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How Wine is Made: The Art and Science of that Great Bottle of Wine

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making & tasting wine & eating fantastic food


We all know how wine is made: statuesque women, whose beauty rivals that of Sophia Loren, gather up their skirts and stomp on grapes. These are juicy, luscious grapes that have ripened in sunny vineyards. They are privileged, these grapes, as they are destined to be the great vintage wines. They long to fulfill their destiny under toes and become wine.

Well, almost. The creation of a great bottle of wine is slightly more complicated, though visually not as appealing as watching a madly stomping beauty. It was Louis Pasteur who was the first to analyze wine in a scientific way and who demonstrated to the world that wine needs oxygen to develop, but must be bottled to exclude oxygen in order to be properly preserved.

The scientific approach to wine making had begun. It would solidify what European vintners knew from experience and give the foundation to new growers around the world, primarily in California and Australia where world-class vintage wines are now produced. The steps for making red wine and white wine are similar, an oenological theme and variations, as both red wine and white wine are made by crushing and fermentation. The treatment varies to produce either delicacy or robustness.

At every step of this process, the artistry of the vintner is called upon. Gentle handling is necessary to produce a bottled wine of full varietal flavor and character.

Crushing and Extracting the Juice that Will Become Wine

The more fragile whites, such as Chardonnay, are picked at night when the acids are the highest - in the day, heat and sun reduce acids and draw out sugars. Red wines, on the other hand, get their acids from the grape skins and don't need such delicate handling.

Each part of the grape possesses different compounds and qualities that combine to make a good wine. The interior pulp is, of course, almost pure liquid. The skin has much of the pigment that will color wine as well as tannins, acids and compounds that become aroma and taste. A delicate white wine would be overpowered by too much of the these compounds, while a red wine derives its body and flavor from the judicious use of these elements, so the pressing is effected in two stages.

The first press, called the free run, comes from the middle of the pulp. It is the clearest, most easily pressed liquid, and is gotten with very little pressure. After this is pressed, a heavier pressure is exerted to get the juice from within the skin. A vintner determines the amount of pressure brought to bear in the second pressing.

Fermentation of Grapes into Wine

Once again, the process of fermentation varies between the red wines and white wines. With white wine, the clear, juices are pumped straight to a fermenter. The juice of the initial pressing is fermented separately from the skin pressing. Red wine is not separated into separate pressings when fermented, but goes through the process with both elements mixed together. The hearty, robust flavors of red wine come from this togetherness as the fermentation process extracts more tannins, flavors and color from the skin.

The fermentation process begins with the addition of yeast to the juice. Yeast consumes sugar which then converts into alcohol and carbon dioxide. It also liberates molecules within the juice, bringing out the flavor of the grape itself.

The grapes may be fermented in either an oak barrel or a stainless steel tank. Stainless tanks provide stable temperatures and produce crisp, clean white wines. Oak barrels contribute tannins of their own and render a fuller-bodied wine with more complex overtones. White wines are fermented for 4 to 6 weeks at about 60 degrees F while red wines are fermented between 65 and 80 degrees for 4 to 14 days. A sweet wine is produced by stopping the fermentation process before all the sugar has been consumed by the yeast. Alternately, a vintner may add sweet juice after the fermentation process.

Once in the barrel the wine is kept in barrel aging rooms with controlled humidity, heat and light settings. Wine does not like bright light. While a human winces and looks away from bright light, wine will change its character.

There may be a second fermentation called malolactic fermentation. This is to convert the tarter malic acids to sweeter lactic acids. These wines gain a subtle flavor during the aging process.

Racking and Fining Wine

This is the process of clearing the fermented wine of any solid particles of yeast or grape. The wine is gently decanted from the barrel, leaving the sediments behind. The wine may then be fined, a process in which a substance is added that draw particles to it. Natural fining agents include egg whites, milk protein and isinglass. The wine may then be filtered, though filtering removes not only every last particle, but some of the flavor of the wine. Many wines are unfiltered to retain a full flavor.


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