Wine to Dine
Wine making has been around for many thousands of years. In its basic form, wine making is a natural process that requires very little human meddling. Human processing is necessary, but the less meddling the better. Through nature, Mother Earth provides everything that is needed to make wonderful wine. Our ability to resist using more modern technologies to produce wines in the flavor of the leading wine evaluators and prognosticators helps bring us back to center. That is where the joy of wine is, but perhaps not the mass market.
The earth plays such a monumental role in the crafting of great wine. I'm thinking that if we treat her well, she will return the favor. The actual process of making wine is quite simple. There are only five basic steps: harvesting, crushing/ pressing, fermentation, clarification, and aging/bottling. You can find endless variations to these processes. Actually, it is these variations that make each wine unique and ultimately contribute to the greatness (or not) of a bottle. The steps for making white wine and red wine are essentially the same, with one exception noted below. Making fortified or sparkling wines both require additional steps and won't be covered here. We'll save ports and bubbly for another day.
Harvesting is the first step in the actual wine making process. Without fruit there would be no wine, and no fruit other than grapes can produce a reliable amount of sugar year after year to yield sufficient alcohol. In addition, other fruits lack the requisite acids, esters and tannins to make natural, stable wine on a consistent basis. For this reason and many more, most winemakers acknowledge that wine is made in the vineyard, at least figuratively.
In order to make fine wine, grapes must be harvested at the precise time, preferably when physiologically ripe. This time needed for grapes to ripen varies from year to year, mainly as a result of weather in the growing region. Harvesting can be done mechanically or by hand. Many growers prefer to hand harvest, as mechanical harvesters can often be too rough on the grapes and the vineyard.
Once the grape bunches arrive at the winery they are sorted, culling out rotten or under-ripe fruit, and other impurities, before crushing.
Crushing and Pressing
Crushing the whole clusters of fresh ripe grapes is the next step in the wine making process. Today, mechanical crushers perform the time-honored tradition of stomping the grapes into what is commonly referred to as must. As with anything in life, change involves something lost and something gained. By using mechanical presses, much of the romance and ritual has departed this stage of wine making. On the plus side, there is considerable sanitary gain that mechanical pressing brings to wine making - yielding a more consistent quality and quantity of wine. Regardless of sanitation, I Love Lucy would have lost a great episode in today's age of mechanical efficiency.
Not all wine begins life in a crusher. Some winemakers will decide to allow fermentation to begin inside uncrushed whole grape clusters, using the natural weight of the grapes and the onset of fermentation to burst the skins of the grapes before pressing the uncrushed clusters. Up to and including this process, the steps for making white wine and red wine are the same. However, if a winemaker is to make white wine, they will quickly press the must after crushing in order to separate the juice from the skins, seeds, and solids.
By doing so, unwanted color (which comes from the skin of the grape, not the juice) and tannins cannot leach into the white wine. In a nut shell, white wine is allowed very little skin contact, while red wine is left in contact with its skins to garner color, flavor, and additional tannins during fermentation, the next step. White wines are not made from green grapes, as is commonly thought.
Fermentation is the magic of the making of wine. If left to its own devices must will begin fermenting naturally within 6-12 hours with the aid of wild yeasts in the air. In very clean, well-established wineries and vineyards this natural fermentation is a welcome phenomena. However, for a variety of reasons, many winemakers prefer to intervene at this stage by inoculating the natural must. They will kill the wild - and sometimes unpredictable - natural yeasts and in their place, introduce a selected strain of yeast in order to more readily predict the end result. Ah, the Parkerization has begun.
Once fermentation begins, it normally continues until all of the sugar is converted to alcohol and a dry wine is produced. Fermentation can require anywhere from ten days to a month or more. The resulting level of alcohol in a wine will vary from one locale to the next, due to the total sugar content of the must. An alcohol level of 10 percent in cool climates versus a high of 15 percent in warmer areas is considered normal. Sweet wine is produced when the fermentation process stops before all of the sugar has been converted into alcohol. This is usually a conscious, intentional decision on the part of the winemaker.
Once fermentation is complete, the clarification process is started. Winemakers will transfer their wines from one tank or barrel to the next to leave the solids called "pomace" in the bottom of the fermenting tank. Filtering and fining may also be done at this stage. Filtration can be done with everything from a course filter that catches only large solids to a sterile filter pad that strips wine of all life. Fining occurs when substances are added to a wine to clarify them. Often, winemakers will add egg whites, clay, or other compounds to wine that will help precipitate dead yeast cells and other solids out of a wine. These substances adhere to the unwanted solids and force them to the bottom of the tank. The clarified wine is then transferred to another container, where it is ready for bottling or further aging.
Aging and Bottling
The final stage of the process involves the aging and bottling of wine. After clarification, the winemaker has the choice of bottling a wine immediately, which is the case for Beaujolais Nouveau, or they can give a wine additional aging as in the case of Grand Cru Bordeaux and great Napa Valley Cabernets. Further aging can be done in bottle, stainless steel or ceramic tanks, large wooden ovals, or small barrels, commonly called barriques. The choices and techniques employed in this final stage of the process are nearly endless, as are the end results. A chardonnay aged in stainless steel will result in a very crisp and clean tasting wine, as opposed to the smoky, oaky flavor of an age worthy Napa reserve chardonnay.
There are just a few basic steps outlined here, but the art is in the detail. We could discuss harvesting techniques for pages on end and not scratch the surface. The skills of the artisan winemaker were likely passed from generations gone by, and here is hoping that they will be passed to many generations going forward. The large market forces critiqued in a wonderful documentary called Mondovino (released last year on DVD) are being held in check by the relentless determination of the remaining estate winemakers.
I'm all for free-market capitalism, but maybe the global corporations can back off and give winemaking a little extra time to thrive as it has for centuries. The old fashioned way, the way of the earth. Give us pause to enjoy the bouquet for just one more swirl, to focus on and celebrate the wines of Mother Earth, and not necessarily those of Father Parker. Cheers!