Well, I seem to have covered sparkling wine 101 without ever explaining how wine is made in the first place! Mea culpa! So, here we go with wine making 101:
The short course: The most important thing to know is that making wine is so simple it was discovered by accident thousands and thousands of years ago. I like to think of it as the world’s second oldest profession.
Someone, yea long ago, was saving a batch of grape juice. A few days later, he noticed it was getting foamy, and then a few days more and he had a different beverage altogether! Grape juice with a kick!
All you need to make wine is grape juice and yeast. And, yeast is everywhere, like bacteria. So I guess what I’m saying is that grape juice wants to be wine – that’s the good news. The bad news is that wine wants to be vinegar so professional winemaking requires a little intervention.
For red wine: As you’d guess, red wine is made of dark skinned grapes. All the color and most of the flavor and texture come from the skins – the juice is clear. That makes these dark grapes quite versatile. They can make red, white or pink wine depending upon how long the juice and skins are in contact.
1. On harvest day (preferably), the grape clusters are run through a machine that de-stems them and breaks the berries open. The crushed grapes go into a fermentation tank skins, seeds and all.
2. These days, most winemakers add reliable, cultured yeast rather than waiting for nature to take its course.
What is fermentation? It’s a natural chemical reaction. The yeast consumes the sugar in the juice and converts it into alcohol and carbon-dioxide gas. When the sugar’s used up, usually about a week later, for reds, the fermentation ends naturally, resulting in a dry red wine. A little over half of the sugar will convert to alcohol, so if the winemaker wants to make wine that’s around 13% alcohol, he should harvest grapes that are about 24% sugar (although he also needs to monitor the acid, pH and, most importantly, flavor).
3. The winemaker separates the wine from the skins in a press, which is like a giant strainer with a squeezing mechanism.
4. Most reds need some barrel age, but it’s optional.
For white wine: The vast majority of white wine is made from white varieties.
1. For the sake of delicacy, the grapes are crushed and pressed immediately after harvest, leaving only the juice to ferment.
2. Once the yeast is added, fermentation can take several weeks because the juice is often kept cool to retain fruitiness.
3. It’s quite common to bottle white wine, even some of the very best, without any barrel aging at all. It’s a question of style.
See how simple that is? Of course there are seemingly endless variables involved each step of the way, but there you have it – bare bones wine 101!
For those who want to dig a little deeper:
The harvest: Most winemakers would agree that the harvest decision is the single-most important decision they make in the whole year. Like the best chefs, the winemaker can’t excel unless he uses top quality fruit picked at just the right time. Continue reading →