As the long days of summer begin to cool and leaves start to lose their color, winemakers across the Northern Hemisphere are gearing up for the most exciting time of the year: Crush. This is the point in the season the magic of winemaking truly begins. While there are many people who know the secrets of winemaking, the process is a complete mystery to others. With our easy guide, you too can understand the craftsmanship that goes into our favorite beverage.
At its core, winemaking requires two simple ingredients: Grapes and yeast. While winegrapes are very similar to the grapes that you buy from the market, there are several key differences. Wine grapes (Vitis Vinifera) have much thicker skins, smaller berries, and higher sugar content than table grapes.
Wine’s second ingredient, yeast, is a bit more complicated. Yeast is alive, meaning that it eats, grows, and reproduces. These single celled organisms are responsible for the creation of alcohol through the process of fermentation. With the right conditions, yeast will feast on the sugar in grapes, creating carbon dioxide and alcohol.
With over 1,000 different strains, the flavors and characteristics these microorganisms can impart drastically affects the final quality of the wine. Some winemakers choose to allow ambient yeasts present in the air around the winery and vineyard to carry out the fermentation, while others inoculate their freshly pressed juice with specific strains. Yeast and grapes are at the core of winemaking, and the additional steps along the way are what truly set apart a master winemaker.
Mastering the Vineyard
The saying goes “It is easy to make bad wine from good grapes, but it is impossible to make good wine from bad grapes.” Over the past 8,000 years, mankind has been perfecting vineyard management and site selection. The Romans knew to plant vines where the winter snows melted first, and the ancient monks of Burgundy became fanatics when it came to understanding the intricacies of terroir. Today, a great vineyard manager is as important as a master winemaker when it comes to crafting the perfect bottle.
Throughout the season, vines are tenderly cared for, and it’s in the vineyard that the first decision of winemaking occurs: When to harvest? Ripeness is when the seeds, skins, and pulp of the grape are in perfect harmony; ideally this will occur when the fruit reaches the desirable level of sugar for winemaking.
In the winery the winemaker must make their biggest decisions. The most important of which is whether they want to make a red, white, or rosé.
White wines must have the skins removed prior to fermentation and can be made using red or white grapes. This differs from rosés and reds, which are produced exclusively using red varieties.
Once fermentation has begun, there are still more decisions to be made. For red wine, skin contact is key to extracting color, tannin, and flavor. Winemakers have to decide how much skin contact a wine will need to be balanced.
Élevage: The Raising of the Wine
After fermentation has run its course, most wines still have months or years before they will be consumed. First, red wines are pressed off of their skins, the free run juice is prized for its lighter body, while the pressed juice is more tannic and assertive. The wine is transferred into a barrel or a tank where it will begin to settle. During this stage, most red wines and some white wines will undergo a secondary fermentation known as malolactic fermentation. This converts harsh, tangy malic acid into soft, round lactic acid and is responsible for the buttery profile you might be familiar with in many Chardonnays.
Wine is usually racked several times during this stage as well. As the wine settles, particulate matter such as yeast falls out of suspension and down to the bottom of the barrel. This can be removed by siphoning the wine from the top of the barrel into a new vessel, leaving the sediment at the bottom.
While in barrel, the wine will pick up many flavors from the wood. Oak is the most common type of wood used to house wine and will add different nuances depending on the type of oak used, the length of time the wine is in barrel, the size of the barrel, and the toast on the wood.
Once the winemaker deems the wine ready, it is time for blending and bottling. Winemakers will taste wines from different barrels and lots, searching for the perfect combination of flavors, aromatics, and mouthfeel to craft an exceptional wine.
Then it is time for bottling. The bottles are fitted with a cork, and allowed to rest for another 1 to 24 months before being released to the market.
Last is the most important part of the whole process - Enjoyment! Wine culture is all about sharing and exploring, and we at Firstleaf are delighted to share our wines with you as you explore the fascinating world of wine.