubble. Making wine is A LOT of hard work. It’s farming. It’s manual labour. It’s messy. It’s moving hoses and heavy bins; and most of all winemaking is cleaning absolutely everything in sight.
So. Much. Cleaning!
Making wine may not be as glamorous as people might think, but it is a fascinating process when you consider all the moving parts and hard work required. Of course, every winery is different and much of the process depends on the size of the winery and the style of the winemaker, but here are the basic steps of making wine.
1. The first step to quality wine production is to grow great grapes.
You can’t make good wine from bad grapes.
Every good winemaker will tell you that winemaking begins in the vineyard. Like any recipe, you need to start with quality ingredients for the final product to have a chance at tasting great. There are so many factors that go into the growing of grapes for wine, like pruning, density of the vines, how thick the foliage is kept, which direction the vines face a slope, hand harvesting vs machine harvest, pest and disease control, how the vines are watered and so much more! It takes a lot of education and years of experience to really get it right in the vineyard. Growing great quality grapes is the first and most critical step in winemaking.
2. Part of harvest is deciding what to do with those grape stems:
De-stemming or Whole Cluster Fermentation?
Grapes hang on for dear life to little tiny branches on the vine. Grape bunches have stems and those stems are not always super tasty. However, stems can be helpful for complexity in wine. When grape bunches are left whole, with the stems on while fermenting (whole cluster fermentation), the stems offer unique flavours, texture and tannins. If the stems are underripe (green), they’ll give the wine herbal or vegetal notes. If the stems are very ripe, the wine can pick up more woodsy or spicy characteristics. There are many options for a winemaker when in comes to the stems. The most common option is to remove all the stems upon arrival to the cellar. Depending on the wine and the vintage, a winemaker may choose to throw in a certain amount of whole clusters into a tank of de-stemmed grapes.
3. Now it’s time to crush those grapes
Release the juice!
Crushing generally occurs simultaneously with de-stemming. For white wines, the grapes are usually crushed in order to break the skins before they are pressed to separate the skins from the juice before fermentation. White wines generally don’t ferment with the skins in contact with the juice, although there are exceptions to every winemaking “rule.”
For red wines, you want the grapes crushed to release the juice then everything goes into the fermentation tank together — skins and juice are in contact for flavour, colour and structure.
*NOTE: Steps 4 and 5 are usually reversed for white wine production. With white wine you don’t need the skins in contact with the juice during fermentation so you’ll press the juice out first then start the fermentation process.
4. The most important part of production is turning grape juice into wine
The Fermentation Equation: Yeast + Sugar = Alcohol and C02
If you still think winemaking is glamorous, just wait. Here’s how alcohol is made: Yeast gets hungry so it eats the sugar from grapes and poops out alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yup, glamorous! Although C02 is part of the equation, when you’re making still wine, the gas is released into the air because you don’t want it in the wine.
When making sparkling wine,
that C02 gets trapped in the tank or bottle.
That’s what gives it the bubbles!
A winemaker may ferment using the natural, ambient yeast that is found on the grapes and floating around the cellar or the juice may be inoculated with a designer yeast. There are advantages and disadvantages to both and it is ultimately up to the proprietor and winemaker depending on the style of wine that is being made.
5. Harvesting the juice: the grape press.
Separating juice and grape skins
There are various ways to get squeeze out as much juice as possible from your giant tank of grape sludge so you don’t waste any precious liquid, and so you don’t have grape skins floating around in your bottle of wine.
Here, the grapes and juice have been fermenting in an open top fermentor and are now going into a bladder press. Basically, the way a bladder press works is the grapes are pressed up against the side of the vessel as the bladder fills with air. The machine can regulate the pressure from a gentle press to a hard press depending on what the winemaker is looking for. The juice runs out through the hose at the bottom of the press and is pumped into a tank in the cellar.
When making white wine, most often the grapes will be crushed and de-stemmed, then go through a large hose that pumps the grapes directly into the press. The juice is separated from the skins right away then pumped into a tank for fermentation. In this case, you’ll go back to Step Four.
It’s important to keep in mind that there can be many other things that happen along the way. Things like the type of yeast, the size and kind of fermentation tank, whether or not to add nutrients, co-fermenting certain grape varieties, whole cluster fermentation or de-stemming, pump overs or punch downs, how often to test the product during the process, what kind of lab analysis is required, amount of production, and so much more. Wine making is both art and science. It’s testing and re-testing not only by empirical data but by taste and feel. Using the science available to you is only one part of the equation. It takes a passion for the work and some intuition to make great wine.
6. Maturation is an important step in wine production.
Choose the vessel your wine is aged in
Before a wine is bottled, a winemaker may choose to age the wine for a period of time. Maturation is part of what takes wine to the next level. In Old World wine regions, there are laws that regulate how long certain wines must be aged and in what type of vessel. In the New World, those strict regulations don’t exist, but maturing the wine is still a critical part of the process. A winemaker can choose to age the wine in oak, concrete, stainless steel, a glass bottle or a combination of any or all of those options. Each type of vessel will impart different flavours or structural elements to the wine. The desired style dictates the length of ageing and the type of vessel(s) the wine is aged in. Once the bottle has aged appropriately, the wine is then bottled and distributed for you to enjoy.
Ageing wine in an oak barrel
can add flavour
and/or texture to a wine
There isn’t just one right way to make wine.
Every winemaker has their own harvest style
It’s important to keep in mind that there can be many other things that happen along the way. Things like the type of yeast, the size and kind of fermentation tank, whether or not to add nutrients, co-fermenting certain grape varieties, whole cluster fermentation or de-stemming, pump overs or punch downs, how often to test the product during the process, what kind of lab analysis is required, amount of production, and so much more. Wine making is both art and science. It’s testing and re-testing not only by empirical data, but by taste and feel. Using the science available to you is only one part of the equation. It takes a passion for the work and some intuition to make great wine… and of course, a lot of hard work!
Need a little winemaking insight from an intern’s perspective on how wine is made? Check this out: The Harvest Intern: 7 Things I Learned While Working Crush at a Winery